Wednesday, February 27, 2008
A few weeks ago, as I stood in the crowd at the opening reception for the Jacob Lawrence "Migration Series" at the Mississippi Museum of Art, I wondered exactly what each individual person was getting out of the tiny, simplified, almost abstract panels spaced across the room. The gallery was filled with a mix of black and white people that included old men and women clad in perfectly pressed garments, sporting sweater pins and ties; middle-aged and young professionals in casual evening wear, the men wearing open-collared shirts and the women's heels clicking across the museum floor; trendily accessorized young people; and artists who set themselves apart with their clothing.
The opening had captured an eclectic crowd, but what significance would the select panels from the "Migration Series" ingrain in those present?
When a representative of the Phillips Collection first called curator Dan Piersol to ask if the Mississippi Museum of Art would be interested in showing the Jacob Lawrence "Migration Series," Piersol's instant response was, "Are you kidding me?" The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York each own part of Lawrence's acclaimed "Migration Series," which depicts the early to mid-20th century migration of southern American blacks to the north. The Mississippi museum leapt at the chance to exhibit the series because, as Piersol put it, "Mississippi is ground zero for the Great Migration."
On the other side of the museum's exhibit space are the brooding, monochromatic prints by Robert Kipniss. The Kipniss prints are on loan from the James F. White Collection and are fresh from an exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Unlike Lawrence's artwork, Kipniss' subject matter is decidedly unrelated to the South. Print after print depicts wintery northeastern landscapes or indoor scenes that look out on wintery northeastern landscapes. Piersol points out that when viewers enter the gallery, they will see Lawrence's work first, which is "really socially conscious and very public, and then they go into the Kipniss prints, which are so private."
But like Lawrence, who chose to focus on the African American story, Kipniss' scenes of small-town lanes, picket fences and spacious rural terrain are unmistakably American.
'A New Negro'?
Lawrence towers in the history of African American art. Prior to Lawrence, most art by African Americans fit into two broad categories: highly expressive portraits that focused on the individuality of the subject, or colorful depictions of the life of the "New Negro," one of jazz and dance halls. Those artists who dealt with the history of African Americans often employed romantic visions and "Africanized" stylization. Henry Louis Gates Jr., in his essay "New Negroes, Migration and Cultural Exchange," characterized these popular motifs as "idealized black images and neo-primitivism (with its faux-African motifs) that permeate so much of the black art in the 1920s."
For African American artists before Lawrence, the formal freedom of Modernism and the expressive exuberance of the Harlem Renaissance was liberating. So when Lawrence was a young art student at the Harlem Art Workshop in 1932, a large body of artwork both by and about African Americans already existed. Under the tutelage of the famed artist and teacher Charles Alston, Lawrence absorbed the history and imagery of this new genre of American art—from pioneers like Henry Ossawa Tanner to contemporary artists like Aaron Douglas. Out of this extensive art education, Lawrence alchemized a shockingly different style.
Many art historians assert that Lawrence was the first African American artist to tackle a history of American blacks in the form of a narrative sequence, but Aaron Douglas had already taken up the task with his series, "Aspects of Negro Life" in 1934. Although much shorter than Lawrence's 60-panel "Migration Series," Douglas' "Aspects of Negro Life" was indeed a narrative series of paintings that included "The Negro in an African Setting," "An Idyll of the Deep South," "From Slavery to Reconstruction" and "Song of the Towers."
Douglas depicts Negroes who are beautiful in aspect and perfectly formed—from a campfire in the imagined African night to American jazz, the perceived pinnacle of urban black cultural achievement. The entire series has a transcendent luminescence, a glowing chromatic reflection of the godliness of the Negro soul. Even in slavery, he portrays black people as majestic and straight-backed, their eyes lifted above and beyond their earthly travails. Like Lawrence's sequence, the characters in Douglas' "Aspects of Negro Life" do not have individual characteristics; they are meant to represent the black race as a whole, to communicate a collective narrative.
