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DISTILLERS OF ESSENCES

The intuitive creations of Grandma Moses and Jacob Lawrence spanned a century, one leading into, the other extending, a major movement in mid 20th century art: the Andy Warhol perspective.

Odd, the person who came to mind one recent day while viewing the naive paintings of Grandma Moses and sophisticated prints of Jacob Lawrence.

Andy Warhol.

Odd because Moses was the epitome of conservative, establishment values in her day - unlike provocateur Warhol - and odd because Lawrence was the antithesis of the cynical aesthetic eschewed by the celebrity artist. Yet pop (Pop!) into my head Warhol did, like one of those silver balloons he floated through his famous Factory studio.

There are no Warhols in "Grandma Moses: Grandmother to the Nation" and "Jacob Lawrence: Three Series of Prints" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. So injecting a no-show into the discussion might seem like fishing for red herring. But Moses and Lawrence need context, especially when these vastly different artists are hung in proximity (though separately, it's important to add).

Between them, Grandma Moses (1860-1961) and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) span the 20th century. She was an elderly farm woman, a self-taught painter. He was a recognized talent before he was 20 and well-trained. Both were figurative artists, he purposefully swimming against abstract currents, she unaware of any movements new or old.

At century's fulcrum is Warhol, who made an indelible imprint on American art starting in the 1960s. Moses died in 1961, rich and famous, just as Warhol was gearing up to be rich and famous. Lawrence, an already established painter at that point, was turning seriously to printmaking, as Warhol would do.

Grandma Moses

So let's start with Grandma Moses. If she had been a little younger, or Andy Warhol a little older, they might have been great pals, having in common a native shrewdness and respect for marketing.

For example, Andrew Warhola and Anna Mary Robertson Moses both answered to "stage" names invented for publicity possibilities. Predating Warhol by 20 years, she began selling, with cheerful indiscrimination, reproduction rights to purveyors of fabric, tablewear, greeting cards, Bisquick and, weirdest of all, lipstick.

But Moses in the end was an entirely different animal from Warhol and deserves her due. She was an original. We're more familiar today with folk and self-taught art as a genre, and it certainly has academic validation it did not in Moses' day. She left many scholars cold, but she struck a deep vein of feeling among the public, this tiny old lady, full of spunk and common sense, who didn't let all the attention go to her head, who created understandable art.

She was discovered by a New York dealer who saw her paintings at a small regional art show in upstate New York where she lived (more like country fair; her jams and jellies sold better than her paintings). Charmed, he set about shopping her around the big city scene. It was 1940, and she shot to fame at the astonishing age of 80.

She began painting only three years earlier, when most women in her situation would have been worn out or dead from years of hard farm work and raising children. Only five of her 10 children lived past infancy. She was the daughter of a farmer, minimally educated, hired out to another farm at 12, marrying a co-hireling at 27 and setting up their own farm. Widowed in her 50s, she continued working the farm with one of her sons.

She took pleasure in sewing and other handwork, embellishing her children's clothes. It was the only outlet for a woman who had shown an interest in artistic self-expression as a child. The difficulties and griefs of her life are written between the lines; she took what came without complaint, often with joy. You see it in the paintings she began creating when arthritis forced her to abandon embroidery in her seventh decade, at the suggestion of her sister.

Landscape after landscape records the passing seasons and the surge of community life. Though the vistas are often sweeping, everything is compressed. The distant hills and mountains are stacked and packed, meeting roads and fields in a downward tumble that always ends with a neighborhood of houses and people.

If read literally, their logistics are impossible. The humans and animals are practically falling over each other in Sugaring Off, for example. Proportions, perspectives are all wrong; doors are too small and people too large. Nothing unfolds; everything happens at once.

Everyone looks happy. The dogs and horses smile. That's true even in paintings that hint at the reality of farming: the grueling work of haying, the sweat and grime of horseshoing.

Moses wasn't interested in painting reality. Anyway, reality was not what most people wanted in art during the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Moses' America was a place of continuity and goodness. The conception might have been sugarcoated by Moses but the delivery was not. It had honesty and directness, unvarnished by technique.

She would start at the top of a board or piece of canvas and work down, probably much as she cleaned her kitchen. Her compositions are pastiches of memory or historic occasions she had heard of. She sometimes traced her forms. (So did Warhol.) She loved pure, unmixed colors and used them boldly, intuiting the value of dramatic contrast. She liked to sprinkle snowscapes with glitter. The word kitsch might be applicable. (And Warholian.)

