Walking through BART or through Muni in San Francisco, there would be little that could catch my eye on the way to my next destination. I couldn’t remember a single piece of art, or more commonly, advertising, that came my way, no matter how bold, unusual, or bright. But standing before the 1998 screen prints of New York in Transit by Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor Arts Center exhibition opening, I wonder what passengers on-the-go would think of the magnificent seventy-two foot long installation based inside the Times Square Subway Complex since 2001.
The subway centerpiece appears as a continuum when in tandem, its side-by-side arrangement enhancing the rectangular expansiveness of the two-part mosaic. At the Cantor, the two paintings run parallel to one another, like the two sides of a road. Miniature relative to the mosaic mural designed for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, this 1998 reproduction of New York in Transit I (1996) and New York in Transit II (1997), gouache on paper, calls attention to viewers with a power equal to that of its predecessor. Paradigmatic of his style of painting, Jacob Lawrence’s modernist abstractions boldly depict everyday city-dwellers riding public transportation.
Color bursts forth and forward. Vibrant bus riders of New York in Transit I face right, pulling our gaze as if moving along with the subway. The passengers lean either forward or back as they grasp firmly on to the safety poles. These poles create a panel-like effect. But rather than becoming more separate from one another, the passengers within the panels blend together in their one-dimensional shapes through a motley of beautiful greens, browns, reds, beiges, and blues. This blending becomes even more apparent in New York in Transit II, with only a single pole. Bus riders stretch their arms up to reach the overhead safety handles to create a similar paneling effect, but this time, with their bodies.
I probably wouldn’t be the first to confess that public transportation has always felt somehow isolating. Everyone on their phones, everyone looking down and away, trying as best as possible not to draw attention to oneself. But Jacob Lawrence’s New York in Transit proposes an entirely different world in which passengers are not merely passing one another, but are a part of one another. Despite the bold color contrasts in the figures and their surroundings, the abstractions appear unified by the movement that animates the piece. Here, there is unity, and community.
Could this world become our reality?
Public transportation is undeniably exclusive throughout U.S. history. A little short of fifty years prior to the creation of New York in Transit, activists leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott demanded the end to racial segregation on buses. Still today, luxury buses charging $6 a ride in San Francisco are charged with economic exclusion as modes of a mobile gentrification. But public transportation is not the only space that suffers from these inequalities. During the bus boycotts and the rise of the civil rights movement, a majority of African American artists struggled to have their artwork showcased at professional venues. Even more so than buses, museums become exclusive venues catering to the interests of those privileged with higher educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Whether I’m attempting to appreciate the brilliance of white on white canvas or staring into an abyss of abstract shapes and colors, I find art, particularly at museums, far from accessible. I perceive museums as exclusive entities, both for the artist and the viewer. Museum galleries often rely upon the support of patrons who become particularly influential in determining the advancement of the artist in the professional sphere. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Jacob Lawrence annually exhibited his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art with the support of numerous patrons who admired his art and helped him thrive in the mainstream U.S. art scene.
I find it difficult to appreciate art from a distance, when artifacts become caged, out of place, isolated from their original contexts, save for a few sentences to tell me what their stories are. But imagine my surprise at gazing upon New York in Transit, framed and away from its original context. Away from all the hustle-and-bustle of subway stations, I calmly stand before the piece without glancing at the time in wait for the next train. Ironically, the museum setting has allowed me a moment of pause to truly appreciate the work. Even still, I wonder what sort of reading of the painting the subway station might afford me.
As public transportation transformed cities, so did public art, democratizing access to beauty and representations of worlds such as those that New York in Transit attempts to create. The busy avenues of Broadway and 42nd Street of New York may not be the best location to reflect upon its magnificence, but for the few people awaiting the train instead of tirelessly in pursuit of the last one, it could offer a rare moment of appreciation.
New York in Transit (1998) can be found in what is now the largest collection of Jacob Lawrence’s work available in any museum. Currently featured at the Cantor Arts Center in Stanford, CA, Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor is a student-curated gallery created under the guidance of Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the Cantor’s Burton and Deedee McMurty Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. The 56 works by Jacob Lawrence and self-portrait by Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence are generous gifts from Lawrence’s friend, cardiologist Herbert J. Kayden and family.