FOR nearly two decades, critics have called Jacob Lawrence, 43, "the top U.S. Negro painter"—a race-conscious title that tends to blur his individual style. While the dominant school of abstract art has steadily fled the image, Lawrence goes right on telling simple, straightforward stories. If any artist or style ever influenced him, he cannot quite pin down who or what or when. He has always been his own man, and his very lack of complexity makes him something of a puzzle. "Painting is like handwriting," he says. "Every person has his own style, and my style is just something I do."...

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