(The Cleveland Museum of Art; Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund; The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle; Artists Rights Society)

Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917)

Fulton and Nostrand, 1958

On view at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Great Works, In Focus

Inside out

Jacob Lawrence painted the public and private rhythms of a Brooklyn street

Jacob Lawrence’s “Fulton and Nostrand,” 1958. On view at the Cleveland Museum of Art. (The Cleveland Museum of Art; Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund; The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle; Artists Rights Society)

“I only go out,” wrote Lord Byron, “to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.”

I sometimes wonder if Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) wasn’t a little Byronic. When he “went out,” he painted so well. His stylized, anonymized crowd pictures perfectly conjure the idea of the hive mind: the buzz and whir of collective intelligence. But there remains in all his jaunty, swaying scenes of communal life a secretive, feline quality, as if he were determined to retain a right to solitude, to singularity.

In the foreground of “Fulton and Nostrand,” which hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a cat. It casts a spiky, syncopated shadow, like a chord cluster by Thelonious Monk. The creature’s neck appears connected to a taut black line that my eyes initially read as a leash, so that I almost mistook it for a dog. But no: it’s unmistakably a cat, and that line resembling a leash is actually a shadow cast by a walking stick.

The stick’s handle is hooked around the forearm of a woman who grips her daughters’ shoulders as, under a cop’s eye, they negotiate the gorgeous anarchy at the intersection of Fulton and Nostrand streets, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s the 1950s.

Lawrence’s scenes of everyday life tend to be modestly scaled (this one is 24 by 30 inches, quite large for him) but they’re dense with life. His vision was kaleidoscopic, attentive to peculiarities and always a little opaque. Instead of being transparent and airy, like a view through a freshly washed window, they’re airless, angular, slightly resistant.

The medium is part of it. Lawrence painted in tempera, a fast-drying, egg-based medium that binds colored pigments and has none of oil paint’s translucency. But the bigger part is Lawrence’s sense of pictorial rhythm — his own, wholly original adaptation of Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism.

Life itself — being alive — has a rhythm. It derives from all its gathered moments of resistance and flow. The dynamic is fueled in part by the tension between inner life and company (Byron’s “being alone” and “going out”). Lawrence painted this rhythm.

Standing in front of “Fulton and Nostrand,” you first take in the pattern of forms, colors and shapes, and you see that it’s modern. It emerged, that is, from a period in art history when flatness, colors and shapes took precedence over narrative and illusionism.

But Lawrence yields only so much to the prevailing taste for abstraction. He loved people. He loved street life. He loved narrative, psychology and secrets. All of which he squeezed into this picture.

There’s a lot going on. Notice the stripes — little bursts of optical intensity scattered across the left half of the picture. Appreciate the jazzy interplay between blue shapes and red. The windows in the building have jiggled free. The picture itself is divided (but not in the middle) by a red streetlamp. And the scale is out of whack.

That’s the abstract part of it. Now notice the strange feeling between the couple on the left. The woman with red hair has her hand through the man’s arm. Her body is tilted oddly, and she seems to cast a questioning glance his way. He looks tense; his hand holds a cigarette. What bombshell has he just dropped, feigning casualness?

But Lawrence resists our curiosity: he distracts us with store signs for a pawnshop, a florist, a place to hire or purchase tuxedos. Through a window, a man can be seen helping a customer into a jacket. In the foreground another man in a tan suit carries a brightly colored bird cage, replete with green bird.

A lot of postwar art that was self-consciously modern became more and more reductive, distilling experience and sensation into crystalline visions that became emptier even as they became bigger.

Lawrence said no. It doesn’t have to be like that. Life is complex. His small, hard, busy and astonishingly artful paintings reflect that complexity, even as they capture the dance of life: the rhythm of yielding and obstruction, block and flow, shouting and silence, cats and company.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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