So why was Lawrence celebrated as the iconic "griot" and "historian" of his race? Why do acclaimed scholars like Gates assert that "no artist before Lawrence had undertaken a narrative series of a historical event from the black past"? Why did the "Migration Series" earn such sweeping institutional and critical praise above and beyond the recognition he received for his previous narrative work, such as the "Toussaint L'Ouverture" series (about the Haitian revolt) or "The Life of Frederick Douglass" series?
Lawrence's "Migration Series" contains no trace of the idealized "New Negro." It focuses on real details of black American life—a gaunt mother slicing through fatback while a hungry child looks on, the hope in the eyes of new immigrants to the North and the grim realities of black slum housing in the city. Such bare-boned honesty resonated with the narratives that black families had related among themselves since the migration began. Lawrence's series showed that black art did not have to glorify a striking or famous individual nor did it have to depict an uplifting African past in order to be moving and esteemed.
Black art could be about regular folks—the weary angles of their shoulders, their work-worn hands and their mismatched baggage—and still be a narrative about dignity and pride.
'The Overlooked Everyman'
Lawrence's approach to regular folks was different, too. Although we can discern suffering, hope or resignation in the overall countenance of the figures of Lawrence's series, the artist never gives viewers a detailed facial expression or individualized emotion. Rather than the highly nuanced portraits of "regular folk" that had previously appeared in black art (take Charles Alston's "Girl in a Red Dress," for instance), the range of facial expression in the "Migration Series" extends from a plain brown blob to a brown blob with upturned or downcast eyes. The conventional approach to depicting the common man or woman, the usual method of raising him or her to the level of art —black or otherwise—is to dwell on the details. The artist takes the overlooked everyman and imbues him with symbolic weight and individual force by describing his or her otherwise unnoticed countenance. Lawrence did just the opposite. Lawrence took the narrative of nameless, faceless black masses and depicted them just that way. And he didn't romanticize them.
Where does this leave the viewer? With unembellished reality presented in a stark aesthetic and a narrative populated with faceless protagonists, how is the audience supposed to feel? Keywords in the oeuvre of art criticism on the "Migration Series" include "universal" and "timeless." Lawrence himself hoped that the "Migration Series" would transcend race and speak to other Americans as strongly as it spoke to the black community. He consistently stated, throughout his life, that the "Migration Series" was not just about a black experience, but also about an "American experience."
Perhaps. But not for all Americans.
As a 20-something woman from Sri Lanka who came to this country in absolute hope and then slowly tasted the bittersweet status of citizen-outsider, Lawrence's blank brown faces quickly filled with the detailed visages of family and friends who had also fought hard for success and acceptance in America. Crowded train platforms evoked crowded airports filled with smells and sounds and faces in full relief. In my mind's eye, Lawrence's scenes of brown silhouettes in crowded tenement housing became people with the faces of children in equally crowded immigrant neighborhoods in New Jersey.
If you, your family or your race has ever experienced anything akin to the struggle depicted in the "Migration Series," then Lawrence's unworked faces are moving in the extreme. It is precisely those bare faces that makes his work speak to everyone, black or otherwise, who has ever been a categorical outsider or who has left home behind on a hope. In "Edith Gregor Halpert: Impresario of Jacob Lawrence's 'Migration' Series," Diane Tepfer's essay on Lawrence's first New York gallery representative, Tepfer explains why Lawrence's work was so compelling to Halpert:
"Lawrence and his aesthetics appealed intensely to Halpert because, like Lawrence, she was an American original, and as a woman, a Jew and an immigrant, she too had contended with outsider status."
'The Things We Carry'
Could someone who has never personally known such alienation or marginalization ever truly understand the "Migration Series"? I don't think so. Lawrence, intentionally or not, made this series easy to look at but impossible to "get" for such people. It's the blank faces. For those who have never been downtrodden by society, Lawrence's migrating figures don't menace or accuse the viewer with tangible emotions like anger and pain. There are no furrowed brows or grimacing mouths to make the viewer feel guilty or offended, so Lawrence is not dismissed as another angry minority artist or as a racial propagandist.
