Shuttered since March by the coronavirus pandemic, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are reopening with limited visitorship, various admonitions about masks and social distancing, and several new exhibitions, among them “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle.” That show, at the Met, reunites the panels of a lesser-known series that the storied modernist painted during the mid-1950s, exploring themes from the American Revolution to the Westward expansion.
Lawrence was a frequent visitor to both museums. In a 1996 interview referenced in the current exhibition, he told Michael Kimmelman, then chief art critic of The New York Times, that a favorite work of his in the Met’s European painting galleries was “The Journey of the Magi,” by the early Italian Renaissance artist Sassetta.
What follows is an edited, condensed, updated version of that interview.
Jacob Lawrence died in 2000, at 82. Four years earlier, for a Times series that, reimagined, became a book titled “Portraits,” I spent a day accompanying him around both MoMA and the Met. He walked with difficulty then, and opted occasionally for a wheelchair that his wife, the artist Gwendolyn Knight, had brought along just in case. The three of us looked at whatever interested him, from Dogon sculptures to Dubuffet. Lawrence was a bearish, humble man, courtly, endearing. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with a negative statement,” he reassured himself out loud at one moment, before screwing up his courage to dis Jackson Pollock.
Knight and Lawrence had long ago moved to Seattle from New York. But the Modern and the Met, he told me, still felt like home to him. As a teenager in the 1930s, he would walk the 50-odd blocks from the apartment he shared with his mother in Harlem to study early Italian Renaissance paintings at the Met. And in 1941, Lawrence’s “Migration” series, about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South after World War I, which had brought his own family north, was acquired and split between MoMA and the Phillips Collections in Washington. He was 24 at the time.
The following interview, from nearly 25 years ago, reveals Lawrence as a man of his generation, a product of the Harlem Renaissance and a history painter whose art remains as timely as ever. During the ’40s and ’50s, when battle lines in the art world were drawn between abstractionists and social realists, he pursued a middle path. During the ’60s, when Black artists more militant than he was said his art wasn’t radical enough, he stayed the course. “Maybe I was fortunate not to have thought in intellectual or ideological terms,” he told me at one point. “I never became consumed by any particular artistic circle. That’s my temperament.”