The Color Yellow (Migration Series) (Jacob Lawrence)


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A chronicle of the Great Migration of African Americans from south to north between 1915 and the 1950s, Jacob Lawrence’s iconic Migration Series was almost immediately broken into two lots. Finished in 1941, The Museum of Modern Art purchased the thirty even-numbered pictures, while the Phillips Collection bought the odd-numbered ones. Repatriated, as it were, the entire series has been on view together since the spring at MOMA.

Haphazardly, I’m posting in no particular order some photos of individual paintings and long group shots. Instantly recognizable as individual paintings, the images work as well as part of a group ensemble. Entering the long gallery where they’re exhibited, the first impression made by the paintings is to see all of them, or at least a great many of them, constituting part of a totality. The effect is jewel-like and structured, marked by serial uniformity in size and tonal color.

It turns out that this first impression is not by accident. What explains the uniformity of effect has to do with the way the paintings were painted. The paintings were not painted one after the other, but rather one color at a time across the entire series. The entire Great Migration appears crystallized in the Series in one long durée. They look like a painterly form of what Gilles Delueze in Cinema 1 called a movement-image, a homogeneous narrative structure in symmetrical relation to the image-forms. In this case the movement-image is one marked by movements of violence and struggle.

From here at the MOMA website: “I worked very fast,” Lawrence once explained about his process. “From the concept  and the drawings to the completion of the works … that may have taken six to eight months …” Needing materials that were both inexpensive and suited to his working method, he used quick-drying tempera paint and hardboard panels. Spreading out all of the panels simultaneously, he sketched images and scenes with a pencil. He then filled in his sketches with a limited range of colors, working with only one color at a time and applying it across all sixty panels. In his words: “I had a very simple palette. I went through all the panels painting yellows, greens, blues, so they’re all the same. I didn’t mix color. I left it pure, as it was, ’cause I wanted the series to be a unit. I consider it one work, not 60 works.”

The stark effects and the refusal to mix colors constitute a commentary in its own right. The one color that drew my eye was the color yellow. Looking at all the panels together in a group, you can track the single yellow color across the entire series. Its uniform bright tone was applied in spots and lines. A bit like sun, it draws a warm contrast to what is an otherwise an actually bleak palette composed of grays, blacks, and browns under blue skies that are somewhere between bright and dull.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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