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Jacob Lawrence, Undoing the Ongoing Bastardization of the Migration of the Negro

Triple Candie
500 West 148th Street, just west of Amsterdam Avenue, 212-368-3333
December 2, 2007 - December 20, 2008
Web Site

Triple Candie is pleased to present Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro, in its entirety, for the first time in Harlem. The exhibition consists of offset lithographic reproductions of the artwork’s sixty panels, printed to scale. It also includes fourteen posters that document the ways the artwork has been misrepresented by museums—Museum of Modern Art, The Phillips Collection, Seattle Art Museum, Whitey Museum of American Art, and others—over the past sixty-five years. Undoing the Ongoing Bastardization… has been organized to coincide with Jacob Lawrence’ Migration Series: Selections from the Phillips Collection, currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. That exhibition, which was originally scheduled to appear at the Studio Museum in Harlem, presents seventeen of the artwork’s sixty panels.

In the spring of 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then a twenty-four year old Harlem resident, painted The Migration of the Negro, one of the most important artworks of the twentieth century. The sixty paintings tell the story of the great mass departure of African Americans from the rural South to the Northern cities in the decades before World War II.

Lawrence painted The Migration of the Negro in a studio on West 125th Street with no heat or running water. He considered it a single artwork. Whether it was Lawrence’s intention or not, such an epic artwork presented a major challenge to art world—Any gallery or museum that wanted to exhibit it would have to devote a substantial amount of wall space to the work of a then largely unknown young, black artist.

Almost immediately, museums showed a strong interest in the work, albeit with conditions. In the fall of 1941, the Museum of Modern Art offered to buy half the paintings for $1,000 ($33 per painting). Lawrence, who was on his honeymoon in New Orleans, immediately declined the offer, but at the urging of a dealer who had taken an interest in the work, he reluctantly agreed to splitting the series in half, provided that two purchasers would always make their halves of the artwork available to each other. Several months later, the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, purchased the other thirty panels.

Since then, The Migration of the Negro has been exhibited extensively, though unusually in a form that was inconsistent with the artist’s wishes. For example, Jacob Lawrence retrospectives mounted in 1960, 1974, and 1986, radically misrepresented the artwork, including only five, fifteen, and ten panel respectively. Lawrence was alive at the time of those exhibitions, though he never challenged the museums on the matter; it wasn’t in his character. But he was never happy about it.

In addition to the sixty reproductions of The Migration of the Negro and the fourteen museum posters, Undoing the Ongoing Bastardization… includes, at its heart, a rural wooden shack, not unlike one would find in Jacob Lawrence’s paintings. The exterior, however, is expressively painted with bright color. The interior, which cannot be entered, is decorated with an orange blackboard and a wall-mounted sculpture-like object. The shack evokes both a one-room schoolroom and a makeshift museum, and is meant to serve as a surrogate for Triple Candie.
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