Widely celebrated for his depictions of African-American history, Jacob Lawrence was also a keen observer of contemporary life. All his works reflect this penchant for observation and capacity for capturing the theater of New York. "Lawrence found himself in Harlem, New York, that is, one of the most paradoxical cities of the 1920s and 1930s and outside the center of mainstream America. The new city within a city, with its New Negroes, created its own sense and sensibility of modernism, very different from that of the downtown, primarily white, community." (L. King-Hammond, "Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown: Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-Class Community," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, Seattle, Washington, 2000, p. 67) The present painting, Subway Acrobats is exemplary of the artist's urban subject matter, brightly colored palette and angular, Cubistic style.
Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jacob Lawrence moved to Harlem with his family in 1930. He began studies through an after school program with artist Charles Alston at the Utopia Children's House on West 130th Street. Alston was the first African-American supervisor of the WPA and became an influential figure in New York, directing the local Federal Art Project (FAP) during which time he executed several prominent local murals. His teaching would have a profound impact on younger generations of New York artists, most notably Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. "The first images that excited the young Lawrence were nonfigurative geometric shapes arranged in patterns of black and white and in bright primary colors...Using crayons and then poster paints at Utopia House, he began to make compositions, no longer extant, inspired by his own home." ("Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown: Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-Class Community," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, p. 73)
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. 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.
By the late 1950s, Lawrence shifted from political and historical subjects to everyday experiences of African-Americans living in Harlem. "The streets of Harlem--their movement, the people, the local color, and the sounds--became a bottomless source of visual and spiritual inspiration for Lawrence. His ability to tell the story of a community visually revealed his capacity for observation and acute attention to detail. The flatness of the forms allows the subject to move in a storyboard, cinematic style almost in anticipation of the next frame of action." ("Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown: Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-Class Community," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, p. 77) Painted in 1959, Subway Acrobats depicts the everyday urban experience of riding the subway. Lawrence has included in the subway car standing men in suits, men and women reading, a woman knitting and two young boys in midst of a performance. Adding to the movement in the car, Lawrence includes sparks from the subway tracks seen through the windows. Although the subject matter seems more distant from his socio-political works, Subway Acrobats still represents the social realities and insularity of urban American life.
Lawrence was one of the first artists to represent Modernist depictions of African-Americans. He adds energy to the busy subway car by using angular planes and fractured forms in bright reds, yellows and greens. The use of highly saturated colors enhances the flatness of the composition as the blocks 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 L.S. Sims, "The Structure of Narrative," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, p. 208)
"The creative struggles that many black artists and intellectuals faced as they attempted to balance, on one hand, their desire to participate in the larger American cultural enterprise with, on the other, a need to create something private, reflective, and, more important, idiosyncratically racial, often meant an end product that, like Lawrence's work of the 1950s, defied simple definitions." (R.J. Powell, "Harmonizer of Chaos," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, p. 162) Setting his work apart from other artists at the time, Lawrence not only recorded African-American life, but his paintings were also unapologetically very human. In Subway Acrobats, Lawrence renders a vignette from African-American daily life, yet at the same time he individually portrays each person and their role in the community. "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)