In 1949, Jacob Lawrence created Strike (below) to commemorate Jackie Robinson as the first African-American in major league baseball. On Wednesday, April 15th, Major league baseball celebrated the 68th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in the game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. All players and coaches wore Robinson’s No. 42.
Robinson was an ideal subject for Lawrence, who rose to fame in the early forties with his 60-painting Migration series, which depicted the mass movement of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north between World War I and World War II.
Shortly after his birth in 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, Robinson moved west with his family to Pasadena, California, where he attended integrated public schools and later became the first Black four-sport lettermen at UCLA.
Lawrence’s own parents had been a part of that Great Migration.
Best known for his Migration series, which is on display through Labor Day at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Lawrence, who died in 2000 at the age of 82, left behind studies of Black life and culture in Harlem and Black figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, among many works.
The Library (below), which is based off a busy reading room at the Schomburg Library in Harlem, speaks to Lawrence’s habit of reading everything that he could about his subjects.
Sports was an easy muse for Lawrence.
In 1972, he was one of several artists invited to design posters for the Munich Olympic Games. Runners (below), a silkscreen print, celebrates Black male track athletes in a relay race, evoking Jesse Owen’s triumph during a politically charged 1936 Berlin Games.
After moving to Seattle in the early 70s, Lawrence was commissioned in 1979 to create a mural at the city’s Kingdome, where the Seahawks and Mariners played their games. Games, which was later moved to the Washington State Convention Center, is classic Lawrence—bright, flat, vital and very specific.
The ten panels (below) illuminate the sheer spectacle of modern sport—a theater of commercialized performance for athletes and spectators through the lens of a master abstractionist.
Yet Lawrence was too attuned to the rhythms of the street to confine play to spectator sports. From his Games series, which he completed in 1999, there is Throwing the Dice, Tossing Coins, Sleight of Hands, Street Carnival, among his 12 games, that emphasize his sharp eye for detail and nuance.
Chess Players (below), from 1970, is one of my favorites of his game-themed works. In it there are men, not unlike the Black men I see playing chess in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem in the summers. Lawrence makes the boards the focus and places the realism in the eyes of the players.
Leisure takes over much of the best of Lawrence’s post Migration work. There is racism and disenfranchisement in his world, but there is also fun and competition—people enduring through pleasure. Throughout his long career, which spanned parts of six decades, the culture of sports and games was a very persuasive ideal in his work.
There was the tendency to radicalize the work of Black artists and writers, as if all the work was intended to make a point about race in America. Certainly, Lawrence was politically engaged, historically fused, narrative-driven and uplifting, but his work had this determination about it to not be limited by any definition or form. He wasn’t a master of orthodoxy, but of form to fully illuminate his message.
“For me, a painting should have three things,” he said in 1951, “universality, clarity, and strength. Universality so that it may be understood by all men. Clarity and strength so that it may be aesthetically good.”
Lawrence may have also said that observation is the best gift that an artist can have and that skill should be reflected in the work.
In his Pool Parlor (below) there are four tables busy, perhaps all involving gambling. It’s easy to wonder about how these men are living. Where do they work? From what southern town did they migrate? What are the futures for their children?
Lawrence’s work invites those kinds of difficult questions.
There is a timeless quality to the Migration series that ought to jar something in everyone that views it at MOMA. Lawrence depicts struggle and survival. This strange new world is better than the one I know: better than dying of hungry or being lynched.
In many ways, Strike is a response to the Migration series. Jackie Robinson had come out that migration from Georgia, and succeeded at what his mother had hoped the journey would do for her family.
There isn’t much leisure or games in the Migration series. But once the people settle in their new world, Jacob Lawrence turns them loose. They are alive and real and fun on his canvas as if they were walking around in the world full of hopes and dreams.