One benefit of MoMA's historically grounded exhibition of The Migration Series is a broader look at Jacob Lawrence's work and the context in which he made it. Which includes floating this picture to the surface: Lawrence and fellow sailors posing with one of the paintings he made while serving in the US Coast Guard during WWII. [via @rebeccaonion and @thebenstreet]
There sure is a lot going on in that photo, and given the racial segregation and discrimination that still held sway in the US military during WWII, it feels frankly fake. But there it is. And it turns out Lawrence served on the USS Sea Cloud (IX-99), the first integrated ship in the Navy (and Coast Guard, obv) since the Civil War. IX-99 had once been the world's largest private yacht, the Hussar, and was designed by & built for Marjorie Merriweather Post and her husband EF Hutton, and later rechristened the Sea Cloud when Post married Joseph Davies. [The Sea Cloud is still in service as a crazy-luxe, old-school masted cruise ship, and every yacht-flaunting collector who hasn't ridden this thing up the Grand Canal for the Biennale should hang his head in rubber dinghy shame.]
Well, OK, this one's not lost: Embarkation or possibly Landing Craft, gouache and watercolor on board, Collection USCG Museum
Lawrence was already well-known as an artist when he was drafted in 1943, and his commanding officers recognized this, and made painting part of his official duties, first as a public relations specialist on the Sea Cloud, and then as a combat artist on the USS Gen. Richardson. Lawrence returned to civilian life in late 1945. His War Series paintings, created on a Guggenheim grant in 1946-7, are in the Whitney collection, and are on view right now on the 7th floor. But almost all the paintings he made during the war itself are missing.
Numbers vary, but it appears Lawrence completed at least 48 paintings while in the Coast Guard. Eight were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in October-November 1944, alongside the complete Migration Series. [This was the museum's first solo show for an African American artist.UPDATE: Actually, not. See note at bottom of the post.] The Coast Guard now has only two [above]. Another painting, signed "Jacob Lawrence, USCG," was donated to the Albright-Knox by dealer Martha Jackson's family in 1974. And I think that's where we are right now/the last 40 years.
A history written in the early 90s by Lt Commander Carlton Skinner [pdf], who conceived of the Sea Cloud crew integration experiment, mentions 17 paintings, with one surviving. Milton Brown's catalogue for the Whitney's 1974 Jacob Lawrence retrospective says Coast Guard records put the number at 48 paintings, with almost none of the titles or descriptions matching up to any of the photo documentation.
Seaman's Belt, 1945, was probably painted on the Gen Richardson, not the Sea Cloud. Martha Jackson Collection, Albright Knox Gallery
Skinner says the artwork got lost in the great demobilization shuffle after the war, when paintings just never came back or got tracked after the Coast Guard's traveling exhibitions. Brown says records for the works stop at 1961, though, and hypothesizes that they were scattered, uncatalogued, to be hung in various Coast Guard facilities. They could also have walked or been tossed out; Lawrence's intentionally flat style doesn't read as traditional, high-end Art, and his gouache on paper and panel might not hold up in a non-museum setting. I find it unlikely that no one has researched the paintings or tried to track them down in over 50 years, but so far, I'm coming up empty.
In any case, I'm posting the known images and titles on Lawrence's wartime paintings after the jump. Let's find these things, hm?
[CORRECTION Thanks to Anna Monahan of the Phillips Collection for pointing me to the actual first solo exhibition of an African American artist at MoMA: the 1937 show of sculptures by William Edmondson, a self-taught artist in Nashville. As it turns out, Edmondson's show was held at Rockefeller Center, in a temporary space during the construction of the Goodwin-Durell Stone building. It's amazing to me that I'd never heard of this period, or this space, even though I just now found a photo of it in Art in Our Time, a history of itself MoMA published in 2004. Will look into it.]
The Lost Wartime Paintings of Jacob Lawrence, by Capt. Carlton Skinner [uscg.mil, pdf]
1974 Whitney catalogue for Jacob Lawrence [archive.org]