In 1968, the year he painted Builders No. 1, Jacob Lawrence said in an interview, "I've always been involved with content...and form, I think form is just as important [as content]." (as quoted in "The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence's Builders Paintings, 1946-1998," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, Seattle, Washington, 2000, p. 67) The present painting, Builders No. 1, is exemplary of the artist's urban subject matter, brightly colored palette and his distinctive style, which balances the twin elements of Lawrence's art, content and form.
Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence moved to Harlem with his family in 1930. Charles Alan, one of his dealers, recalled his first impressions of Harlem: the "endlessly fascinating patterns" of "cast-iron fire escapes and their shadows created across brick walls..." and the "variegated colors and shapes of pieces of laundry on lines stretched across the back yards...the patterns of letters on the huge billboards and electric signs..." (as quoted in L.S. Sims, "The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence's Builders Paintings, 1946-1998," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, p. 202)
By 1938 Lawrence had secured funding from the WPA and began preparation for some of his early landmark series of works, including The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture (1938), The Life of Frederick Douglas (1939), The Life of Harriet Tubman (1940), and the artist's masterwork, The Migration of the Negro (1941). From the visual storytelling of his contemporary world it was inevitable that Lawrence would turn to a shared past history of the Harlem community as a source for subject matter. Deeply personal and introspective, Lawrence continued to depict the everyday life in Harlem while interweaving the theme of migration, both in an historical and a contemporary context of the African-American at home and abroad. Through text and imagery, Lawrence's series reached a broad audience, broader still when selected by Edith Halpert to exhibit at the popular and influential Downtown Gallery which placed Lawrence's work alongside such artists as John Marin, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler and others.
Lawrence's work eventually shifted from political and historical subjects to everyday experiences of African-Americans living and working in Harlem. Lawrence's builder paintings in particular were inspired by his association with the Bates brothers, cabinetmakers in Harlem who also worked at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop. The resulting paintings, however, were more than just depictions of a construction site. Lawrence said, "I like the symbolism [of the builder]...I think of it as a man's aspiration, as a constructive tool--man building." (as quoted in "The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence's Builders Paintings, 1946-1998," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, p. 209) "Lawrence's paintings on the theme of builders also engage notions of construction of a more philosophical and social kind. The builders theme appeared in Lawrence's work in the later 1940s--at the conclusion of World War II--as one of several subjects dealing with labor. It is as if he is capturing the economic advancement that marked the war years for African Americans as well as the aspirations for greater advancement in American society, which would coalesce into the civil rights movement in the 1950s." ("The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence's Builders Paintings, 1946-1998," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, pp. 210-11)
As one of the first artists to represent Modernist depictions of African-Americans, in Builders No. 1, Lawrence skillfully uses angular planes and fractured forms in bright blues and pinks to enliven the composition and change the way one would typically view the subject matter. He apposes the angles of the saw, rulers, planes, sawhorses, even the men's overalls with the rounded forms of these powerful men's heads, shoulders and enlarged hands.
Lawrence set bright hues against the neutral olive background to create abstracted shapes of color. His use of highly saturated pigments enhances the flatness of the composition as the forms of color run into each other producing a disjointed but cohesive form. Describing his use of tension in color Lawrence said, "Change as you move over the picture plane, in any of the elements with which you are working--the change of the texture, line, the warm color against a cool color, a shape. [How a color] in a round shape means something different if it's a square or a rectangle." (as quoted in "The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence's Builders Paintings, 1946-1998," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, p. 208)
Setting his work apart from his contemporaries, Lawrence not only recorded African-American life, but created paintings that were unapologetically focused on the human narrative, which underlies much of his art. In Builders No. 1, Lawrence renders a vignette from African-American daily life, yet at the same time he uses the subject to make a statement about labor and about the current and changing status of African-American workers in America. "Despite the omnipresence of Harlem and black history in the art of Jacob Lawrence, his cannot be adequately described as black art. It may be understood, in one sense, as making art out of his own life experience, images constructed of the familiar." (P.J. Karlstrom, "Modernism, Race and Community," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, p. 162)