Painter Jacob Lawrence’s epic 30-panel series “Struggle: From the History of the American People” was exhibited twice after its creation in the 1950s, then never again. Now it’s back on view in Seattle, one of the cities Lawrence called home.
In something close to its entirety, the “Struggle” series will be exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) starting Friday, March 5. Seattle is the only West Coast stop for the touring show “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” which pairs the “Struggle” series with three contemporary artists whose work resonates thematically with Lawrence’s major themes of democracy, inclusion and justice.
Lawrence, whom SAM’s Theresa Papanikolas describes as “one of the greatest narrative artists in the 20th century,” painted the “Struggle” series between 1954 and 1956. It depicts key moments in American history — “a greatest hits of American history” from the American Revolution to the War of 1812 — but subverts dominant historical narratives through its centering of historically sidelined figures.
“The emphasis … is on not the heroes of these tales, but kind of the unsung heroes, the people behind the scenes, sometimes the underdogs,” said Papanikolas, curator of American art. “And so you hear a lot of different voices, filtering through the various paintings in the series: African Americans, Native Americans and women, especially.”
One of the most influential Black artists of the 20th century, Lawrence was born in New Jersey in 1917 and grew up and honed his craft in New York. He relocated to Seattle in 1970 to serve as a visiting artist at the University of Washington after teaching at the Pratt Institute and Black Mountain College. He and his wife, the artist Gwendolyn Knight, ended up staying for 30 years. Lawrence died in Seattle in 2000. His first retrospective was held at SAM.
Lawrence painted the “Struggle” series in New York in the 1950s, during “the heyday of abstract expressionism,” said Papanikolas, and his style as a painter reflects this pull toward abstraction, even as it remained narrative-driven. Rather than choose between abstraction or realism, Lawrence deftly navigated between the two. “He found narrative to be very important. That act of storytelling and reviving history and really thinking about events of the past and how you communicate those in a very modern way — it was really central to his practice and his process as an artist,” she said.
“The American Struggle” was completed in 1956, and exhibited that year at Alan Gallery in New York. It was shown only one more time in its entirety, in 1958, at which point the paintings were sold off individually. They were never again shown as a complete series. “In contrast to Lawrence’s other series, which pretty much stayed intact, the ‘Struggle’ series was kind of scattered to the wind,” said Papanikolas.
That made for a number of curatorial challenges in reuniting the series. With three panels missing, the gaps in the collection will be filled by reproductions where available. But there is no existing documentation of Panel 20, “Spindles.” Not even a photograph. “We don’t even know what it looks like,” said Papanikolas.
Other missing panels have been found. In one case, first reported by The New York Times, a nurse living in the city’s Upper West Side realized a painting she’d been gifted by her mother-in-law was then-missing Panel 28, “Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840 — 115,773.” Viewers will be able to see it in-person at SAM.
Lawrence’s work will be joined by contemporary pieces from Bethany Collins, Derrick Adams and Hank Willis Thomas, and, in Seattle, 12 youth artists instructed to imagine the 31st panel in the “Struggle” series. The teen artists’ contributions were curated by SAM’s Teen Arts Group (TAG) through an open call for submissions; they’re the first young artists to show work in SAM’s special exhibition gallery.
Though the “Struggle” series first debuted in the 1950s, its connection to contemporary art and politics could not be more clear. “The show’s arriving at SAM as the fight for justice across the country is gaining urgency,” said Papanikolas. Just as Lawrence framed American history in conversation with the American civil rights movement of his time, the themes in his work are especially relevant today. “So it’s really, really powerful, very meaningful, and it kind of reminds us that the struggle for freedom belongs to all of us,” she said.
This connection between past and present struggles for equality was in evidence the last time Lawrence’s work was exhibited at SAM. In 2017, the museum showed the artist’s “Migration Series,” a smaller-scale show, along four walls of SAM’s Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Gallery, recalled SAM’s associate director for public relations, Rachel Eggers.
The exhibition opened on the previous presidential administration’s inauguration day. People were protesting in the streets that Saturday, said Eggers, so the museum opened for three days free of charge. During those three days, 10,000 people came to see Lawrence’s work.
“It was a really catalyzing show,” she said. “And it’s always exciting when that happens, when a show really resonates and connects to what’s happening in people’s lives right then.”
This post has been updated to clarify the name of one of the artists represented in “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle.”