If you don't want to see real unfairness and suffering, you don't have to.
On the other hand, if a viewer wants to empathize with the migrants but—through no deliberate choice or fault of their own—has no frame of reference for the black migrant experience, well, those viewers are out of luck, too. Lawrence's inexpressive faces exclude everyone, well-intentioned or not, who does not instinctively understand the details of their struggle. In this sense, Lawrence's work is more private than you would think.
Kipniss_vase_window.jpgTherefore, despite Lawrence's reputation as an accessible, peacemaking artist—Piersol himself commented on "the lack of outrage" in the "Migration Series"—Lawrence's visual economy doesn't offer any interpretive handouts. If you don't feel the desperation on those crowded train platforms or the deadening, stifling, sinking-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach despair in the dark bedroom of panel 33, then Lawrence is not going to make you feel it. He doesn't insist that everyone experience it.
In panel 11, a mother leans with the effort of slicing through a fatback as her hungry child looks on. The child could be feeling the kind of excruciating, ever-present hunger that becomes part of a poor child's universe, as constant and expected as the ground beneath his feet. It could be the kind of hunger that Richard Wright describes in "Black Boy": "[T]his new hunger baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent. Whenever I begged for food now my mother would pour me a cup of tea which would still the clamor in my stomach for a moment or two; but a little later I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. I would grow dizzy and my vision would dim."
Wright opens up his inner world to the reader, but Lawrence does no such thing. Wright seizes the reader with the evocative vividness of his language; the reader may not like Wright's message or tone, but he or she cannot miss it. In Lawrence's panels, however, a disinterested eye scans panel 11, reads the caption, sees that yes, prices had gone up during the war and yes, poor people were often hungry. The viewer could then move on.
This is also a function of Lawrence's abstract-like style, which hinges on the absence of details and realism. But because Lawrence does not go all the way to total abstraction, his paintings stand in uncharted emotional ground—they are somewhere between an emotionally charged portrayal of individual experience and an abstract, reductive interpretation of a general principle. What you see depends on who you are.
The boy in panel 11 has his eyes fixed on his mother; his mother has her head down, focused on her work. Neither addresses the viewer directly, and they do not implore the viewer for sympathy. Also, instead of letting the action of the series bleed off the edge of the canvases and become an implicit part of the viewer's space, Lawrence painted borders on each panel. These borders function like a window frame, putting an extra barrier between the viewer and the scenes on the other side.
I don't mean to imply that Lawrence's work cannot be appreciated solely on a formal basis. Lawrence was a conscientious colorist with an astute sense of composition. Lawrence makes color and shape work for him by not wasting a single line or a single block of color.
Piersol observed that, the "Migration" panels "are so potent, in terms of abstract art, they're so perfect." In fact, Lawrence was so concerned with the chromatic and compositional rhythms of the series that he worked on all the panels simultaneously. He started with black and applied it to every single panel, then he moved on to another color and applied it to all 60 panels. And so on, until the series was finished. Lawrence's meticulousness cannot be ignored, and it would be reductive to consider his work solely on a narrative or cultural basis. It is worth noting, however, that the "Migration Series" is not as innocuous as some say.
'Black, White and Gray'
Coming from the "Migration" galleries to Robert Kipniss' prints is like gradually submerging yourself at the beach. As you walk away from the colors and sounds of the people onshore, and as you enter the ocean, the water is a bit of a shock. As you wade further out to sea, the noise from the beach disappears and finally you pull your goggles on and take the plunge.
The almost monochromatic galleries of "Seen in Solitude" offer an elegant contrast to Lawrence's bold colors—Kipniss' pastels, grays and blacks profit from their proximity to Lawrence's reds, greens and yellows, and vice versa.
The two artists also complement one another in their use of lines. Lawrence's lines are strong, yet they bear the telltale idiosyncrasies of his hand. Kipniss' marks, though, are as ephemeral as a faded photograph, his lines so velvety that they straddle the border between line and value.
