Yesterday morning, less than half an hour before his new mural was ceremoniously unveiled at Howard University, painter Jacob Lawrence paid a solitary visit to the nearby art department to admire other artists' art.
No one else was there, and Lawrence took his time. He looked at Michael Auld's birds of welded steel, at Ed Love's abstract statues and at Frank Smith's brightly colored quilt of sewn and painted cloth. "This show makes me feel grand," he said. "It is dynamic, serious, passionate." His presence at Howard's 10th Annual Art Faculty Exhibition was peculiarly appropriate, for the artists represented there -- who have together made Howard's art department one of the finest in the land -- are in many ways his heirs.
Before he left for the unveiling at the Armour J. Blackburn University Center, Lawrence stopped to smile at at picture titled "Strike," a witty, swirling baseball scene that he himself had painted in 1949. Good as he was then, he is much better today. At 63, "Jake" Lawrence may be ranked, with painter Romare Bearden, among the most distinguished masters of Afro-American art.
His work has always been accessible, original, uncompromising, kind. though it is modernist in spirit (Lawrence seems an ally of the painter Stuart Davis), no one who admires his bright yet subtle colors, his complicated rhythms and interlocking forms, will fail to detect the pride that Lawrence takes in his blackness.
The new mural -- made of procelain on steel and 40 feet long -- shows him at his best. Titled "Exploration," it seems just right for a college: It is enormously sophisticated yet wholly unpretentious, humorous yet serious -- and almost indestructible. Its colors may be cleaned as easily, and will last as long, as the surface of a stove.
The large crowd filled the hallway. Dr. James E. Cheek, the president of Howard, prepared to pull the string that would unveil "Exploration." The day was bright and windy. Through the glass wall to the left, one could see the autumn's leaves whirling about in the brisk gusts; through the glass wall to the right, whitecaps could be seen speeding on their way across the bright blue of the reservoir. From the moment that the mural at last came into view, it seemed perfectly at home.
"Exploration" is both one work and a dozen, for it tells 12 different stories: the study of religion, political science, theater, law and agriculture, fine arts and philosophy, astronomy and music, medicine, math and history. Though each scene is given its own steel panel, the seams between the panels somehow speed the work along.
The colors are competely flat, but because the porcelain is layered, and because Lawrence here and there paints in strong black shawdows, his mural has the look of a rich relief. It is full of visual rhymes. The small scene of John Henry, the steel drivin' man, in the final panel is echoed by an image of a sculptor in the art scene: He is hammering another spike, for quite different reasons, into a block of stone. This is not art that one tires of, for it is not the sort of work one can read at once.
The $40,000 mural was donated to Howard by John S. DeBrew Jr., a trustee of the Mildred Andrews Fund of Cleveland, which put up the cash. In April, 1979, DeBrew and the Andrews fund also gave the Blackburn Center "A Bridge Across and Beyond," the large bronze by Richard Hunt that stands outside the door. And a third gift has been promised.DeBrew said yesterday that he has commissioned another major mural -- by Romare Bearden -- that will be installed there soon. DeBrew gave the Hunt sculpture in memory of his mother. He yesterday dedicated the Lawrence mural to "another fighting lady," the late educator Mary McLeod Bethune.