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Modern African American Artists


The African American art movement of the 20th and 21st centuries has been a powerful force in the art world, with several artists making their mark and creating works that have left a lasting impression. This essay will compare and contrast the artwork and biographical details of three African American artists: Mark Bradford, Jacob Lawrence, and Mickalene Thomas. It will also discuss some of the themes common to their body of work, as well as specific subjects, art materials, and working methods that these artists focus on. This essay will explore the unique contributions that each of these artists has made to the art world.


Mark Bradford, Jacob Lawrence, and Mickalene Thomas are three contemporary African American artists who use abstraction in their artwork. They each draw on their personal and political experiences to explore the human experience, creating visually appealing and thought-provoking paintings. All three artists have received critical acclaim for their works, presented in numerous exhibitions worldwide.

In terms of their artwork, the three artists are similar in their use of abstraction and the expressive power of their works. They all use various materials, from painting to collage to photography, to create complex and visually dynamic artworks. Mark Bradford’s works often utilize discarded materials to create abstract compositions that explore themes of identity, history, and social inequality. Jacob Lawrence uses bold colors, simplified forms, and a narrative approach to painting. Mickalene Thomas’s works combine painting, photography, and collage to create vibrant, colorful artworks exploring femininity and the female experience.

Regarding their biographical details, all three artists have had successful careers. Their artworks were featured in renowned galleries and museums globally. They all have a solid commitment to social justice and have used their works to explore issues of inequality and identity. Additionally, all three artists have been recognized for their artwork through numerous awards and grants, including the MacArthur Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the United States Artists Fellowship.


Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford is an American artist known for his large-scale abstract paintings and multimedia installations. He was born in 1961 in Los Angeles, California, and was raised in a working-class family in the south-central region of the city. After earning his bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts in 1997, he exhibited his works in galleries throughout the United States and abroad.

Mark Bradford was inspired to become an artist by his mother, who collected discarded materials from flea markets and yard sales to create art from them. He was also inspired by the urban environment of his home city of Los Angeles and its surrounding area, which he often depicts in his artwork. Mark Bradford uses urban debris, generally from remnants of informal economic networks that sprang up in low-income neighborhoods. Bradford is the son of hairdressers and grew up in Los Angeles. He started using things he found at hair salons, such as hair colour, permanent paper rectangles, and bobby pins. After first focusing on prints and collages, he eventually branched out into film, installation, and photography.

Bradford creates a sophisticated grid in (Untitled), a.k.a. Gwen, 2005–06, evoking a city map’s lively and often frenetic topology. Bradford’s studio is located in South Central Los Angeles. Rather than utilizing traditional media like painting or pencil and paper with exact precision in a modernist grid, he uses found materials like tissue paper from local beauty parlors and flyers advertising local jobs and legal services. He uses various physical techniques to create such effects, including sanding, ripping, bleaching, and deteriorating the piece’s surface. Bradford’s ephemeral materials weathered through use like outdoor billboards and signs, highlighting their transient nature as objects whose purposes shifted over time.

Bradford’s work often draws from his experience of growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. His paintings are abstract and highly textured, often utilizing newsprint, paint, and found objects. Bradford’s work often explores themes of identity and social inequality. He is also interested in the relationship between art and architecture and often incorporates architectural elements into his artwork.

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence (born September 7, 1917; died June 9, 2000) was the first black American whose work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When Lawrence was thirteen, he and his siblings relocated to New York from Atlantic City, New Jersey. So that her son Lawrence would have something constructive to do, Lawrence’s mother signed him up for painting courses in Harlem. The young artist at the time enjoyed drawing crayon replicas of the patterns on his family’s carpet, and one of his art professors took notice.

At sixteen, Lawrence abandoned his formal education and began working at a laundry and printing company while still taking painting lessons at the Harlem Art Workshop. Charles Alston, who ran these programs, encouraged the adolescent to start taking painting lessons at the Harlem Community Art Center. Lawrence was given salaried employment there and was able to learn from the likes of Henry Bannarn and other prominent Harlem Renaissance painters. Lawrence married fellow Savage student Gwendolyn Knight in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard the following year. Throughout his service in the Coast Guard, he kept up his artistic pursuits.

Jacob Lawrence is best known for his series of narrative paintings that visually documented the Great Migration of African-Americans from the Southern United States to the North. His works are characterized by bold colors and simplified forms that often depict everyday scenes of African-American life. Lawrence’s most famous series of paintings is The Migration Series (1940–41). This series of 60 paintings tell the story of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North through vignettes. The paintings range from depictions of rural Southern life to urban industrial scenes in the North. The series was groundbreaking for its time in its narrative form and expression of African-American life.

Another important series of Lawrence’s work is the Toussaint L’Ouverture Series (1945-47). This series of paintings chronicles the life of the Haitian revolutionary leader who led the revolution against slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. The series comprises 15 paintings depicting a scene from L’Ouverture’s life. Lawrence’s use of color and form in this series is often compared to the work of the Fauvists.

Lawrence’s work has had a lasting and profound impact on art. In addition to the impact of his works on the history and representation of African-Americans, Lawrence’s work has inspired many contemporary artists. His bold use of color, simplified forms, and narrative approach to painting continue to influence the work of many artists today.

Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas is an American artist known for her large-scale paintings and mixed media works. She was born in 1971 in Camden, New Jersey, and is a graduate of Yale University. Thomas’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. She is widely considered one of the most important contemporary African American artists.

