Widely celebrated for his depictions of African-American history, Jacob Lawrence was also a keen observer of contemporary life, particularly in his scenes of New York City, where he made his home. "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, The Builders is exemplary of the artist's urban subject matter, brightly colored palette and angular, Cubistic style. The painting also reflects his ability to capture the theater of New York in a visually lively style, which is the hallmark of his most successful works.
Lawrence's builder paintings 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) As one of the first artists to represent Modernist depictions of African-Americans, in The Builders, Lawrence skillfully uses angular planes and fractured forms in bright oranges, yellows and blues as the workers cross horizontally, vertically and diagonally to disrupt the composition and change the way we would typically view the subject matter. By setting the bright colors against the neutral background, Lawrence is able to create abstracted blocks and shapes of color. 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 formal use of color and shape 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)
Lawrence acknowledged Josef Albers' influence on his work. The two artists met when Albers invited Lawrence to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1949. Through his exposure to Albers' work, Lawrence understood, "working on a two-dimensional picture plane and making it appear three-dimensional. Why you used three lines when you can use two." Albers also made Lawrence aware of "using an organic movement against the geometric movement" to "create a tension there, a pull...[that] working with the edge of the picture plane...[was]...just as important as the inner part of the picture plane. Moving against the edge." (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)
Lawrence's work recalls that of other artists as well. Lowery Sims Stokes notes about the present painting that "the compressed, relieflike space and emphasis on geometric spaces in The Builders of 1947...recall Lewis Hine's photographs of the builders of the Empire State Building...we can also find a corollary in Fernand Léger's painting Les Constructeurs (1950, Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot, France)." ("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. 210)
In Léger's Les Constructeurs, construction workers carry beams and hang from ladders in red, yellow, black and white shapes set against the blue background of the sky. "This 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. Lawrence's own 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)
Setting his work apart from other artists at the time, Lawrence not only recorded African-American life, but his paintings were also unapologetically focused on the human narrative which underlies much of his art. In The Builders, 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)