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Jacob Lawrence

Born: 1917, Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States of America
Died: 2000, Seattle, Washington, United States of America

Bar-b-que
1942

Gouache on wove paper
Sheet: 30 7/8 x 22 1/2 in. (78.4 x 57.2 cm)
Frame: 35 × 26 5/16 × 1 1/8 in. (88.9 × 66.8 × 2.9 cm)
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2013.1
Signed: Lower right: J Lawrence 42
Artist Name: []

Interpretation

Jacob Lawrence’s Bar-b-que presents a populated city street, focusing on the façade of a barbeque restaurant where a chef prepares slabs of flaming meat and faceless African American diners sit in the narrow recess of the restaurant’s interior. Two passersby appear immune to the lure of the surrounding sights and smells, while three anonymous adults and a lone child stand transfixed on the sidewalk before the open kitchen, perhaps waiting in line to order the succulent pork ribs or roasted chicken.

Lawrence, a social realist painter and pioneering African American artist, created this scene to reflect daily life in 1940s Harlem, a predominately black neighborhood in New York City that was his home and the focal point of African American culture. With such depictions of the black experience, Lawrence became the first African American artist to gain prominence in the segregated New York art world. Lawrence’s storefront brings a new perspective to American urban genre painting. Bar-b-que relocates a commonplace Southern-style restaurant to New York City, thereby documenting the impact of the “Great Migration,” where people of African descent, like his own family, left their rural Southern homes to create communities in the urban American North.

Following his first trip to the South, where he documented the immense poverty and racial segregation of New Orleans and rural Virginia, Lawrence returned to Harlem in 1942 and began a new year-long painting campaign. Lawrence produced a thematic group of paintings depicting everyday experiences in Harlem, marked by rich individual compositions and endowed with a new range of bold color designs and spatial geometries. Bar-b-que is among the earliest paintings on this subject and embodies a new synthesis in which the selection and juxtaposition of objects—syncopated geometries of doors, windows, bricks—reference the familiar sights of the Harlem community in Lawrence’s stylized, modernist vision of the world.

Bar-b-que was first exhibited at Downtown Gallery’s Spring Exhibition held in 1943. One month later, thirty of Lawrence’s recent Harlem paintings were presented as a group at Downtown Gallery. Bar-b-que was not included in that show, indicating that Lawrence conceived of this work as a complete statement and not as part of a set of captioned narrative paintings like earlier series such as The Migration of the Negro (1940-41). Bar-b-que contains multiple vignettes in one composition, and can be read in and out of its windows and doors to convey the complex layered activities that are central to its story: the interior of the restaurant populated by seemingly isolated patrons and a barely visible cook, the central chef in the open kitchen partially obscured by blue windowpanes, the individuals in the foreground on the sidewalk, and the three windows that hint at the unseen lives above. Articulated in Lawrence’s strikingly modernist idiom, Bar-b-que speaks to the rich cultural traditions and social history of the African American experience.

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Provenance

Downtown Gallery, New York, New York
Oscar Serlin
Private Collection
Owings-Dewey Fine Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Private Collection
DC Moore Gallery, New York, New York (dealer)
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois, 2015

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Exhibition History

[Spring Exhibition]. Downtown Gallery, New York, New York, March 31‒April 24, 1943.

America: Painting a Nation, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia (organizers). Venue: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, November 9, 2013–February 8, 2014. [exh. cat.]

"The Color Line" African-American Artists and civil rights in the United States , Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France (organizers). Venue: Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France, October 4, 2016–January 15, 2017. [exh. cat.]

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Published References

Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois. Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Murals (1935-1999): A Catalogue Raisonné. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Text p. 68, cat. no. 42-16, ill. pl. 42-16 (color).

America: Painting a Nation. (exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, National Museum of Korea, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art). Sydney, Australia: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2013. Text pp. 27, 37, 216; ill. p. 217, cat. no. 76 (color).

Soutif, Daniel. The Color Line: Les Artistes Africains-Américains et la Ségrégation 1865-2016. (exh. cat. Musée du quai Branly). Paris: Flammiron, 2016. ill. p. 315 (color).

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