Pioneering artist Jacob Lawrence celebrated with ambitious exhibit at Lewis Museum

You don’t just look at an artwork by the 20th-century master Jacob Lawrence. You collide with it. His pieces practically slide out of their frames and smack you in the face.

After experiencing 50 of these wallops in a single afternoon while perusing “Maryland Collects: Jacob Lawrence,” the exhibit of dazzling prints on view through mid-January at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, you may find that you and your nose have been permanently rearranged.

No matter — many visitors will be eager to see the show again.

The Lewis has organized this exhibition of works drawn from the private stashes of local art collectors to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lawrence’s birth. In addition to being a fitting homage to the pioneer African-American painter and printmaker who celebrated everyday life in early 20th-century Harlem, it’s also one of the most ambitious shows the museum has mounted in its 12-year history.

“Most of the exhibits that we’ve put on in the past we have leased,” said Wanda Draper, the Lewis’ executive director. “This is an exhibit that we put together ourselves. We wanted to bring this community a collection by an esteemed African-American artist that they can’t see anywhere else.”

In the museum world, the difference between importing a show and creating your own is similar to the difference between a band covering another artist’s song and performing an original composition. For better or worse, the Lewis is putting itself on the line by inviting comparisons to other nearby museums that recently have exhibited Lawrence’s work — museums, it should be noted, with vastly greater resources than the Lewis has, with its annual operating budget of around $3.9 million.

For instance, in 2013 the Walters Art Museum — which, comparatively, has an annual operating budget for this fiscal year of about $14.5 million — put Lawrence’s eight-print “Genesis” series on view for seven months. (That show was curated by Jackie Copeland, who co-curated the Lewis’ exhibit with Charles Bethea.)

In 2016, the Phillips Collection in Washington mounted a 60-painting show of the artist’s entire “Great Migration” series — Lawrence’s most famous work — and followed it up with all 15 prints from the artist’s “Toussaint L'Ouverture series,” chronicling the life of the leader of the only successful slave revolt in modern history.

These shows were deep dives into a particular facet of Lawrence’s repertoire. The Lewis exhibit, in contrast, is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of show that samples a wide range of the artist’s oeuvre.

David C. Driskell, professor emeritus of art at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that Lawrence, who was partly self-taught, departed from the 19th-century tradition of painting landscapes and 20th-century depictions of religious scenes.

“In the 1930s, Lawrence broke away and created a style of painting that he stuck with all his life,” said Driskell, who will give a talk on Lawrence at the Lewis in early November.

“He was interested in what life was like in the contemporary black community and he was interested in educating his viewers about their history. He developed a very flat style and used very beautiful, bright colors that people were familiar with in their homes and in the way they dressed.”

It’s true that the Lewis exhibit is not an exhaustive survey of Lawrence’s work. For example, none of the “Migration” paintings or any of the eight prints in his “Hiroshima” series are represented.

But, it’s difficult to feel slighted when the show contains more than three-quarters of the compelling and somberly beautiful prints in Lawrence’s “Toussaint” series. There also are examples of Lawrence’s series on the lives of famous Maryland abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as well as of the 19th century insurrectionist John Brown. There are several prints from Lawrence’s “Builders” series that express the artist’s optimism and his hopes for the future, as well as depictions of historical events, a sunny self-portrait in his studio, even a still life.

Finally, two books of the artist’s work round out the show.

After having viewed “The Capture” (from Lawrence’s Haitian series), it might be difficult in the future for museumgoers to look at tall sheaves of grass waving in the breeze and not see those green blades’ resemblance to flames.

After having contemplated the bright yellow clamp and cheerful red pliers in “Tools,” from the “Builders” series, viewers may find themselves henceforth thinking of everyday hammers and wrenches and planes as pieces of sculpture, as the artist did.

And upon gaping at the Harlem street scene in “On the Way,” visitors could find themselves wondering how it’s possible to imbue a simple black line or flat plane of color with so much emotion that the artist’s meaning can be grasped at a glance.

It typically takes about three years for an art show to be ready to open to the public after it initially is conceived. But Bethea, the Lewis’ curator, and Copeland, the interim education director, put this show together in nine months. They also kept costs down (a necessity for the cash-strapped Lewis) by borrowing the 52 works from 19 private collectors in and around Baltimore.

“The responsiveness of our collectors was amazing,” Draper said. “When I first put out the word that I wanted to do this, I had commitments for six artworks by the end of the day. By the end of the first week, I had 21. Now, this show has 50.”

Bethea noted that Lawrence usually (though not always) based his prints on existing paintings that he had completed decades earlier. But, it would be a mistake to think of the prints as merely larger and less expensive versions of the artworks on canvas. Rather, Bethea said, the artist thought of print-making as a way to refine his ideas.

For instance, when Lawrence created his Toussaint prints, he distilled 41 panels down to 15 images on silkscreen.

“The style of the prints is different than it was in the paintings,” Bethea said. “The prints don’t have those expressionistic brushstrokes. His style was more flat, and he changed some of the details. He’s not so much copying the painting as he is retelling the story.”

While Lawrence never lived in Baltimore, the city played an important role in his life.

“Baltimore is where Lawrence had his first big show,” Copeland said.

In 1939, when he was just 21 years old and two years before he became famous nationwide, Lawrence’s work was shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Adelyn Breeskin, who later became the BMA’s director, curated the groundbreaking “Contemporary Negro Art.”

“She organized one of the first major exhibitions of national importance of works by African-American artists,” Driskell said. “In 1939, that was still rather early for what was considered a Southern museum. Jacob Lawrence’s work was pivotal in that show.”

Fortune, it would seem, truly does favor the bold.

If you go

“Maryland Collects: Jacob Lawrence” opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 7 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Art historian and retired professor David C. Driskell will discuss Lawrence’s life and work at 1 p.m. Nov. 4 at the museum. $6-$8. 443-263-1800 or lewismuseum.org.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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