Kipniss and Lawrence are similar in that both artists exploit a dissonance between their aesthetic style and their chosen media. Lawrence, who painted an epic narrative in monumental shape and line, chose to work on hardboard panels so fragile that last winter they could not be exhibited in Triple Candie, an art gallery in Harlem a few blocks away from where the panels were created.
Kipniss, however, who paints fleeting, intensely personal shadowy images, works in lithography and mezzotint, with a giant slab of limestone and copper plates, respectively. Lawrence's historic epic, an African American cultural heirloom that was meant to speak to vast audiences, has only a finite number of fragile years ahead of it, and there is only one copy of it. Kipniss' reverie-like prints that are unapologetically introverted and totally removed from socio-political issues are etched into stone and metal, rendering them timeless, monumental in their permanence and infinitely reproducible.
Although neither Lawrence nor Kipniss is an abstract artist, both have strong tendencies toward reductive abstraction. Piersol recalled visiting Kipniss' studio and exclaiming: "Robert, you're getting abstracted! You are eliminating so much detail, and you're simplifying your pictures so much, you've just removed so much." Piersol added, "When you work in abstract mode, you get to the point where you're simplifying so much that you can't make any mistakes. You have to get things in the right place or they just don't work. And Robert has got to the point where he can reduce so many pictorial elements but the picture just clicks, everything's just right."
Housing these two artists across from one another under the same roof is poignant poetry, indeed. One imagines each body of work inspecting the other with curiosity after the museum doors close.
Kipniss, on his own, is a staggering technical virtuoso. His mezzotints are especially impressive. I can barely fathom how he manages to draw such subtle gradations of gray tones out of such an unforgiving medium. Kipniss also creates a compelling illusion of three-dimensional space on the other side of the frame—a space peopled solely with wind, shadow, light and reflections.
Walking through Kipniss' mezzoprints is a bit like being in a deep-sea submarine with a powerful spotlight. Kipniss' light sources are so luminous, his darks so dark, and his pigment saturation is so dense as to evoke water more than air. Just like when you're underwater with a spotlight, nothing you see makes instant sense—everything seems alien for the first few seconds, and then you slowly realize what you're looking at.
Dark ocean water always holds a promise—and threat—of unseen things lurking beyond the light. Kipniss, in his mezzotints, achieves both of these effects—a gradual dawning of visual recognition and a shape-shifting darkness that is always opaque and never still.
Piersol agrees that Kipniss deliberately "paces how you understand it. You can't just look at it and go, 'OK that's a window.' You really have to look at it because the nuances reveal themselves as you stand there. It's almost like when you're outside and you come inside and your eyes have to adjust—you can't read his images right away." Like being underwater or being the first one outside after a snowstorm, a muffled silence rests heavily on Kipniss' scenes, a reverential hush for bare tree limbs, the smooth ceramic curve of a vase, or the dark silhouette of a leaf against the already dark sky.
Kipniss also manages to invigorate his still-life prints with an eerie sentience. With no sharply defined edges, he creates a sensation of minute vibration pervading the objects in his still lifes, thus adding a distinct auditory aspect to his work. The edges of the leaves in "Still life with dark window" for instance, fade fuzzily from white to the darkness of the window behind them. Thus, it seems that the leaves are charged with a frenetic energy but that something is restraining their range of motion, like the quivering of a fist clenched in anger.
Looking at those leaves, I couldn't help but hear their soft yet desperate rustling. When I imagined stepping into the frame and inhabiting the spaces depicted within, I became sharply aware of my breath and how, if I were in a darkened room or a winter forest at nighttime, my breath would throb in my ears like a drumbeat. Looking at a Kipniss print for long enough cycles you through an awareness of shadow and light, a recognition of form and volume, a negotiation of distance and sound, and finally, a self-consciousness about the physical presence of one's body in contrast to the papery, airy presence of the prints.
Besides being eloquent counterparts, the Jacob Lawrence "Migration Series" and Robert Kipniss' "Seen in Solitude" prints are two shows not to miss. But you could go see them and still miss them if you're not attentive enough. If you're receptive, they will make you think and slow down. But if you don't feel like it, they won't insist.