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.

Install shot_Struggle

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

Experiments in Installation: Part V

(Left) Red Chimneys, 1918, by Charles Demuth alongside photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. (Right) Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Macbeth and the Witches, mid- 1890’s. Photos: Joshua Navarro

Edited to add: This is the fifth in a series of posts from University of Virginia graduate student Tom Winters on his class’s experience installing works from our permanent collection in the Main Gallery. See parts one, two, three, and four.

After several weeks deliberating over wall texts and agonizing over potential substitutions that we might effect within our ensemble of works, this week finally sees some action. You will notice fresh changes in our gallery space. Our wall texts continue to accrete, each one composed with the aim of establishing links between artist, work, and aspects of modernism. More exciting, however, are the two new artworks that have joined the exhibition. As their addition is necessarily accompanied by the removal of other works, the process has been slightly bittersweet. But only slightly. The team feels satisfied that, in the final balance, our gallery certainly has changed for the better.

First, we’ve added Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Macbeth and the Witches (mid-1890s or later). It is the opening work in our narrative, our research having repeatedly proven Ryder to be a key progenitor of American modernism. To make room for the Ryder, we removed two works by Stuart Davis, an artist whose work was hard to give up but lost out in the final reckoning. Ultimately our group did not find that the works by Davis available to us best represent his quality. Sorry Mr. Davis, we still think you’re great.

Charles Demuth,  Red Chimneys, 1918

Charles Demuth, Red Chimneys, 1918, Watercolor and graphite pencil on medium-weight, medium-textured, off-white, …; 10 1/8 x 14 in.; 25.7175 x 35.56 cm. (sight). Acquired 1925.

Our second addition is Charles Demuth’s Red Chimneys (1918). Demuth’s association with Alfred Stieglitz, one of our seminar’s protagonists, led us to feel that he should be included in our narrative. His work replaces Henri Rousseau’s The Pink Candle (1908). Though Rousseau undoubtedly had some measure of influence on the development of modernism in America, our group decided that his small still life was not contributing much to the theme of our exhibition, pleasing as the piece may be.

Now we’re working on assembling a case of books, catalogues, and Duncan Phillips’s letters. More to come on that in the upcoming weeks.

Tom Winters, UVa graduate student, Department of Art History

Experiments in Installation: Part I

This is the first in a series of posts from University of Virginia graduate student Tom Winters on his class’s experience installing works from our permanent collection in the Main Gallery.

Main Gallery with European moderns and a wall of Marin watercolors, Tack, Egyptian Head, 1927. Photo: Phillips Collection Archives

For several years the University of Virginia has enjoyed a fruitful and highly beneficial relationship with The Phillips Collection, and faculty and students from UVa are excited to continue that relationship this fall semester. Under the guidance and following the inspiration of Professor Elizabeth Hutton Turner (former senior curator at the Phillips), I’m part of a team with graduate students Corey Piper and Jennifer Camp and advanced undergraduate Meryl Goldstein–all of us members of UVa’s Art History program–that has been given the opportunity to collaborate on the installation in the Main Gallery of an ensemble of works from the Phillips permanent collection. The project is a component of Professor Turner’s ‘American Modernisms’ seminar, a course focused on the emergence of modern art in America around the turn of the twentieth century, with particular emphasis given to the role of Alfred Stieglitz and his circle of artists. Professor Turner’s initial conception for the installation was provoked by a 1927 photo of the Main Gallery, a scene which prominently features Augustus Vincent Tack’s painting The Voice of Many Waters (c. 1923-4). Unable to procure that particular work at this particular time, we have installed Tack’s Night, Amargosa Desert (1935) in its place and gathered around it a selection of artworks that relate in various ways to the main topics of our seminar: Alfred Stieglitz, Duncan Phillips, and the emergence of modernist art in America. The exact nature of relationships between these artworks and themes remains to be fully determined and will hopefully grow to fruition over the next three months. So keep an eye on this blog. Or, perhaps more importantly, keep visiting the gallery.

Tom Winters, UVa graduate student, Department of Art History