In The Businessmen, five African-American subjects, all hunched over and clothed in black suits, gather in an ambiguously defined space populated with briefcases and the paperwork that inhabits them. The painting exemplifies Lawrence’s signature Cubist-based style, evident in the artist’s skillful flattening of pictorial space, his reductive color palette and his simplified, abstract rendering of the human figure. Particular to the works of Lawrence’s post-war oeuvre is a marked evolution in his handling of paint. In The Businessmen, Lawrence employs a mix of dark and light tones to delineate the figures and their clothing, giving rise to tonal variations that suggest volume and articulate a syncopation of rhythms. This formal device gives the painting a remarkable dynamism, which contrasts elegantly with the calm composure of the seated subjects. Furthermore, Lawrence outlines his subjects’ facial features and fingers in a manner that differs from his previous work, echoing the sculptural linearity of West African masks. Explaining the reverse method, which the artist described as “painting on either side of the line," conservator Elizabeth Steele notes: “he brushes the brown paint up to and just over the edges of the underdrawing, leaving a thin line in reserve to depict the eyes and other fine details … He then painted a transparent yellow over the reserved space.” (Elizabeth Steele quoted in (Ibid.)) Although Lawrence always possessed an “uncanny sense of design,” this technical shift may have been inspired by the summer he spent with Josef Albers in 1946, when teaching at Black Mountain College. (Ibid., p. 4) One can thus observe in The Businessmen Lawrence’s formal maturation, demonstrated in his unrivalled attention to color, pattern and form.
Despite the stunning aesthetic effects of The Businessmen, it departs from core Western modernist principles in its depiction of socio-political subject matter. The painting, directly inspired by themes of racial discrimination in the United States, distills Lawrence’s social consciousness by examining the private and public dimensions of historic, institutional subjugation. In the caption for this work, Lawrence quotes Dr. Benjamin Quarles, the Dean of Dillard University in New Orleans who stated: “Whereas church leadership in the Negro Community was once dominant, such leadership now has to share its influence with publicly financed institutions whose emphases are secular.” (Ibid., p. 159) The dean’s words reflect the disempowerment felt by the African American community whose social structures had given way to white-dominated local and state institutions. Like in many of Lawrence’s works, The Businessmen articulates a dialectic between the beauty and horror that continues to characterize much of black American life.
Although Lawrence’s visually arresting narrations are rooted in the black experience, the humanist sensibility sowed into his works allowed the artist to transcend racial barriers, making him the first African American artist in the United States to have gallery representation. A widely revered artist in his time, Lawrence’s The Businessmen featured prominently alongside works by other American masters, such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning, in an iconic 1950 Vogue photograph composed by Herbert Matter. The stunning photograph, modeled after a painting by the seventeenth century Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger, shows Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art,with Robert Hale, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Hermon More, Director at the Whitney Museum of American Art, posing in front of these breathtaking masterpieces. Shortly before his death in 2000, the artist stated: “… for me, a painting should have three things: universality, clarity and strength. Clarity and strength so that it may be aesthetically good. Universality so that it may be understood by all men.” (Ibid., p. 133) These attributes are gracefully revealed in The Businessmen, a deceptively simple portrayal of African American dignity that stylistically conveys universal themes of both loss and resilience.
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