Powerfully dynamic and exquisitely refined, Jacob Lawrence’s Untitled (Another Patrol) (1946) exudes an air of measured control, embodying the artist’s singular translation of epic narratives into precise, Cubist-like forms. Widely renowned for his deeply affective, narrative-oriented depictions of African-American life and his rhythmic, Modernist-informed visual language, Jacob Lawrence stands as one of the greatest American painters to have emerged in the twentieth century. After serving as Coast Guard Artist for the United States during World War II—a role that tasked him with documenting the War in Italy, England, Egypt, and India—Lawrence was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946, which enabled him to paint his iconic War Series. Held in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Lawrence’s War Series stands as a fourteen-panel testament to the camaraderie, discrimination, and loneliness that characterized black soldiers’ experience in the United States Military. Directly related to the panel War Series: Another Patrol, in the collection of the Whitney, the present work offers an extraordinarily rare example of one of the artist’s most revered bodies of work in private hands. In terms particularly evocative of the present work, art historian Ellen Harkins Wheat describes the broad reach of Lawrence’s prodigious output: “Although his work always speaks of the black experience from an emotionally autobiographical position, his imagery has universal appeal. Lawrence is a humanist with a moral vision, whose deep involvement with the struggles of mankind reminds us of the perpetual validity of the human story” (Exh. Cat., Seattle, Seattle Art Museum (and traveling), Jacob Lawrence: American Painter, 1986, p. 24).
Two African American patrolmen, clad in uniform, structure the present work’s composition, setting its motion in action. Striding in perfect unison, the men haul supplies up a steep incline; they lunge, left foot forward, and heave from exertion. The color palette of hushed blues, jet black, deep umber, muted teal, and cloudy white provides a stark contrast to the burnished yellow of the figures’ eyes and fingers. Piercing with a vibrant luminosity, the simple geometry of these forms echoes the sculptural linearity of West African masks and Egyptian wall painting. 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 Patricia Hills, Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence, Los Angeles 2009, p. 194). Lawrence’s quick and precise brushstrokes indicate the painting’s steady momentum; its masterful fusion of figuration and abstraction calls to mind Giacomo Balla’s delightfully lyrical painting Dinamismo di un cane al guinzaglio (Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash), which articulates a syncopation of rhythms akin to the beat of Untitled (War Series).
Untitled (Another Patrol) brilliantly takes on the mantle of Modernist aesthetics while speaking directly to pressing socio-political subject matter—distinguishing Lawrence’s style from the puritanical formalism of his contemporaries. Lawrence devoted much of his artistic output to the representation of racial discrimination in the United States; the present work bears witness to the painful legacy of segregation in the United States Military during World War II, which the artist experienced firsthand as a Steward’s Mate—the only rank available to black Americans at the time—in a racially segregated unit of the United States Coast Guard. An acute observer of his surroundings, Lawrence presents his viewers with a multiplicity of wartime vantage points, regarding each with unwavering dignity. Remarking on the significance of the duties he depicts in the present work, he states: "It's the little things that are big. A man may never see combat, but he can be a very important person. The man at the guns, there's glamour there. Men dying, men being shot, they're heroes. But the man bringing up supplies is important, too" (the artist quoted in Stephanie E. Dickinson, Jacob Lawrence: Painter, New York 2016, p. 49). Lawrence elevates these generally overlooked figures by monumentalizing them in painted form.
Although Lawrence’s visually arresting narratives 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. The present work’s abstraction transforms its profundity to an epic scale; by stripping away his figures’ identificatory features, Lawrence widens the scope of his subject beyond the particular experiences of these two men. Shortly before his death in 2000, the artist explicated his artistic philosophy: “… 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” (Patricia Hills, Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence, Los Angeles, 2009, p. 133).
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