Bearden retrospective leaps over race’s barriers

Special to The Times

The grand and stirring exhibition of the works of Romare Bearden, which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington last week, is far more than a retrospective. It is a celebration -- a celebration of the art establishment’s anointment of this African American painter and collagist into the highest ranks of American artists.

There has often been a tendency to lump African American artists into a special and lesser place -- as genre painters of black life. Bearden, who died in 1988 at the age of 76, always called on his African American colleagues not to limit themselves in this way. “The Negro artist,” he said, “must come to think of himself not primarily as a Negro artist, but as an artist.” Yet, as Bearden often complained, the American art establishment did not think the same way. For those with influence in the art world, he said, “the Negro artist is usually not ... on the scene.”

There is no doubt that Bearden is now “on the scene.” The current exhibition is only the sixth major retrospective that the National Gallery of Art has organized for an artist who worked in the second half of the 20th century. The others were Georgia O’Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko and Henry Moore. After leaving Washington, the Bearden exhibition goes on to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.


Although he never achieved the popularity and name recognition of O’Keeffe or Calder, Bearden was not ignored during his lifetime. He received many accolades and several museum exhibitions. Critics and collectors were intrigued by his intricate collages that told no simple narrative story but often explored African American life in complex beauty.

Hilton Kramer, the former New York Times art critic and now executive editor of New Criterion, a monthly review of the arts, says, “I’ve long considered Bearden an important figure because he brought a very powerful account of black life into modernist painting and the application of cubist form. It was a brilliant synthesis of black folklore and modernist form.

“But,” Kramer goes on, “in the world I dealt with, the people who ran the galleries and museums, no one spoke of him as a black artist. He was an important artist.”

The tension between Bearden as an African American artist and Bearden as a universal artist infuses the mood of the exhibition. It is natural for African Americans to take pride in Bearden, and the District of Columbia, which has a majority black population, is touting the National Gallery show as the cornerstone of a 10-week cultural festival called “Blues & Dreams: Celebrating the African-American Experience in Washington.”

But Ruth Fine, the curator of the exhibition, cautions against labeling Bearden as a paragon of black experience. “Yes. Black experience is embedded in his art,” she said at an opening day seminar at the gallery. “But so is all experience.... I think we have to meet Bearden on his own ground. To do less is to cheat Bearden and cheat ourselves.”

Bearden grew up in the Harlem Renaissance. He was born in Charlotte, N.C., in 1911, but his family moved to Harlem three years later. Both parents were middle class and had attended college. His father worked as an inspector for the department of health, his mother as the New York correspondent of the Chicago Defender, an influential African American newspaper. Their apartment was one of the gathering points of the Renaissance, and the young Bearden would meet visitors like writers Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, musicians Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, actor Paul Robeson and NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois.


It was many years before he could earn a living from art. After graduating from New York University in 1935, Bearden became a social case worker among Gypsies for the city’s Department of Social Services. Except for breaks for military service during World War II and for some postwar travel in Europe, he would hold that post until he retired in 1969 at the age of 58. Until then, he painted and created collages only in the evenings and on weekends.

As an artist, Bearden always kept a foot in each of two camps: Harlem and downtown. He associated with African American artists like the renowned Jacob Lawrence uptown, for example, while studying with George Grosz, the bitter German satirical painter, and befriending Stuart Davis, the white American modernist painter, downtown. The dichotomy produced the essence of his art: He was a daring modern artist experimenting with materials and reaching for beauty while often mining the African American experience for subject matter.

A vital development in his art came in 1963, a month before the historic March on Washington. Several black artists met in Bearden’s studio in July with the idea of renting a bus to take them to Washington for the event. Their trip never materialized, but the artists did form a group known as the Spiral with the intent, as Bearden put it, to discuss “the identity of the Negro, what a Negro artist is, or if there is such a thing.” Floyd Coleman, an art historian at Howard University, insists that more than politics was on their minds. “Bearden and the Spiral,” Coleman says, “should be looked on as shaping American modernist art.”

According to some accounts, Bearden, who had worked in collage earlier in his career, showed up at one meeting with batches of pieces of photos that he had cut out of newspapers and magazines. He proposed that the group produce a joint collage about civil rights, but his idea failed to excite any enthusiasm. “We told him, it’s not our thing,” says Richard Mayhew, a Santa Cruz landscape artist who was a member of Spiral. “So Romy took it and went off to the hills.” Bearden decided to create some new collages by himself.

These collages are the most extraordinary works in the exhibition. Bearden pasted his colorful snippets in complex patterns on cardboard and usually augmented the work with paint, ink and graphite. He sometimes cut up photos of faces to create one that resembled the Cubist faces in Pablo Picasso’s work. Sometimes he fashioned the faces to look like African masks. His figures were often out of proportion -- a small arm protruding from a large body or an enormous hand shielding a small face. Yet the disproportion never jars.

The collages create a narrative mood, tempting a viewer to spend a lot of time making out each figure and every object. Sometimes a haunting face dominates the work like the straw-hatted farmer in “Watching the Good Trains Go By” or the nonchalant guitarist in “Train Whistle Blues: II” or the benighted young girl in “The Street.” Often it is difficult to make out a story line; the collage simply creates an expressionist snapshot of African American urban and rural life.


In 1964, Bearden experimented by creating what he called “projections” -- enlarged photocopies of the collages. In a remarkable way, the monotone “projection” of “The Street” is even more powerful and moving than the smaller, well-colored original. But the photocopies were not always that successful, and Bearden abandoned the idea in later years.

The exhibition includes a good sampling of Bearden’s early Expressionist, Cubist and Semi-Abstract paintings and his later watercolors and monotype prints, but curator Fine has wisely devoted most of her space to the wonderful collages. As he grew older, Bearden would use more paint and make his paste-ups less dense. He used more colored paper and fewer cuttings of news photos. He also put most of his collages on fiberboard and made them larger. Themes included jazz, women, Greek mythology, stories from the Bible, and life in Harlem, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and the Caribbean.

The largest collage of all, a highlight of the exhibition, is “Berkeley -- The City and Its People,” which was commissioned by the Berkeley government in 1973 and mounted in the city council chambers of the old Berkeley city hall. Measuring 10 by 16 feet, this collage, unlike most of his work, is not rooted in his experience but is an attempt to set down what he understood about the diversity of the city. The images include the university campanile, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, protesters, students, football players and a host of portraits of people of different races.