Collection Spotlight: Builders No. 3, Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence is considered one of the most influential African American painters and printmakers of the 20th century. At the age of thirteen, Lawrence moved from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to New York City, where he began attending art classes sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, and later at the the Harlem Art Workshop and the American Artists’ School. By age 24, he was the first African American represented in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Throughout his career, Lawrence focused on themes of African American history and contemporary life, including the slavery, Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Movement.

For Builders No. 3, Lawrence looked to modern stylistic idioms, such as cubism, abstraction, and urban architecture. The work shows three men laboring over a construction project and passersby on a city street. It draws on themes Lawrence had been exploring for many years, and his new exploration in the technique of screenprinting was a natural transition. The dynamic forms of the construction workers in action, along with the various materials and tools of their trade—hammers, drills, scaffolding—create an overall jazzy effect that reads as rhythmic, vital, and contemporary.

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