Mickalene Thomas lives and works in New York City, where she is recognized for her intricate paintings covered with rhinestones and bright acrylic paints. Her bold paintings of African-American women romanticize their strength and sexuality in a manner evocative of the Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s, for which she has become renowned. Through her art, she questions and builds upon the conventional understanding of what constitutes beauty in the Modern era. Her art takes cues from both Pop Art and pop culture. Thomas draws her extensive knowledge of art history and landscape and portraiture traditions in her work. Thomas was in Pratt Institute around 2000, earning a B.A. in Fine Arts. She also received M.A. in Fine Arts in 2002 from Yale University. She also went to Southern Cross University for her international studies.

Several exhibitions of Thomas’s work have been held in different parts of the USA. She has shown her work at the MoMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Dumbo Arts Center, and the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum. Mickalene Thomas was a resident of the Studio Museum in Harlem and Yale University as an artist. In 2011 many people spoke about Thomas’s Odalisque series, her big milestone. Thomas has also written on women in foreign settings and the meanings they represent. FBI/Serial Portraits is one of her most peculiar pieces (2008). This piece played with the conventions of institutional photography by using mug pictures of incarcerated Black American women.

The artwork of contemporary American artist Mickalene Thomas is well-known for its collages of acrylic, rhinestones, and enamel depicting African-American women and celebrities. Thomas’ work, which is often photo-based, draws inspiration from Western painting and the highly sexualized blaxploitation films of the 1970s. The artist, who lists Romare Bearden and Carrie Mae Weems as early inspirations, uses appropriated material to discuss topics such as sexism, racism, beauty, and her life and childhood memories. A notable addition to her portfolio is the official First Lady portrait of Michelle Obama, which can be seen hanging at the National Portrait Gallery.

Thomas’s work often has a powerful feminist message. She is particularly interested in exploring themes of gender, race, and identity. Her work often incorporates elements of photography, collage, and painting and often incorporates references to popular culture and art history. Thomas is also interested in exploring the relationship between beauty and power and often incorporates elements of glamour and fashion into her work.


Mark Bradford, Jacob Lawrence, and Mickalene Thomas are three renowned artists whose African American heritage heavily influences their work. They all explore themes of identity, self-knowledge, and the shared experiences of African Americans through their art. By incorporating elements of their personal histories, Bradford, Lawrence, and Thomas create works that celebrate their African American culture and heritage. They also address issues of politics, race, and social justice. All three artists use bright colors, bold patterns, and striking compositions, allowing them to capture a range of emotions and messages. Through their work, Bradford, Lawrence, and Thomas demonstrate the importance of personal narratives, the power of art, and the strength of the African American experience.

Subjects, Art Materials, and Working Methods

Mark Bradford often draws upon the history of his hometown, Los Angeles, to inform his work. He is particularly interested in the social and political struggles of the city, such as racial segregation, police brutality, and urban development. He also draws upon personal experiences, such as his mother’s illness and death, and his experience growing up in a working-class family. Bradford primarily uses found materials such as billboards, paper, cardboard, and fabric to create his works. He combines these materials with a variety of media, including paint, charcoal, glitter, and wax. He often incorporates everyday items such as twine, string, and nails into his works. Bradford generally begins his works with an abstract concept or idea. From there, he layers and builds upon the materials he has collected to create his works. He often tears or partially destroys elements of his works to create a desired effect and incorporates collage techniques to add texture. In addition, he often works on a large scale to reflect the grandeur of the city, as well as its struggles.

Jacob Lawrence is best known for his narrative paintings, which often explore the African-American experience. His signature style is vibrant and dynamic, composed of abstract forms and bold colors. Lawrence often used tempera, gouache, and oil paint for his works, as well as paper collage. He often drew inspiration from his own experiences and those of his family, as well as the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement. Lawrence’s work often includes themes of struggle and perseverance, and he was an avid documentarian of African-American history. His subjects range from historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, to everyday scenes of urban life. His working methods included sketching and painting from life, as well as using source material such as photographs and newspaper clippings. He often worked in series, creating a unified body of work.

Thomas work subjects included African American women, African American identity, self-portraits, and domestic interiors. Art Materials used were Acrylic paint, rhinestones, enamel, and collage. In working methods, Thomas often uses a grid to create her compositions, and she often builds up her surfaces with a variety of materials to create a three dimensional effect. She often references art historical paintings and works with a diverse range of materials, including found objects and fabrics. She also frequently uses photography to document her works. Thomas’s work often incorporates elements of photography, collage, and painting and incorporates references to popular culture and art history. She is also interested in exploring the relationship between beauty and power and often incorporates elements of glamour and fashion into her work.


Mark Bradford, Jacob Lawrence, and Mickalene Thomas are three important contemporary African American artists whose works have greatly impacted the art world. Through their works, they explore themes of identity, self-knowledge, and the shared experiences of African Americans. While their works share commonalities in terms of their use of abstraction, bright colors, and bold patterns, each artist has a unique approach to creating their art. Their works reference their personal and political experiences, as well as their African American culture and heritage. The artworks of Bradford, Lawrence, and Thomas demonstrate the power of art to capture emotions and convey powerful messages, as well as the importance of personal narratives and the strength of the African American experience.


Art21. (2022, October 26). Mark Bradford — Art21.

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Americanart. (n.d.). Jacob Lawrence. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (n.d.). Jacob Lawrence | The Shoemaker | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Valentine, V. L. (2017, January 17). Mickalene Thomas envisions first lady Michelle Obama. Culture Type.


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