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Art: Jacob Lawrence, via PEM.
Missing Panel 28 from the “American Struggle” series as shown at PEM, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. This panel and one other were recently found in New York City.

Have you been following the story of the missing panels of a major work by African American master Jacob Lawrence? It was exciting enough when one missing panel was discovered in New York in the past year, but two? In different homes?

Hilarie M. Sheets at the New York Times reported on the latest developments.

“When a nurse living on the Upper West Side checked an app for neighborhood bulletins last fall, she learned about the recent discovery of a Jacob Lawrence painting in an apartment a few blocks away. It had turned out to be one of five panels long missing from the artist’s groundbreaking 30-panel series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” which was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, right across Central Park.

“The name Jacob Lawrence rang a bell. She walked over to look more closely at a small figurative painting on her dining room wall, where it had hung for two decades, its signature barely legible. It was a gift from her mother-in-law, who had taped a 1996 New York Times profile on Lawrence to the back. The nurse, who had only glanced at the back while dusting, learned from the app that Lawrence was a leading modernist painter of the 20th century — and one of the few Black artists of his time to gain broad recognition in the art world.

“Could lightning strike twice in just two weeks’ time? The woman told the story to her 20-year-old son, who had studied art in college and quickly Googled the Met’s exhibition. He found a murky black-and-white photograph of their very painting being used as a place holder for Panel 28. It was titled ‘Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840—115,773,’ and the wall label read: ‘location unknown.’

“ ‘It didn’t look like anything special, honestly,’ said the owner. … ‘I didn’t know I had a masterpiece.’ …

“After she had connected the dots, she called the Met, but her messages went unreturned. By day three, her son suggested they just head over on his motorbike. His mother recalled:

‘I grabbed a young kid at the information desk in the lobby and said, “Listen, nobody calls me back. I have this painting. Who do I need to talk to?” ‘

“Eventually, an administrator from the modern and contemporary art department met them downstairs and asked the owner to email her photos of the work — which she did on the spot, from her phone.

“By that evening, Randall Griffey and Sylvia Yount, the co-curators of the Met’s Lawrence show, and Isabelle Duvernois, the Met’s paintings conservator, were making their second trip to an Upper West Side apartment in the space of two weeks to verify the authenticity of a Lawrence painting that had not been seen publicly since 1960.

“The nurse, who has agreed to lend her painting for the last two stops of the traveling exhibition, was granted anonymity because she said she was concerned for her family’s security living with a now-valuable artwork. The panel will debut March 5 at the Seattle Art Museum in ‘Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle’ and remain on view through May 23.

“Before the discovery of Panel 16, first reported by The New York Times on Oct. 21, the Met’s team had known only the work’s title and subject matter — Shays’ Rebellion — but had no image to help authenticate it. … With Panel 28, they had a low-quality photograph of the work, which had been exhibited in the late 1950s at the gallery of Lawrence’s dealer Charles Alan.

“The painting, in vivid red, gold and brown tempera on hardboard, shows two women draped in shawls flanking a man in a broad-brimmed hat, their heads bowed and oversized hands clasped toward the center of the image. The panel, evoking old-world travelers, was inspired by immigration statistics in Richard B. Morris’s 1953 ‘Encyclopedia of American History,’ part of Lawrence’s exhaustive research on the foundational contributions of immigrants, Blacks and Native Americans to the building of the nation. (He refers specifically in the title to the number of immigrants who came to the United States during the early years of the 19th century.) …

“The owner of Panel 28 doesn’t know how her mother-in-law — who was an immigrant herself and raised her family on the Upper West Side while amassing an eclectic array of inexpensive artworks — acquired the painting. ‘I have a feeling my mother-in-law didn’t pay much more than $100,’ she said.”

More at the New York Times, here.

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