Last year around this time, I was so excited about the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition of all 60 of Jacob Lawrence's paintings of the Great Migration that I wrote about it, even though I couldn't get there to see the art in person.
This is the first time they've been seen all together on the West Coast in two decades. Lawrence lived the last decades of his life in Seattle, teaching at the University of Washington, so the venue makes good sense. At MoMA, it was the first time in two decades they'd been seen together on the East Coast.
In other words, it takes a major effort to get them together (they're held in two separate locations, at the Phillips Collection in D.C. and MoMA), and it happens rarely.
According to the scholars and thinkers in a great piece full of interviews by Felicia R. Lee, MoMA's approach was distinctively appealing and in-depth, unlike the all-too-often "uniformly flat-footed and sentimentalist uses of Jacob Lawrence,” described by Darby English.
MoMA curator Leah Dickerman included works of poetry, music, and photography, to place the 23-year-old Lawrence, whose own parents fled north, in the creative context of his peers. Often-gruff New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl approved:
Music pervades the MoMA show, with recordings by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Josh White, and Huddie (Lead Belly) Ledbetter, among others. On video-projected film, Billie Holiday calmly delivers the indelibly shocking “Strange Fruit,” and Marian Anderson sings “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” in a contralto of frictionless purity and unfathomable depth, before an audience of seventy-five thousand at the Lincoln Memorial. Affecting in other ways are iconic photographs, by the likes of Dorothea Lange and Helen Levitt, of the Depression-era South and Northern street scenes. Vitrines display important books of fiction, poetry, journalism, and sociology. If much of the material and the themes is familiar, their cumulative force is not. Tough-minded in selection and eloquent throughout, this show rivets and overwhelms.
MoMA called the exhibition One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series (great web site).
SAM's show does not appear to have the same name. Will it be touring with the additional material?
I talked to Catharina Manchanda, curator at SAM, who told me that she did see the show at MoMA and found the music incredibly affecting. Will it be at SAM? I asked her. She wasn't sure but hopes so.
I hope so, too.