Only West Coast stop for landmark exhibition reunites Jacob Lawrence narrative series

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Only West Coast stop for landmark exhibition reunites Jacob Lawrence narrative series
We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton . . . the night was excessively severe . . . which the men bore without the least murmur . . .—Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776, Panel 10, 1954, Jacob Lawrence, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2003.414, © 2019 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

SEATTLE, WA.- The Seattle Art Museum presents Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle (March 5–May 23, 2021), reuniting the artist’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958. This is the only West Coast stop of the exhibition’s five-city national tour. Created during the civil rights era by one of the greatest narrative artists of the 20th century, the series depicts pivotal moments in early American history with an emphasis on the experiences of Black people, Native Americans, and women. New work created for the exhibition by Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas reinforce the timeliness of Struggle by engaging themes such as democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion.

Reunited for the first time in more than 60 years, the Struggle series brings American history to life through energetic, expressive paintings that explore the boundary between figuration and abstraction.

Lawrence’s visual style conveys the physical, emotional, and ideological struggles inherent to the country’s founding. He saw American history as a complex shared experience and his paintings sought to create a broader, more encompassing narrative that celebrated prominent historical figures alongside those unsung and underrepresented. The American Struggle presents Lawrence’s paintings in dialogue with new work by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas; their work, also informed by deep engagement with historical research, powerfully asserts that America’s struggles continue in earnest today.

Born in 1917, Lawrence broke through the color line of New York’s segregated art world when, at the age of 23, he created the Migration Series, a historical narrative of the Great Migration that was instantly recognized as a masterpiece and became the first work by a Black artist to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. The series was exhibited at SAM from January 21 through April 23, 2017; the museum welcomed over 10,000 visitors during its three-day free opening weekend alone.

“Lawrence’s Migration Series opened at SAM the day after the 2017 presidential inauguration, and its message of determination in the historic fight for racial justice proved especially relevant for our audiences at the time,” says Theresa Papanikolas, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art. “Today, we present Struggle at another watershed moment, as the fight for justice gains urgency. Exploring and revealing history’s resonance in the present is one of Lawrence’s great strengths as an artist. In centering not just the history’s heroes but a variety of participants in the narratives that make up our nation’s story, he reminds us that the struggle for freedom belongs to all of us.”

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of the most prominent and celebrated Black artists of the 20th century. His artistic training was fostered by the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance and inspired by the stories he heard from elders about the abolitionist movement, Black heroes, and familial struggles. Because of the lack of Black history taught in American schools, Lawrence chose in his early work to depict iconic figures like abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. With a style that was expressive and symbolic in form, Lawrence combined realism and abstraction to create pared down compositions brimming with vitality and graphic strength. Lawrence went on to create compelling, often metaphorical stories of the Black experience and the history of the United States.


By mid-century, Lawrence had perfected his narrative invention of using modestly scaled panels to tell a sweeping epic. In 1949, the national political climate was fraught, freedoms were under threat, and the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. In this context, Lawrence began his research for Struggle: From the History of the American People, a narrative that sought to visualize a more complete—and more complex—version of American history. His goal was to “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.” Lawrence spent countless hours at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Black Research and Culture) in Harlem, poring over historical texts that included first-person accounts, letters, and coded messages from individuals on all sides of the American Revolution. For more than five years, he read and researched, and then, in May 1954, just as the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate American schools, he began to paint.

Lawrence’s often lengthy captions that accompany the panels in the Struggle series feature excerpts from famous speeches as well as reports, letters, and petitions from anonymous soldiers and enslaved people. Panel 8 depicts the image of clashing soldiers in the Battle of Bennington in 1777, accompanied by the caption “...again the rebels rushed furiously on our men” which is from an account written by a Hessian mercenary (German soldiers who served as auxiliaries to the British Army). The viewer is left to consider the fate of the Hessians, as well as the fate of other mercenaries, such as Black soldiers who fought in the war. Ironically, after the war, the Hessian soldiers would be granted citizenship long before the descendants of Black people who fought and died in the American Revolution.


The struggle for democracy is as relevant today as it was during Lawrence’s life. Artists Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976), Bethany Collins (b. 1983), and Derrick Adams (b. 1970) add their contemporary perspectives to the exhibition through the presentation of recent work.

Hank Willis Thomas excerpts images from the vast visual archive of history and reproduces them in new ways. By combining historical research with technological processes, he pushes the boundaries of photography. Visitors can take flash photography of Turbulence (2018) and My Father Died for this Country Too / I Am an American Also (2017) on their cell phone cameras to illuminate images that are “hidden” beneath the surface, such as a protester resisting arrest in Alabama and a demonstration at a “whites-only” beach in Florida. For Rich Black Specimen #460 (2017), Thomas used archival “runaway slave” advertisements to create a dynamic, larger-than-life three-dimensional version that injects personhood into the otherwise cruelly anonymous form.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, American songwriters rewrote the lyrics to the melody of “My Country 'Tis of Thee” (also called “America”) in support of varying American causes, including revolution, temperance, suffrage, abolition, Native sovereignty, and slavery. Bethany Collins’s America: A Hymnal (2017) is a laser cut special edition artist book that unifies 100 versions of the song to show how words and meanings change over time. As the laser cut pages of this book are turned, the work is gradually destroyed. An a cappella recording of the hymns being sung accompanies this installation.

Derrick Adams’ video, Saints March (2017), pays homage to past and present cultural influencers of New Orleans, capturing the footwork of local dancers who use Decatur Street as their stage. As Lawrence did in the Struggle series, Adams plays with vantage points, zooming in and out to create portals that energize and transport us to see the past, present, and future anew through the motions of others. For his mixed media installation, Jacob’s Ladder (2020), Adams imagines Lawrence’s studio as a quiet self-reflection space by using materials from Lawrence’s personal archive, such as the artist’s photographs and armchair. Referencing the biblical story, a ladder ascends directly from the chair to Adams’ original portrait of the elder artist. To Adams, this artistic homage represents, “the continuous progression of Lawrence’s life journey and the most magnificent manner in which he expressed his ideas and vision.”

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Only West Coast stop for landmark exhibition reunites Jacob Lawrence narrative series

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