Mark Cole Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture
The Cleveland Museum of Art’s renowned collection of American painting recently became even more notable with the addition of Fulton and Nostrand, a superb work by Jacob Lawrence. As one of the great chroniclers of 20th-century America, Lawrence brought to life important historical and contemporary subjects, an approach that was a significant outgrowth of his upbringing. Born in Atlantic City and reared in Philadelphia, Lawrence moved to Harlem as a teenager, an event that proved central to his artistic maturation. He was raised among the emergent writers, poets, painters, sculptors, and musicians who manifested the Harlem Renaissance, becoming the first major artist trained within the neighborhood’s African American community. While attending the Harlem Art Workshop, he was deeply influenced by the philosophy that art should be a quest for both self and communal identity, a view he would advocate throughout his long and distinguished career.
Lawrence’s rise to prominence was meteoric: at the age of 24 he became the first African American artist of his generation to be represented by a downtown New York gallery, and his resultant debut—a 60-panel suite entitled The Migration of the Negro—was jointly purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. During the following six decades, Lawrence’s fame was sustained through numerous gallery and museum exhibitions, as well as frequent sales to private and public collections. At the time of his death at the age of 82, he was among the most celebrated artists in the nation.
A highly regarded example of Lawrence’s mature work, Fulton and Nostrand evokes the vibrant community near the eponymous intersection in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn during one evening in the mid-1950s. The artist was no stranger to the area; in fact, he lived just a few blocks away and taught courses in studio art at the nearby Pratt Institute. Storefronts and signage in the painting’s background frame the proceedings; a slender streetlight in the immediate foreground gracefully divides the composition just to the right of its center. The more than 40 figures who populate the teeming streetscape are engaged in a variety of activities; they stroll, shop, and drive automobiles. Keenly observed slices of life abound: a young couple dotes upon their infant, a man carrying a birdcage walks determinedly with his head bowed in thought, a young girl escorts a slightly bewildered older woman with a cane, a lone stray cat slinks away from the bustle.
Ranking among Lawrence’s largest and liveliest tempera paintings, Fulton and Nostrand features a visually striking style of elemental forms and expressive hues, which the artist labeled “dynamic cubism.” Its wonderfully syncopated shapes and colors undoubtedly appealed to music impresario George Wein—perhaps best known as the founder of the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival—who, along with his wife, Joyce, purchased the painting during the 1980s. The Weins amassed a stellar collection of African American art, of which Fulton and Nostrand was a centerpiece. A few months ago, when it became possible to acquire the painting from the Wein collection, the Cleveland Museum of Art eagerly seized the opportunity to add this exceptional work to its holdings.
Cleveland Art, February 2008