One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works
Museum of Modern Art
New York City
April 3–September 7, 2015
One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works, an exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s sweeping, sixty-panel Migration Series, opened in May at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with an air of somewhat more august momentousness than has been common within the museum’s increasingly Bjork-ified walls. This was partly due to the strange history of the Migration Series itself: divided, even-odd, between the collections of MoMA and the Phillips Collection, in Washington DC, it is united only once a generation or so. In larger part, though, its air of weightiness emerges from Lawrence’s subject, the Great Migration—the mass movement of African Americans in the early twentieth century from the oppression and terror of the American South, largely to the growing urban centers of the North. The Migration Series is the best known of Lawrence’s epic and episodic series depicting major events in African American history, a style that has led many to label him a “history painter.” If anything, however, MoMA’s latest installation of his work frees him of this classification, allowing us to see him as an artist facing not only backward, but forward, upward, and all-around: an artist whose work has as much to say to us as it did to his parents’ generation.
The Migration Series panels are small, 18 by 12 inches, and at MoMA they are installed in a single row that wraps around four walls. That, along with the straightforward captions that accompany each image, allows the series to progress much like an unintimidating and relatively linear story. Even against the hallowed whiteness of MoMA’s walls, Lawrence’s work feels less like a historical document than the kind of legendary tale one might tell at a bedside. And indeed, although Lawrence did copious research at the 135th Street Library in Harlem, where he spent much of his life, the series resulted as much from the stories of what he called “street orators” as from textbook history. Lawrence—who was only twenty-three when he created the Migration Series—had been absorbing the stories of the Great Migration almost before he realized what it was; his own parents had moved north from their familial roots in South Carolina and Virginia. The presence of the series, as a result, brings something much more than a recitation of facts: the rhythms, along with the words, of a people in transition.
This feeling of movement is, of course, appropriate in the depiction of what was one of “the largest demographic events of the twentieth century,” as the exhibition points out. But it also exists tangibly among the panels—and not just, as their episodic layout and careful 1–60 numbering might imply—one-directional. The Migration Series functions on a much more complex temporal system than has been acknowledged previously. The colors of the series, largely limited to a consistent palette of mustardy yellow, green, and earth red against a structure of black, move all over the panels: neither progressing nor receding, nor remaining attributionally with any one character. The panels themselves progress one-by-one, but also in waves of repetitions—certain scenes recurring over and over, forcing us to beat a retreat and then circle back to where we started, never quite the same for the journey. Lawrence left the series open-ended—choosing, like the progression of numbers “2–3–4” on a chalkboard in panel 58, to tell the tale from his moment in time, rather than force the story to fit between bookends. It becomes clear that Lawrence never saw the Great Migration as a “dated” historical event, but one that continued to affect his community, and himself, in a number of palpable ways.
MoMA certainly understood this fact, and brings it out beautifully in their installation. The effects of the Great Migration, as they point out, extended into all realms of culture, from music to food to visual and decorative art. One-Way Ticket performs what Jodi Roberts, curatorial assistant in MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture and co-creator of the exhibition, calls a “deep historical dive,” building out from Lawrence’s iconic work along the far-reaching tentacles of the Great Migration’s influence.1 The exhibition, like Lawrence’s work, traces individual stories of migration that cross and re-cross the larger narrative: Josh White moans a blues about the imprisoning atmosphere of the South; Langston Hughes, whose lines inspired both Lawrence’s series and the title for MoMA’s show, writes of packing a life into a suitcase.
If MoMA’s installation explores the Migration Series’ relevance horizontally, it leaves its vertical reach, into our lives today, far more opaque. Tellingly, this was not for lack of awareness; curator Leah Dickerman noted that in the course of the exhibition’s planning, she was “struck by the bravery of this very young man in speaking frankly, politically.” It became, Dickerman explained, “a primary curatorial goal for our team to enable Lawrence’s work to speak to our present.”2 The exhibition could have been more forthright in this direction; largely it leaves the task up to the exhibition’s programming, including the standout “Migration Series Poetry Suite” program, which brought together a brilliant group of contemporary poets, including Kevin Young and Terrance Hayes, to create new work in response to the series. In many ways, however, MoMA’s reticence really doesn’t matter; it simply leaves room for Lawrence’s images to speak to us themselves. And they do indeed, through a haunting resonance with images familiar from recent events and their cyclical news coverage: a white policeman, gun at hip, overwhelming the frame and the migrants’ momentum with his X-shaped body; three black men, heads bowed out of sight, linked by the bright yellow handcuffs of “slightest provocation;” black and white bodies entangled in the jagged angles of explosive confrontation.
The relevance of the Migration Series, however, extends beyond any visual echoing. There is something particular in the way it asks us to read—a kind of resistance to being led, either by image or by text alone, that it fosters in its viewers. A familiar feeling emerges in looking at Lawrence’s images, underlined with text far more ambiguous and slippery than its simplicity lets on: the wry, twisted feeling that comes of watching injustice repeated over and over. What seems the confusing understatement of Lawrence’s “captions,” then (see panel 16, whose strange and eruditely dry text, “Although the Negro was used to lynching, he found this an opportune time for him to leave where one had occurred,” comes nowhere near the angularly contorted grief of its image), becomes something else. Here is the conciseness of someone who lets history speak for itself, maybe—or the freedom of someone who knows from experience that word and image do not always match up. The simplicity of Lawrence’s images and their captions, taken individually, camouflages a far more complicated system of communication: one that functions less on either visual or textual language, but on the movement between the two.
Questions emerge from this in-between space, but they are ones that must be asked: uncertainty here births urgency, the series sending its movement outward. The irony of panel 19, with its sweeping river that both divides the two female figures and quenches their identical thirst, seems cut-and-dry, final. But the enigmatically general caption—“There had always been discrimination”—challenges the patness of the visual metaphor, forcing a consideration of the world beyond the frame Lawrence so carefully painted around each of his images. Is that river of discrimination running toward the widening ocean or the narrowing stream? What does this discrimination—whose indisputable past “always had been”—mean for the next generation: for the girl who, although half-hidden, faces us, begging the question? It is the same question the migrants of the last panel ask, as they turn to face us on yet another train platform. Their movement continues: “And the migrants kept coming.” What, they and Lawrence ask, will ours be?
CLAIRE ITTNER is a writer based in New York. For the past year, she has been a research associate and program coordinator for Columbia University’s Columbia Explores Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey exhibition project.
NOTES 1. Jodi Roberts, Conversation with the author, April 7, 2015. 2. Leah Dickerman, Panel Presentation, Bearden and Lawrence: Migrations, Columbia University, New York , February 20, 2015.