Mind the gap

Jacob Lawrence links High exhibition with Spelman show

This summer brings the plethora of black art exhibitions that always accompany the National Black Arts Festival. A couple of shows connected to the festival have an interesting relationship — not only a shared subtext but a friendship links the two.

At the High Museum, paintings by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) document more than a century of African-American life. The traveling retrospective Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., celebrates the artist's chronicle of personal and collective history.

Lawrence grew up in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, and the aesthetic complexities of that community's culture consumed him. In 1941, he became the first black to have a commercial gallery show in New York. He exhibited paintings from "The Migration of the Negro" series that dramatize the African-American quest for a better life in the North in the early 1900s.

Over the Line at the High includes 60 panels from the migration series, along with more black history — from the Civil War era to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Some of the strongest images illustrate Lawrence's acute observations of everyday life. Fire escapes, subways, streets and bars, domestic and public interiors were the stage where men, women and children played out moments of happiness and hardship.

The title Over the Line has multiple meanings. It refers to one of Lawrence's paintings about Harriet Tubman, but it also remarks on the artist's technique of painting over his line drawings, and it describes the role he played outside his community. As he became critically successful in the mid-1900s, the painter crossed the socio-economic line between blacks and whites. Today, his art still leaps across our racial divide.

Across town at the Spelman College Museum of Art, The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art presents another dimension of black history. The show, which reflects on 150 years of art by African-Americans, includes a number of Lawrence's works. Some of the late artist's serigraphs were the first major works ever purchased by retired surgeon Walter Evans. The Savannah-based collector became a personal friend of the artist and eventually president of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation.

Curated by Spelman museum director Andrea Barnwell, the Evans exhibition comprises more than 80 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures from the collector's 1,000-piece collection. Works from the 1800s by Edward Mitchell Bannister, Henry Ossawa Tanner and Mary Edmonia Lewis reveal how two centuries ago, other African-American artists crossed lines, transcending the social, political and educational restraints of their time to develop classic styles in a range of media. Also on view are works by 20th-century artists who drew inspiration from them — Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley Jr., Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett.

Along with Atlanta-based collector Paul Jones, artist/art historian David Driskell and Bill and Camille Cosby, Walter Evans has bridged a gap in art history by collecting African-American art. He has championed artists historically neglected by collecting institutions, and like his friend Jacob Lawrence, preserved an African American legacy.

.@.Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence is on view through Sept. 8 at the High Museum, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m. 404-733-4400. The Walter O. Evans Collection of African-American Art continues through Sept. 14 at the Spelman College Museum of Art, 350 Spelman Lane. A "Conversation with the Collector" will be held July 14 at 2 p.m. at the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center. Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat. noon-4 p.m. 404-215-2583.

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