Deconstructing the Struggle Series

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.

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Installation view of Jacob Lawrence: Struggle…From the History of the American People. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

As I reflect upon our semester, I am amazed at how Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series has opened itself to us for new discoveries about the individual works and about the series as a whole. For a time in this course, we were able to view 30 panels from The Migration Series in a space adjacent to the gallery with the 12 panels from the Struggle series. We began the semester with “mindfully” looking at works from both series. Our observations in the galleries and later examinations of surface and shape taught us a great deal about the viability and flexibility of Lawrence’s practice in tempera paint applied to sequences of same size panels over time. In the nearly 15 years separating Lawrence’s Migration epic and his American History (comprising events from the American Revolution and the Early Republic), we found an amazing continuity in his method: starting with research in the Schomburg Library, next visualization from notes and texts, pencil drawing and notation on the surface (both front and back), and lastly the patterning and improvisational layered application of pure colors. However, unlike The Migration Series, which reads like an epic poem with stanzas and refrains, the Struggle series visualizes the incidents of history by way of individual filmic splices. We feel the quickened pace of being in the moment and psychological intensity in the acute angles of Lawrence’s shapes and in his flashing contrasts of seemingly improvised color. Lawrence’s notations—some of early titles—on the backs of the panels also offered us important clues to the identity of the historical events as well as to his thinking.

For example, on the back of the panel about Patrick Henry’s speech, Lawrence erased the word “Protest.” On the back of the panel about the Boston Tea Party, Lawrence wrote, “Masquerade.” In Lawrence’s work, when a story is being told is as important as what is being told. For him, deep context is important. So our students set about researching historical events and textual sources as well as the current events in 1954–56 when the series was being created. Among them were school integration, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the heinous murder of Emmet Till. The partial or incomplete aspect of the Phillips’s showing of the Struggle series became an opportunity for the students to posit alternate sequences and to underscore key themes such as violence vs. non-violence or the individual vs. society. When given the amazing opportunity to rearrange the Struggle series gallery, we ultimately opted for the 12 panels to be arranged chronologically in the order of historical events. In this way, the reader of the series first finds in the story of the Revolution the image of a Slave Revolt and Petition before encountering Patrick Henry’s appeal for liberty or death which invokes a slave petition. In each of the following parts of this blog series, students respond to different panels and discuss their interpretations and report their research on Lawrence’s work.

Beth Turner, Former Phillips Curator

Postcards from Japan and A Tokyo Night

The museum’s Annual Gala took place last week with the theme “Postcards from Japan,” followed by the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night at Dock 5 at Union Market. Check out photos from the festivities below.

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Table setting at this year’s “Postcards from Japan” themed Annual Gala. Photos: Pepe Gomez

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Guests enjoying the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night. Photo: Pepe Gomez

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Guests enjoying the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night. Photo: Pepe Gomez

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Guests enjoying a SnoCream truck at the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night. Photo: Pepe Gomez

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Guest at the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night

Congenial Spirits: Katz, Diebenkorn, Renoir


Installation view of Alex Katz’s Brisk Day, Richard Diebenkorn’s Standing Nude, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Judgment of Paris

Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite pieces at the Phillips are always on the move? One of my favorite parts about interning here has been witnessing the movement of pieces in the permanent collection around the galleries. Founder Duncan Phillips once said in regards to his curating tactics, “I avoid the usual period rooms—the chronological sequence . . . My arrangements are for the purpose of contrast and analogy. I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time.” This intention has been maintained by the curators at the Phillips who are continually exchanging pieces on display with ones in storage, reminding regular visitors and staff members of the breadth that makes up this unique collection of modern and contemporary art.

Walking around the other day, I noticed that the central gallery on the second floor had been completely transformed overnight. Non-representational paintings by Sam Francis, Jake Berthot, and Loren MacIver had been replaced by portraits and figure drawings from an array of artists. I was immediately drawn to a wall of three large and vibrant prints by Alex Katz, a triptych entitled Brisk Day, to the right of which were two monochromatic figure studies, much smaller in scale. The closest was a Richard Diebenkorn charcoal drawing, Standing Nude, neighbored by Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s chalk drawing, The Judgment of Paris. I thought immediately of Phillips’s notion of “congenial spirits” and wondered what type of analogy was made in juxtaposing these three very different works.

The Katz and the Diebenkorn were created almost 25 years apart, while the Renoir drawing precedes the Katz by almost a century. Both Diebenkorn and Renoir chose to focus on the entire human body, whereas Katz zoomed in on a portrait. The more contemporary of the artists chose flat applications of color, while the least contemporary rendered his subjects more realistically and monochromatically. All of these differences are what make for such an interesting arrangement. Seeing them together initiates a discussion of the figure as subject matter, a subject that can be rendered through all different types of mediums and styles. Spanning three different time periods, these works remind us that certain motifs, like the human body, are timeless. Yet the evolution of their representation is a cornerstone of the study of art history, something that can be visualized by doing exactly what Phillips had in mind: juxtaposing the unexpected.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern