Cotton Comes to Harlem

As a teenager during the Harlem Renaissance, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) heard tales of the great African-American exodus from the Jim Crow South to the big northern cities after World War I. But the hoped-for promised land often proved unwelcoming—whites resented the influx of cheap labor, and many of the migrants suffered from their new home's harsh climate, a sentiment conveyed in Langston Hughes's "Po' Boy Blues": "When I was home de/Sunshine seemed like gold./Since I come up North de/Whole damn world's turned cold." Still, the North offered greater opportunity for education (the migration was characterized as "from medieval America to modern" by Alain Locke, the nation's first black Rhodes Scholar), and Lawrence studied art at the public library on 135th Street while trekking regularly to the Met to take in Giotto, Goya, and Matisse. In 1941, the still-maturing painter completed the 60 panels of his "Migration Series"; quickly recognized as a major achievement, it was featured in Fortune magazine and sent on a nationwide tour. Executed in tempera on board, 18 by 12 inches each, the paintings retain a powerful modernist aura. The figures are succinctly abstracted and vibrant, revealing the influence of Lawrence's Depression-era community: "Our homes were very decorative, full of pattern, like inexpensive throw rugs, all around the house. . . . I got ideas from them, the arabesques, the movement and so on." The 17 panels exhibited here come from Washington, D.C.'s Phillips Collection and include No. 9, "They left because the boll weevil had ravaged the cotton crop," which pictures snaking green stalks topped by pink and yellow puffs surmounted by cartoonish black insects. The brilliantly simplified view in No. 31—a tricolor apartment wall jazzily syncopated with red, yellow, and blue window blinds—recalls the semaphore rhythm of shades and awnings in Hopper'sEarly Sunday Morning (1930), while also looking ahead to a kinship with Mondrian's final, stripped-down primary abstraction,Broadway Boogie Woogie, which was completed two years later. One of the strongest panels, No. 1, depicts crowds moving through gates marked "Chicago," "New York," and "St. Louis"—the throng breaks into three distinct pyramids echoed by triangular travelers. These layers of repeated shapes at different scales imbue the composition with movement and narrative drama: an oppressed people in search of a better life majestically marching into the unknown. It's not hard to imagine Lawrence himself in that colorful tumult, a visionary whose masterpiece has come home to Harlem.

Previews

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Kohei Yoshiyuki: "The Park"
Yossi Milo Gallery
Kohei Yoshiyuki
September 6–October 20
Yossi Milo, 525 W 25th, 212-414-0370

During the 1970s, Yoshiyuki ventured into Tokyo's public parks with camera and flash at the ready, capturing nocturnal trysters and crouching onlookers—some of whom joined the anonymous lovers—on infrared film. There is little nudity in these black- and-white shots, mostly hands reaching under uplifted skirts, spectators crawling through leafy bushes toward entwined couples, and men warily pairing up as they edge around tree trunks. Yet there's a queasy, erotic charge that photographer Martin Parr identified as "the loneliness, sadness, and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like Tokyo."

Lee Krasner
September 6–October 13
Robert Miller, 524 W 26th, 212-366-4774

An artist who often recycled her own drawings and canvases for collages, Krasner (1908–1984) showed grit and resilience in her work (and in her difficult marriage to Jackson Pollock). A piece such asWater #20 (1969), with its lithe drips of lavender over thick blotches of magenta on rough-hewn paper, conveys a forcefulness that belies its seven-by-10-inch dimensions. In Heiroglyph #4, umber splatters are barely constrained within a cruiform maze of calligraphic brushstrokes. This energetic gouache painting foreshadows the violent beauty found in the hard-edged arcs and drippy arabesques of her large collage canvases.

Liset Castillo
September 7–October 13
Black and White, 636 W 28th, 212-244-3007

This Cuban-born artist photographs elaborate cityscapes that she sculpts from sand, mixing geography and architectural epochs. One image includes the massive monument to Christ the Redeemer (in reality, perched high over Rio de Janeiro) cheek by jowl with a collapsed Empire State Building and the Taj Mahal. A different incarnation of Castillo's ever-changing metropolis features a spiraling Tower of Babel contrasted against the inverted cone of the Guggenheim Museum. Her imaginary world is literally as ephemeral as a sand castle, yet the photographs proffer documentary "truth," lending historical gravitas to these fleeting civilizations.

Poe and Twain Projects
September 8–December 2
Wave Hill, 675 W 252nd, the Bronx, 718-549-3200

Three artists tackle the legacies of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain in this spectacular garden setting overlooking the Hudson River. Allison Smith's period room riffs on Twain's riverboat themes and Wave Hill's flora and fauna. Simon Leung's video project is built upon intersecting scenes that explore some of Poe's most famous stories, while Amy Yoes expands on her recent delightful multimedia show at the Michael Steinberg gallery by delving into Poe's "Philosophy of Furniture" in an installation featuring sculpture and animated film.

Mark Stillwell: Super Defense Force
September 14–October 14
Front Room, 147 Roebling St., Brooklyn, 718-782-2556

Coney Island is under attack! Panicked throngs flee gargantuan insect-monsters in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel! Stillwell constructs his DIY tableaux from plastic bottles, paper-towel rolls, takeout cups, painted cardboard, plastic straws, and other homely materials that add exuberant charm to this gallery-filling panorama of carnage amid the carnival rides.

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