Artist Jacob Lawrence serves as muse for Harlem exhibition


How did The Studio Museum in Harlem celebrate what would have been artist Jacob Lawrence’s 100th birthday? The museum examined the ways the urban landscape influenced artists. It tapped into its permanent collection that includes some of Lawrence’s work, along with paintings, videos and drawings of more than 20 other artists.

The result is “Their Own Harlems,” an exhibition of more than 30 pieces running through Jan. 7 in the lower level gallery of the museum, located at 144 W. 125th St. It shows how the urban landscape influenced the art of Lawrence and his peers.

“We wanted to highlight the works that we have of his in our collection in new ways we haven’t done so before,” said Doris Zhao, the museum’s curatorial assistant. “His work is so well regarded for highlighting the beauty in the everyday and for celebrating black entrepreneurship, business and success.”

Lawrence is perhaps best known for his 60-panel painting “The Migration of the Negro,” or as it later became known, “The Migration Series,” showing African-Americans as they traveled from rural southern states to urban northern ones.

The museum shows Lawrence’s lithographs like 1977’s “Tools,” 1977’s “Windows,” and 1987’s “The Schomburg Library.” His subjects ranged from construction workers to people reading books at the library.

While researching the show, Zhao and associate curator Connie Choi came across a quote from Lawrence where he spoke of Harlem as more than just a geographical location. It was an idea in a broader sense, where residents could find a location where they were encouraged and challenged by the intimacy, grittiness and architecture of the landscape. He described it as “their own Harlems,” which served as the narrative thread for the show.

Looking through the museum’s archives gave Zhao an opportunity to get a new perspective on the organization’s permanent collection, rediscovering hidden gems not seen by the public in a long time.

Including some of “Harlem Postcards” in the exhibition was something Zhao also loved because that project involves inviting artists from all backgrounds each season to produce a photograph inspired by the community.

“To see those works being revisited again within a different context is really special as well,” she added.

Lan Tuazon’s 2009 photo “Sky Watch,” where the New York Police Department’s mobile surveillance tower looks out over Harlem, is likely to spark interesting conversations, while Lyric Cabral’s 2005 photo hints at a bit of nostalgia as some urban streets turned on the fire hydrant to stay cool on a hot summer day.

For Zhao, Lawrence’s 1959 work “The Architect” — which shows an African-American looking at an architectural drawing — parallels what will be take place at the museum next year. The organization recently announced it would break ground on an 82,000-square-foot building on the site of its current facility in 2018 just in time for the museum’s 50th anniversary.

The Studio Museum in Harlem first opened its doors at 2033 Fifth Ave., in 1968, before moving to its current West 125th location in 1982. The museum added artist David Hammons’s 1990 “Untitled (African American Flag),” made in the colors red, black and green, outside of its building in 2005, becoming a recognizable part of the facility’s community identity.

Lawrence moved to Harlem from Atlantic City in 1930, using his years living there as the inspiration for his work, which included depictions of everyday life.

Lawrence left New York in the 1970s to teach at the University of Washington in Seattle. He died in 2000.

After visitors see the works of Lawrence and the other artists who give their take on the urban landscape, Zhao hopes the collection will spark an “ongoing intergenerational dialogue.”

“A lot of the themes and narratives of his work and of his practice are timeless,” Zhao said. “He is, without a doubt, one of the most important artists of the 20th century.”