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Jacob Lawrence

March 11, 2001, Sunday

Books in Brief: Nonfiction; Making the World Anew


By Suzanne Ramljak

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was a consummate storyteller, and during his 65-year career he painted vivid narratives, ranging from sweeping historical epics to intimate vignettes of daily life. Lawrence's vast output is aptly captured in THE COMPLETE JACOB LAWRENCE (University of Washington, $150), a two-volume set that documents more than 900 of the artist's paintings, drawings and murals. Essays track Lawrence's life and evolution, including his precocious beginnings in Depression-era Harlem and his becoming, in 1941, the first black artist represented by a major commercial gallery. Lawrence's ability to negotiate the demands of both the art world and the black community is also explored, along with his balancing acts between abstraction and figuration, personal expression and social commitment. While the surface of Lawrence's work remained fairly constant over the decades -- bearing a trademark style of flat shapes, bold color and rhythmic patterns -- his art was informed by diverse sources and beneath the bright facade lay a strong sense of injustice at the suffering caused by discrimination and poverty. Although his works focused on the plight of black Americans, most notably in series like ''The Life of Harriet Tubman'' and ''The Migration of the Negro,'' Lawrence sought to address ''the struggle of man to always better his condition and to move forward.'' As one of the essays argues, this larger human aspiration is best expressed in Lawrence's paintings devoted to the theme of builders, a subject that engaged him from the mid-1940's until the end of his life. This was also an image that mirrored Lawrence's own constructive endeavor: a figure striving to refashion the world through creative labor. Suzanne Ramljak

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