Jazz Saxophonist Claude Lawrence Debuts New ‘Porgy and Bess’-Inspired Paintings

The 80-year-old artist's work is on view at his inaugural show with his debut with Venus Over Manhattan.

Claude Lawrence, Summertime (2022). Courtesy the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

At 80 years old, jazz musician and self-taught painter Claude Lawrence is making his biggest and boldest paintings yet. These abstract visions are, at turns, ascendent and boisterous, but always inspired by the music that’s defined his life.  

Born in the South Side of Chicago in 1944, Lawrence doesn’t remember a life before art and music. “I wanted to draw when I was five years old,” he said in conversation a few weeks ago. Music flowed throughout his childhood, he recalls, reverberating in the streets of Chicago, one of the great jazz capitals of the world, as well as in his family’s home.  

a gallery room with a large blue and green abstract canvas

Claude Lawrence, Poor Robbins (2022.). Courtesy of the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York

“My brother played the trumpet. My mother had a piano. In those days, all good families had to have a piano,” he laughed. Lawrence, meanwhile, fell in love with the saxophone, and by 1968, he had set off for New York City, drawn to the dynamism of the music scene there. For decades after, Lawrence embraced the peripatetic life of a musician, touring jazz clubs across the country and around the world.

Painting never left his periphery, however. “All my friends were painters, Jack Whitten, Peter Bradley,” he said. Though he had dabbled in painting throughout his life, in 1986, Lawrence made his focus painting full-time. By the 1990s, he’d also begun spending time in Sag Harbor, a community with historically Black ties on the waterfront in Long Island, where he found the pace and environment conducive to painting. Lawrence has lived in Sag Harbor, on and off, over the years, embracing the quietude of seaside life. “A lot of the time, nothing is going on out there so you can do your work,” he laughed. 

He has done just that, over the years, devoting himself to his newest series, monumental abstractions inspired by Porgy and Bess, an epic tale rooted in Black American romance and struggle. First written as a novel, then as a play, by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, Porgy and Bess was famously adapted into an opera by George Gershwin in 1935. Set in the 1920s in Catfish Row, a Black fishing community in South Carolina, Porgy and Bess charts the triumphs and tragedies of Porgy, a disabled beggar, who pines after Bess, a striking young woman who is herself preyed on by the abusive men in her orbit.

Lawrence’s sweeping canvases are now on view in “Reflections on Porgy & Bess” at Venus Over Manhattan, in New York, the artist’s debut with the gallery, in a significant installation that spans the gallery spaces at both 35 & 55 Great Jones Street (through May 4).

an abstract painting in orange, yellow, reds. a sun appears to be setting and figures or buildings seem to crowd around it

Claude Lawrence, Sundown Town (2022).Courtesy of the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

In many ways, these paintings are a synthetic zenith of Lawrence’s lifelong passions for art and music. “Porgy and Bess is a rich story with characters so intertwined, they remind me of the people I knew growing up. It’s a story of tragedy that ends with heartbreak. I think of Gershwin’s opera on the level of a Greek tragedy in its strength and power,” said Lawrence.  

The 22 paintings in the show trace the narrative arc of Porgy and Bess with the work’s titles hinting at the narrative dramas unfolding. The canvases, often enrapturing in scale, range from joyful to violent in mood. To create these works, Lawrence painted intuitively, often with music in the background, and embracing improvisation, forms, and colors leading the way to the final image.

“It’s just magic,” he said of his process. “The painting takes me where it needs to go.” Certain art historical precedents come to mind, looking at the works, and Lawrence acknowledges his interest in Picasso’s navigation of abstract and recognizable forms.  

a gallery with large, horizontal canvas, abstract, with a blue blue background and flesh-colored abstract forms

Claude Lawrence, Upper Fifth Avenue (2022.). Courtesy of the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

One remarkable painting Sundown Town, shows a setting sun with buildings towering, and piling, above it ominously. The painting recalls the era of “sundown towns” in the United States, all-white communities that banned the presence of Black people after sunset. Other works, meanwhile, are titled directly after songs in the opera’s score. Summertime, a joyous canvas of yellows and blues, is the star work of the exhibition and is titled for the opera’s most famous song, an ode to languorous living which has been covered by artists such as Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.  

All in all, Lawrence does see a harmony between his music and his art. “What they have in common is me,” he said with a laugh, “I let it flow through me, the music and the painting, and out into the world.”  

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