Stanford's Cantor Arts Center presents solo exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's work, Promised Land

Stanford students are the first scholars to study and present some of the works that have never been on public display.

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center 'Poster Design ... Whitney Exhibition' (1974) by Jacob Lawrence

Poster Design ... Whitney Exhibition (1974)

One of the largest collections of works by American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) in any museum belongs to the Cantor Arts Center, and it goes on view for the first time April 1. Lawrence is an acclaimed figurative painter of the 20th century and a leading voice in the artistic portrayal of the African American experience.

Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor, A Gift from the Kayden Family will be on view through Aug. 3. It is the first Bay Area solo exhibition of Lawrence's work since 1993. The works from the Kayden family gift have never before been the subject of a focused exhibition, and the Cantor is the exclusive venue for Promised Land.

When the Kayden gift was announced last year, the number of works was 26 plus one painting by Lawrence's wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, which made for a generous gift by any measure. But since that announcement, Joelle Kayden, MBA '81, has increased the gift to 56 works: 5 paintings, 11 drawings, 39 prints and 1 illustrated book.

The artwork was given by Herbert Kayden and his daughter, Joelle, in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, wife and mother. Herbert Kayden died in August 2014.

The exhibition, which includes all 56 works, celebrates the full range of Lawrence's career, from 1943 to 1998. Of particular significance are the early Harlem gouache on paper painting At Times It Is Hard to Get a Table in a Pool Room (1943), the civil rights era painting The Ordeal of Alice (1963) and the iconic Poster Design ... Whitney Exhibition (1974), all demonstrating his mastery of color and form.

The collection, the exhibition and the accompanying scholarly publication with essays by Stanford faculty, researches and curators reflecting the interdisciplinary understanding of the artist make Stanford and the Cantor "a leading resource for students and scholars to study Lawrence and the social and political conditions of the historical era in which he produced this important work," said Connie Wolf, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor.

Between the Cantor exhibition and the display of Lawrence's 60-panel Migration Series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York beginning on April 3, it is a revelatory moment in the examination of this great American artist.

Exhibition planning

One of the primary reasons that the Kayden's Lawrence collection ended up at the Cantor is because Stanford is a teaching university. "That was hugely important to my father because both he and my mother were university professors in addition to being physicians," said Joelle Kayden. "He felt that Jake wasn't as celebrated and recognized as befitted the quality of his work and his importance as an African American artist. Giving the collection to Stanford means it will live on."

Honoring the Kaydens' entwined commitments to both art and education, the exhibition planning included a course for undergraduate students at Stanford taught by Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the Cantor's Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. This intensive introduction to Lawrence's career and key aspects of curatorial and art historical practices enabled 12 students to design the gallery layout and write exhibition texts.

"I've never been in such a well-rounded art history class where I was basically nose-to-nose with the artwork," said Emma Collins, who is double majoring in art history and economics.

Promised Land charts the evolution of Lawrence's distinctive and dynamic visual style over six decades. His work offers a sweeping panorama of the black experience in America that includes images addressing the struggle against slavery, the black experience in America, the contributions African American builders made to the transformation of America's cities in the first half of the 20th century and the simple details of everyday life.

The installation demonstrates Lawrence's gifts as a figural artist and a storyteller, whether he was depicting Harlem or reconstructing critical moments in African American history. His bold, abstract-yet-figurative style, a hybrid European cubism and early 20th-century social realism, is also apparent in the 39 prints, which include a complete set of his first print portfolio, The Legend of John Brown (1978), and an artist's proof edition of Eight Studies for "The Book of Genesis" (1989-1990).

"During each class, we gathered around a selection of works by Lawrence and studied them closely, as art objects and also as images with powerful, socially relevant content," said Mitchell about her undergraduate course. "It was wonderful to work through the exhibition process with the students and, as they wrote labels for individual works, to see them become very attached to Lawrence and invested in the exhibition."

From coast to coast

Jacob Lawrence, born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1917, was active as an artist from his teen years until he died in Seattle, Washington, in 2000. He arrived in Harlem in 1930 and became deeply integrated into its artistic community. He was employed by the Works Progress Administration in the easel division and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and served in the Coast Guard on the first racially integrated ship in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Lawrence referred to his work as "dynamic cubism," with its bold colors and shapes. He was strongly impacted by artist and childhood mentor Charles Alston, artist Josef Albers of the Bauhaus and the artists of the Mexican muralist movement. His narrative paintings often reflect his personal experience or depict key moments in African American history, including the accomplishments of people such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and the achievements of the American civil rights movement. Lawrence was the first African American artist to be represented by a major New York commercial gallery and the first visual artist to receive the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor.

(Image credit: Jacob Lawrence (U.S.A., 1917–2000), Builders No. 3,1973. Gouache, tempera and graphite on paper. Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and Family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.103
© 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Anna Koster, Cantor Arts Center: (650) 725-4657,

Robin Wander, University Communications: (650) 724-6184,