JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000)
JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000)
JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000)
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JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000)
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JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000)


JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000)
signed and dated 'Jacob/Lawrence/52' (lower center)
tempera on Masonite
36 x 24 in. (91.4 x 60.9 cm.)
Painted in 1952.
The Downtown Gallery, New York.
Helen Grayson, New York, acquired from the above, 1953.
Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 24 October 1968, lot 81, sold by the above.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
C. Ritter, “Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Downtown Group,” Art Digest, vol. 27, no. 2, October 15, 1952, p. 16.
P.T. Nesbett, M. DuBois, Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings, and Murals (1935-1999): A Catalogue Raisonné, Seattle, Washington, 2000, p. 120, illustrated.
P.T. Nesbett, M. DuBois, Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, Seattle, Washington, 2000, p. 165, pl. 54, illustrated.
P. Hills, Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence, Berkeley, California, 2019, pp. 205, 206, fig. 153, illustrated.
New York, The Downtown Gallery, The Twenty-Seventh Anniversary Exhibition, October 1-25, 1952.
New York, The Downtown Gallery, Performance: A Series of New Paintings in Tempera by Jacob Lawrence, January 27-February 14, 1953, no. 1.
New York, Terry Dintenfass, Inc., Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture: Fifth Annual Art Exhibition and Sale, October 22-October 25, 1969, no. 54A.
Queens, New York, The Queens Museum of Art; Dallas, Texas, Museum of African American Life and Culture; Chicago, Illinois, Terra Museum of Art; New Orleans, Louisiana, New Orleans Museum of Art; Rochester, New York, Strong Museum; Savannah, Georgia, Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences; Washington, D.C. National Portrait Gallery, Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, 1994-1996, p. 10, illustrated (as Harlem Nightclub Scene).
New York, DC Moore Gallery, Jacob Lawrence: Moving Forward, Paintings, 1936-1999, February 13-March 22, 2008, pp. 11, 37, 76, illustrated.

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Prominently featuring Louis Armstrong, Billboards is the largest painting, and one of the most complex, within a group of twelve works known as the Performance series that Jacob Lawrence dedicated to various corners of life in the theater and entertainment industry. Exhibited together in 1953 in the artist’s last solo show at The Downtown Gallery, the series received strong critical acclaim. According to Lawrence scholar Peter Nesbett, the series ranks in historical importance among the artist’s most powerful painting cycles – along with his seminal Migration series and major abolitionist subjects executed in the 1930s and 40s. Nesbett asserts that the Performance paintings “are of equal historical value in that they are rare and powerful expressions in the visual arts of the existential reality of being African American in mid-twentieth century America. Within the history of art, these paintings are exceptional.” (letter, May 2008)

Indeed, the Performance pictures explore the subject of African American figures performing a multitude of roles both on and offstage as a vehicle to underscore the daunting duality of life as a Black American – namely, that the talent and glamour of their roles as performers reflect little of their reality offstage. While dazzling in execution, Nesbett writes, “The overall mood in these works is tragicomic, or rather, a brightly patterned surface treatment–found in the stage sets, costumes, or the artist's overall organization of the compositions–masks an underlying sense of sadness, isolation, or despair.” (Ibid.)

While Lawrence generally uses ambiguous identities in most of the works to represent the greater African American experience–such as a lonely pianist in Concert (Cornell University, Ithaca, New York); a group of barely-distinguishable figures in Marionettes (High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia); or a patchwork of entertainers and audience members in Ventriloquist (Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts)–he includes one major historical figure in the present example: Louis Armstrong. The painting notably travelled in the exhibition celebrating Armstrong’s life, Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy from 1994-1996. Centrally located and playing his signature trumpet, Lawrence surrounds Armstrong with a symphony of showgirls, dancers and performers, spiraling about the composition in a frenzy of jazz-like lyricism, celebrating a spectrum of black talent from famous figures to hard-working supporting roles. While unsubstantiated, it is impossible not to draw parallels between the tall female performer along the left side of the painting and famed African American performer Josephine Baker, who undertook a national tour in 1951 beginning at Broadway’s Strand Theater that culminated in a parade in Harlem to honor her being named the NAACP’s “Woman of the Year.”

Upon the present work’s first exhibition in 1952, a critic praised the artist’s ability to convey the sights and sounds of New York nightlife, writing, “Jacob Lawrence’s Billboard [sic] is as arresting as Broadway cacophony.” (C. Ritter, “Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Downtown Group,” Art Digest, vol. 27, no. 2, October 15, 1952, p. 16) The success of the present work and the series as a whole likely derives from Lawrence’s own immersion into his subject, frequenting theaters in the early 1950s with Downtown Gallery employee Charles Alan. Each of the works carry an emotional depth beyond the incredible patterning and electrifying use of color. An Art Digest reviewer commented, “The glitter and sham of the stage are echoed here in studied, prismatic notations. There is a profusion of detail as Lawrence paints costumes, densely patterned floors and backgrounds, and the sparkle of jewels. There is medieval richness of texture sometimes, and in other cases, in sharp contrast, a boldness, even a violence, of construction and color.” (“Fifty-Seventh Street in Review,” Art Digest, February 1, 1953, p. 17)

By the time of the Performance exhibition, the world already considered Lawrence to be one of America’s preeminent 20th Century artists and storytellers of African American life. Further, in an era of increasing demand for television, artists such as Lawrence reaffirmed their commitment to fine art, resulting in a period of intense self-expression and creative achievement. Of the Performance series, a New York Times critic wrote, “Superficially they are sketches of life before and behind the footlights and with them Lawrence at once establishes himself as one of the extraordinary illustrators of our time. Feelings of cruelty, pity, or a sort of wild humor conveyed through almost unbearably shrill color and line that cuts like a hot, sharp blade, expose the whole nerve of the theatre and entertainment world. Anyone who considers that the camera, as a recording agent, has ousted the artist had better look hard at these even if their point of view is not sympathetic.” (D. Smith, “Diverse Moderns: Recent Work by Stevens, David Smith, Lawrence,” The New York Times, February 1, 1953, p. 8) Nowhere is this more true than in the dynamism of Billboards.

The first owner of the present work, Helen Grayson was a notable film director in the early 20th Century. She directed “The Cunningham Story” for the Office of War Information during World War II, a film about European refugees in New England, and later directed several historical films for the State Department. She served on numerous juries for film festivals and competitions in France and New York.

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