Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
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Property from the Collection of Martin and Rena Blackman
JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000)

Builders—19 Men

JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000)
Builders—19 Men
signed and dated 'Jacob Lawrence 79' (lower right)
gouache and tempera on paper
30 x 22 in. (76.2 x 55.9 cm.)
Executed in 1979.
Terry Dintenfass Inc., New York.
Acquired by the present owners from the above, 1983.
P.T. Nesbett, M. DuBois, Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Murals (1935-1999), A Catalogue Raisonné, Seattle, Washington, 2000, p. 188, no. P79-01, illustrated.
P.T. Nesbett, M. DuBois, Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, Seattle, Washington, 2000, p. 218, pl. 82, illustrated.
New York, DC Moore Gallery, Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Prints from 1937-1998, December 12, 2001-January 26, 2002.

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Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

Setting his work apart from his contemporaries, Jacob Lawrence not only recorded African-American life inspired by his own experiences in Harlem, but also created paintings that unapologetically focus on the conditions and treatment of Black communities within American society. In Builders—19 Men, Lawrence creates a dynamic vignette from a New York City construction scene to make a statement about labor and the status of African-American workers in the United States.

Lawrence first painted his famous builders motif in the late 1940s at the conclusion of World War II, and continued to explore the theme over the following decades. The subject was inspired by his association with the Bates brothers, cabinetmakers in Harlem who also worked at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop that Lawrence attended. Lawrence found the construction workers to be a powerful symbol within his work, once declaring, "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) Lowery Stokes Sims further explains, "Lawrence's paintings on the theme of builders also engage notions of construction of a more philosophical and social kind…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." (Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, pp. 210-11)

With its focus on the process of building as a metaphor for social advancement, Lawrence's work recalls that of other artists exploring similar subject matter, such as Charles C. Ebbets’ iconic photographs of the builders of Rockefeller Center and Fernand Léger’s French construction scenes. Lowery Sims Stokes notes the compositional and thematic parallels with Léger’s Les constructeurs (1950, Fernand Léger National Museum, Biot, France), explaining that the building frame’s "grid activates and anchors the composition in a manner similar to that in Lawrence's work...The Léger is part of a series of paintings executed just after World War II that depict a veritable worker's paradise, indicating an elevation of the social and economic status of that class of society in the postwar boom. ("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)

In Builders19 Men, Lawrence skillfully uses angular planes and flattened forms in bright blues, reds and yellows to enliven the composition and change the way one would typically view the industrial subject matter. He depicts the workers with powerfully rounded forms and enlarged, capable hands, which juxtapose the sharper angles of the wood planks and tools. In the background, a compressed Harlem skyline sets the stage for the workers, and also provides a glimpse into other vignettes of daily life in the city through the numerous apartment windows.

Yet, as Elizabeth Xiong writes, the focus is not on the completed city, but rather the construction in progress, “placing it right before our eyes…Looking back at the amalgamation of men and tools in Builders—19 Men, Lawrence’s focus on the process leading up to a completed architectural endeavor (rather than on the finished building itself) is key…Moving from the finished skyline downwards, working men carry individual horizontal planks to build the city, and the painting before our eyes.” (“3 Building Portraits of an Educator: Education, Labor, and Community in Jacob Lawrence’s Builders Paintings,” Jacob Lawrence in Seattle, University of Washington, Spring 2021) Indeed, Lawrence’s builders paintings, including the present work, epitomize the artist’s acknowledgement for a need for change and growth, but also his hope for advancements in the future.

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