As a social realist who favored abstract modes of expression, Jacob Lawrence depicted the African American experience and the world around him with vivacity and energy. His images reflect his keen observation of the sights and sounds of Harlem, and he uses simplified forms, pattern, repetition, and bold color to express the mood and meaning of each scene. While Lawrence is well known for his 1941 Migration of the Negro series that follows the exodus of African Americans from the South to the North after World War I, he began to turn away from historical themes in the late 1940s to focus on subjects dealing with labor, construction, and building. In the artist’s fascination with the shapes of tools and other implements used in the building trades, these later works put emphasis on pictorial devices—such as line, shape, color and space—to heighten the viewers’ experience of subject matter.
In his late composition, On the Way, (1990), Lawrence captures African Americans as they move through the streets with his usual stylistic attention to detail and, at the same time, telling abstract forms. At first glance it is difficult to determine what is happening in this scene, as we see flat shapes and areas of vibrant color that create a brilliant overall design. Heightening the abstract quality of the composition, Lawrence subverts traditional perspective, where bold colors occupy the foreground and paler colors occupy the background. Instead, he applies saturated and vibrant colors not only in the foreground but also in the background. Bright blue and red in the figures located in the foreground are repeated in the window and brick wall in the background. Similarly, yellow objects--boards and other equipment related to the building trade--are carried by the foreground figures and are echoed in the yellow ladder in the upper right. Thus, the tonalities in the foreground and background merge to create shifting, incongruous space, emphasizing the tensions between the picture surface and implied background, and enhancing the overall energy of the scene.
While the colorful, animated design first draws the viewer into the composition, closer examination of On the Way reveals clearly defined figures and objects. Created after the height of the Civil Rights movement, Lawrence shows men and women moving quickly through the streets, on their way to their various destinations. Implicit in this activity is the notion of the African American community on its way to a better future—with the tools for building it in their hands.