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Feb. 27 Art Minute: Jacob Lawrence, 'Barber Shop'

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000), Barber Shop. Gouache on paper, 1946. 21 1/8 x 29 3/8 in. Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1975.15. Gallery 6

“When the subject is strong, simplicity is the only way to treat it.”—Jacob Lawrence

The barbershop has always occupied an essential place for men in African-American society.  Not simply a place to get a haircut, it is also a magnet for social interaction, a place to discuss issues of the day. While artist Jacob Lawrence maintained a connection to figurative subject matter throughout his career, he also absorbed Modernism’s tendency towards abstraction.  Despite its abstract qualities, Barber Shop is rich in detail, down to the tools of the barber’s trade, the metal footrests on the barber chairs, the hats and coats hanging on the coat rack, and the cigarette (a small bright white rectangle) dangling from one of the customers’ fingers and anchoring the center of the composition.

Through his placement of the six figures, Lawrence creates a visual rhythm in the composition that includes bridges, breaks, changes, and variations—all part of the translation of his love of jazz into a visual medium.