‘Our Michelangelo’

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, on the art and legacy of painter Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence’s portrait of Rev. Jesse Jackson was used for the cover of the
April 6, 1970, TIME magazine cover. Credit: Jacob Lawrence, Portrait of Jesse
Jackson (1970), tempera on board; © Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence
Foundation / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.;
image courtesy of Art Resource Inc.

Nearly two years to the day after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., TIME magazine published a cover story for its April 6, 1970 issue entitled "Black America 1970." The cover depicted an image of civil rights activist, Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with Dr. King the day he was killed. In the chaotic time following the assassination, Rev. Jackson emerged as a prominent heir to Dr. King’s legacy of non-violent activism.

The cover was no ordinary head shot: It was a portrait of Rev. Jackson by Jacob Lawrence, the pioneering African-American painter whose 60-panel series, The Migration Series (1940-41), had made him the first black artist to earn representation at a major New York gallery. By 1970, Lawrence’s work was part of some of the world’s most prominent collections, his stake amid the canon of American Modernism secure.

Ahead of an online-only sale of Lawrence’s work, Christie’s met with Rev. Jackson during his recent trip to New York to talk about Lawrence’s legacy, and about getting his portrait painted by the man he called "our Michelangelo."

Can you contextualize that moment for us in history: You, a prominent civil rights activist, on the cover of TIME as painted by Jacob Lawrence, a ground-breaking African-American painter, in 1970?

Well, Dr. King had been killed. There was a great sense of trauma; we were all in a fog. And the streets were on fire. The anger had poured over. And I was trying to articulate our pain, our passion, and direction. Passion without direction can be dangerous. So I was trying to do that from the church to the streets, from schools to jails. I was trying to speak to those communities at the same time, straddling and bringing them closer. And [Lawrence] captured some of that in my eyes, my features, my statement — I was trying to make a statement, trying to embody passion and pathos and pain, and yet hope, in black America at that time. And no one could’ve done that better [than Lawrence].

Did you know Lawrence’s work before the portrait?

I was aware of it, but not as aware as I became after the cover. Someone said to me "That’s Jacob Lawrence!" So I had to go digging really fast.

One of the negative things about our society: We tend to deprecate art. We don’t appreciate art. Jazz musicians starve to death. But, yet, they’re the best. Same for our painters. [Carrie Mae] Weems, the photographer — so few people knew her. Part of our work is to honor these so deserving people. And Jacob, he deserves our highest regard. He’s up there in the pantheon of the greats of American art and culture.

What was it like to have your portrait painted by a great artist?

Lawrence was our Michelangelo. His paintings came alive. You could read into his paintings. His paintings were, in the purest sense, really art, because he poured into his paintings his imagination and the character he painted. I remember [when I found out] Jacob Lawrence was going to do the cover of TIME magazine, I was just overwhelmed by the idea. And the cover sold more I think because he did it than because I was on it! The more I think about it, you know, Dr. King emerged at 26. Jacob Lawrence emerged at 24. So that streak of genius was evident early on. And he sustained it. He’s the bar.

He’s considered an important American Modernist in any broader art-historical context, not only in the context of African-American painting.

Just as the walls came down and African-Americans had a chance to display their skills, we’ve helped set some bars. It’s not just the Jackie Robinsons in Brooklyn, in baseball. Curt Flood, for example, created free agency. We’ve gotten in the habit of redefining the standard. And [Lawrence], in painting, did that. I associate him with Dr. King. I associate him with Paul Robeson. His name evokes greatness and superlatives.

Do you collect art yourself? Any favorite artists or mediums?

Yes. Well somewhere between photography and painting, in terms of mediums. A good photographer can catch shadows and shades and moods. A good painter can take it, I think, a step further. Because you’re not just taking what you see, you build into what you see imagination and creativity.

I watched a documentary about Jacob Lawrence recently that was filmed just a few years before his death in 2000. And he said he was really hopeful about the future of African-American artists at that time. Is this still a hopeful time?

We are a combination of hope and hopelessness, but more hope than hopelessness. Because through it all, we fall down, we get back up again.

And art has to reflect the good news, not just the bad news. "Bad news" is you go down twice, come up once. "Good news" is people keep coming back. We keep falling and coming back. And [Lawrence] had that type of hope. He never became cynical. He never lost that touch of hope.

Christie’s is selling Lawrence’s work in a variety of mediums in an online-only auction, running from Feb. 21 to March 4, 2014. (Click here for more details.) For more on this and other online-only auctions at Christie’s, see www.christies.com/onlineonly.