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Climbing and Clarifying: The Genius of Jacob Lawrence

Richard J. Powell, assistant professor, department of art and art history, Duke University. In advance of the publication of his newest book, Jacob Lawrence, Richard J. Powell shares the aesthetic and cultural inquiries that contributed to a more meaningful study of this important artist. Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) received unprecedented acclaim for an African American artist in the 20th century. The standard conclusion that this unique status resulted from an ideological triumvirate of caste, class, and race fails to appreciate Lawrence’s artistic motivations and choices. In this lecture, recorded at the National Gallery of Art on March 22, 1992, Powell explains that his investigation into Lawrence’s life yields a universe of emblems, motifs, and symbols that cannot be reduced to some purely racial or social formula. The motif of steps—recurrent images of ladders, brownstone stoops, and fire escapes—is not a visual trope or random inclusion of environmental observations. The steps embrace a world of allusions to ascension and climbing. Lawrence’s documentation of significant historic events and moments of individual struggle and perseverance creates an art of social realism. His definitions of events and people at their most historic and human levels clarifies their meanings. Powell believes that this climbing and clarifying represents the genius of Jacob Lawrence.