Jacob Lawrence‘s “Migration Series” is our country’s Parthenon Marbles—a monumental frieze-
like epic, meant to be experienced in a single, stately procession, but sadly sundered by two covetous owners. In the 1942, within months of their completion by the precocious 23-year-old, the 60 small tempera paintings chronicling the movement of millions of African-Americans from South to North were divvied up by the Museum of Modern Art (which bought the even-numbered panels) and the Phillips Collection in Washington (the odd-numbered panels).
This Solomon-like solution gave the Phillips custody of the first image…
…with MoMA getting the last one:
One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works (to Sept. 7) arrays these understated yet intense compositions (with Lawrence’s original captions) around the perimeter of the main gallery, flanked by auxiliary spaces that tellingly explore other works by Lawrence, as well as the musical, artistic and literary milieu that nourished him. Astonishingly, this is the first time in 20 years that this quintessential masterpiece of American history painting has been seen in full at MoMA
Under the spell of this gripping display, I came away with the strong conviction that the severed series must be made whole again and kept on view—not just on special occasions such as this, but permanently. The power and resonance of these images have only deepened with time.
Subject to conservation exigencies, they should always be shown somewhere, whether by a cooperative sharing arrangement between their owners or through loans to other institutions whose audiences have family histories that resonate with Lawrence’s still urgent subject.
Peter Schjeldahl came away feeling a similar imperative. Near the end of his review for the Apr. 20 New Yorker (which I fished out of my mailbox after I has already written the above), he wrote the following, encased in decorous parentheses:
(MoMA and the Phillips really must confer on which of them, perhaps in alternation, might keep the whole on constant view.)
Early in his laudatory NY Times review of “One-Way Ticket” (named after Langston Hughes‘ 1949 book of poems), Holland Cotter recounted the sorry story of its partitioning:
Lawrence…told his dealer, Edith Halpert, that he didn’t want the work sold piecemeal. He had conceived it as a unit and insisted it be kept that way.
Before the show opened, he moved to New Orleans to get firsthand experience of Southern life. So he wasn’t around when Ms. Halpert negotiated the sale of the series…, with all the even-numbered panels going to MoMA and the odd-numbered ones to the Phillips Collection.
At the beginning of my CultureGrrl Video, below, you’ll hear the Leah Dickerman, the show’s accomplished curator, express her own discomfort about the panels’ unfortunate disposition: “It interrupted his conception of the work—its narrative integrity, the visual rhymes, the verbal cadences,” she notes.
It also dispersed small pockets of closely related images that were clearly intended to gain force by building upon one another, like these:
Join me now at MoMA’s press preview, where Dickerman discusses the diverse cultural components that she assembled for this show. She begins by lamenting “Migration’s” dismemberment, while noting that we can now, at least temporarily, “understand the artist’s narrative conception”:
If you can’t see this show in person (or even if you can), don’t miss MoMA’s rich multimedia website. Its contents are also accessible via a long bank of computer screens installed down the middle of the show’s central gallery. But it’s wiser to spend the bulk of your museum time perusing the art.
This digital compendium reproduces all the paintings in proper sequence, with both their original captions and their politically correct but less flavorful revised captions (written for a 1993 tour of the complete series, organized by the Phillips Collection). It provides trenchant commentary on the historical, political and cultural context of each image.
If you are interested in hearing more about something that the exhibition unaccountably glosses over—the resonance of the “Migration Series” with our own difficult race relations (“Hands up. Don’t shoot.” “I can’t breathe.” “If you see something, video something.”), tune into tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) 6 p.m. livestream of a discussion by “a trio of leading social-justice activists” (in the words of MoMA’s announcement) who will “discuss the legacy of Jim Crow.” If you are in the NYC area, you can attend this in person.)
Speakers will include the articulate, insightful scholarly consultant for MoMA’s show, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library in Harlem. It was there (before it got its current name) that Lawrence had assiduously researched the history of African Americans’ Great Migration, to inform his magnum opus.
MoMA’s exhibition is not expected to travel, but the Phillips, which co-organized the show, plans to display the combined “Migration Series” in 2016, according to a MoMA spokesperson. (My request to the Phillips for more details, which are not yet provided on its website, has yet to be answered.)
UPDATE—This just in from the Phillips:
“People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” featuring all 60 panels from Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” alongside other works from the museum’s permanent collection, will open at the Phillips Collection in September 2016. The exhibition is co-organized by the Phillips (curator Elsa Smithgall) and MoMA.