Moses' popularity validated an unschooled school of artists who took up their tools without the intervention of a larger world. They were the outsiders. Moses gave them a face and name the public could embrace. Today we view her in more studied ways. Outsider, Naive, Self-Taught - whatever you want to call it. Moses holds her own among newbies jostling for attention. She painted what she knew and, more important, what she believed.

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence could not be farther removed from Grandma Moses experientially. He grew up in Harlem, in the early 20th century a mecca for black intellectuals and artists. He was too young to enjoy the full flowering of the Harlem Renaissance, and many of its leading lights had left New York by 1940. But the creative people who remained provided a framework and focus for young Lawrence.

He had early and steady success, which is not to say his artistic trajectory was straight or easy. To choose a narrative style that was not only figurative but a form of storytelling invited claims of mere illustration. Harder still, he and his subjects were black. Enough said.

Yet his talent was such that even if one had no interest in the stories, even if one preferred abstraction, there was much to respect - to love - in Lawrence's paintings. Such refined figuration, almost cubist. Such colorations, so Matisse.

Printmaking was a natural extension of the paintings, his style perfect for translation, especially as silkscreens that emphasized flat planes and dramatic blocks of color. He didn't get into prints until he was 46, in the 1960s, and he benefited from a resurgence in their popularity. (Warhol was also experimenting with silkscreens at that time.)

The three series of Lawrence prints featured at the Ringling are just terrific: Genesis, Hiroshima and Toussaint L'Ouverture. (Far better, technically, than most of Warhol's prints.)

In telling the Genesis story, Lawrence uses as a central focus the narrator of the story, a fired-up preacher who exhorts and gesticulates and prays his way through the series. He and his congregation change positions in each, and the colors change, too, suggesting passing time and shifting emotions. Almost as an afterthought, we notice the four arched windows in the background. And their changing vistas, each a representation of a verse. They're black for No. 1, "In the beginning all was void," and swarming with animals against a blue background for No. 5, "And God created all the fowls of the air and fishes of the sea."

Really clever and a suggestion that how we learn is as important as what we learn. Also in each print is a tool box placed unobtrusively on the floor, a reminder that all creation is hard work. (Lawrence, by the way, loved tools and collected them.)

Hiroshima is a series of eight screen prints to illustrate a 1983 special edition of John Hersey's book Hiroshima, first published in 1946. They are stylistically identifiable immediately as work by Lawrence, but they are atypical in their muted, dead colors and the disturbing depictions of people with bloody skulls for heads.

The Toussaint L'Ouverture series, completed near the end of his life, is masterful. The 15 prints were based on paintings Lawrence completed in 1938; he culled and reworked some of the elements and enlarged them as prints to greater dramatic effect. They tell the story in grand strokes of the Haitian slave who rose to revolutionary leader, was betrayed and arrested by Napoleon and died in a French prison. Lawrence's visual interpretation conveys all the action, chaos, heroism and tragedy of the actual story.

The main colors are not the expected emerald green for the countryside and azure blue for the sea. Instead, the water is murky and sludgy, the greens are off. Mountains and beaches are gray and tan. Everything looks like camouflage. There are bursts of brighter colors, often red, white and blue for the republic's flag, or yellow, like flickers of hope. Mostly though, the series foreshadows and embodies defeat. Through restrained color and form, with classical composition, Toussaint L'Ouverture has the grandeur and scope of a Greek tragedy, told with pictures instead of words.

That's really Lawrence's gift, one that grew more powerful as he aged, to strip a story of extraneous detail and crystallize its essence. It made the subjects of his stories larger than life. Warhol was also good at elimination and the two artists might have - should have - appreciated their mutual interest in portraying people as reductive elements. One of the big differences between them was that Warhol used it to empty the image of anything but its surface appearance. There's no mystery in those faces of Marilyn and Jackie. There's plenty of mystery in Toussaint's shadowed face. He looks from another world, one few would be stalwart enough to enter.

Is it fair to compare him with Marilyn? Or either of them with the tiny villagers with pin-dot eyes and mouths of Grandma Moses? They're all forms of exaggeration and, in their own ways, ideological declarations of their times. If we can understand who Warhol was and what he did, we can appreciate more fully the art of Moses and Lawrence, who bracketed him.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

IF YOU GO

The designs of their times

"Grandma Moses: Grandmother to the Nation" is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through April 13. "Jacob Lawrence: Three Series of Prints" is on view through May 4. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $19 adults, $16 seniors, $6 children ages 6 to 17. Includes art museum, Ca d'Zan historic mansion, Circus Museum and gardens. Free admission Monday to art museum only. (941) 359-5700.

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