Art Beat: Check out Lawrence paintings at Krannert Art Museum

One of the most significant American artists of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence was an extraordinary storyteller with his paintbrush but a man of few words in person, says Edmund Gaither, who knew the artist.

In a talk Jan. 24 at the University of Illinois, Gaither even compared Lawrence, who died in 2000, to Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who's known for his silence during court hearings.

At public meetings, "(Lawrence) rarely had anything to say, but by his presence, he altered the space a little bit," Gaither said shortly before Lawrence's remarkable "Toussaint L'Ouverture Series" opened at the UI's Krannert Art Museum in Champaign.

Lawrence's narrative sense, though, gave the world art from which our understanding of human possibility can grow, said Gaither, the director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and a special consultant at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

We see that strong narrative sense in the L'Ouverture Series of 40 paintings depicting episodes from the Haitian leader's life.

Lawrence used a limited range of pure colors to define his forms and to achieve a consistency and rhythm among the paintings, Gaither said. As a result, they tell L'Ouverture's story with gravity, clarity, emotional force and beauty, he said.

Indeed! I urge all of you — even if you are not interested in visual art — to see these paintings, a formative work in Lawrence's career. They will be at Krannert until April 28; the museum is open from 2 to 5 p.m. today if you feel like a quick visit before all the Super Bowl activities.

Lawrence created the series when he was 20 to pay tribute to the hero of the Haitian revolution who in the late 18th century defeated Napoleon and drove him from Haiti.

Gaither places the L'Ouverture Series squarely in the genre of history paintings, which typically are grand in concept, distinctive in points of view and intended for public consumption.

Lawrence departed from that in the size of his paintings — 111/2 by 19 inches — but not in their scope and ambition. "He reduced the project to one that could be arranged on the floor of his artist's studio," Gaither said. "The brilliance of Lawrence's original concept remains underappreciated."

In his informative lecture, Gaither also gave context for the series, saying Lawrence created it in the late 1930s, when "Haiti held an extraordinary place in the American imagination."

At the time, Lawrence also was deeply involved in black history and had heard someone at the Harlem YMCA give a talk on L'Ouverture.

In his series, Lawrence, himself a product of the Harlem Renaissance, depicted the Haitian leader from birth to death. In one painting, L'Ouverture as a child sees an enraged planter striking a slave. Another shows him as a boy, fleeing into the tropical forest.

Another shows L'Ouverture, a fine horseman, on his white steed, which seems to be coming at the viewer. The most famous painting in the series, according to Gaither, is a highly stylized portrait of L'Ouverture as a general.

The saddest depicts a despondent L'Ouverture lying on a bench against a wall in a castle in France, where he was deported in 1802 after being forced to resign as governor of Haiti by forces sent by Napoleon to restore French authority in the former colony. The hero of Haiti died in 1803 in France.

In NYC

— Jonathan Fineberg, a UI professor emeritus of art history, will sign copies of his new book, "A Troublesome Subject: The Art of Robert Arneson," from 7 to 8 p.m. Feb. 15 at 192 Books at 192 10th Ave., New York.

Selected paintings, sculptures and drawings by Arneson (1930-92), a California-based artist and sculptor, also will be on view through March 30 at the George Adams Gallery, 525 W. 26th St.

— Urbana resident Ben Grosser's "Facebook Demetricator," which I wrote about in this column, will be included in the group exhibition, "The Public Private," from Thursday through April 17 at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons The New School for Design, 2 W. 13th St.

The curator is Christiane Paul, who is probably the (or at least one of the) world's foremost curators of new media, Grosser told me. She's an adjunct curator of new media at the Whitney and a professor at the New School.

For more on the show, see http://www.newschool.edu/pressroom/pressreleases/2012/PublicPrivate.htm.

New member

The Public Art League has a new member on its board of directors: Whitney E.W. Hartman, a UI alumna with a bachelor's degree in political science. After graduation, she worked for the I Hotel and Conference Center in sales, marketing and operations. She is now finishing her thesis for her master's degree in bioethics from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Matisse show

I saw a reference recently on Twitter to the French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) being a dead white male and so an easy draw for art museums. But I still enjoy his paintings. So I was glad to hear that the Indianapolis Museum of Art will open an exhibition this fall of his paintings and other works.

It will be on view from Oct. 11 to Jan. 12, 2014. The exhibition is drawn almost entirely from the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection, which is one of the most comprehensive collections of Matisse's art in the world.

Extended, again

Last week, I wrote about Curtis Pettyjohn, a professional actor who graduated from the UI's theater program and later lived in Champaign-Urbana.

He's appearing as Fred Mertz in the "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" musical at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place in Chicago. The musical recently was extended yet again, for another two weeks, until March 17.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

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