• U.S.

Art: Romare Bearden: Visual Jazz from a Sharp Eye

6 minute read
Robert Hughes

Romare Bearden (1912-88) was one of the finest collagists of the 20th century and the most distinguished black visual artist America has so far produced: the only one, perhaps, who rivaled in his own time and field the achievements of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell, Earl Hines and Duke Ellington in theirs. His retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem is an exhilarating show marred by a sloppy catalog. This will not matter too much to the audience the exhibition will acquire as it moves around the museums of America, ending in 1993 in Washington. The art, as always, is what counts.

Without making a real point, the catalog strikes postures about the slights handed down to Bearden by a hegemonic white art world. He had at least 10 museum shows in the last quarter-century of his career, including one in 1971 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. From 1964, when he first displayed his photo-based collages at Cordier & Ekstrom gallery in Manhattan, he had a steady market at high prices — not, certainly, the crazed inflationary ones of the ’80s, but respectable all the same. Most artists would kill for this kind of neglect and misunderstanding. So what does the case for Bearden-as-unjustly-marginalized-artist rest on? Apparently his exclusion from the “mainstream” of American art as defined by American white art historians, which happened, the catalog implies, because Bearden was black.

Now the concept of a “mainstream” is a phantom, an artifact of overcategorizing minds. The Tiber as a symbol of aesthetic transmission has been replaced by the Everglades. The idea of the “mainstream” is kept alive by pluralists, rather as Stalin maintained the memory of Trotsky — as a bogey. But whatever prejudices and illusions “mainstream” thinking once depended on, racism was not among them, and Bearden got left out of the history books because those who wrote them lacked the imagination to find a frame in which to put his work. Such was the fate of the reflective, mildly conservative artist — which Bearden certainly was — in a culture dedicated to the proposition that only “radical” change matters. The complete institutional sweep made by Abstract Expressionism, by hostility to narrative and by the cult of the huge-object-as-spectacle rudely elbowed Bearden to the side. But this also happened to a lot of fine artists who happened to be white: try finding references to Fairfield Porter’s work in the books of the time.

The catalog’s nagging about the “mainstream” seems all the more pointless because Bearden possessed a deep aesthetic education: he was immersed in the self-sufficient culture of Western painting from Giotto right through to his own time, as well as in African art. It may be that curator Sharon F. Patton thought she was paying him some kind of compliment in writing that “like Pollock, de Kooning . . . and Rothko, Bearden, too, rejected the modernist tradition,” but this is nonsense: none of those artists, Bearden least of all, did any such thing.

Indeed, one of the most moving aspects of his work is the way he thought constantly about his heritage, including that of Modernism. This reflection sometimes becomes the essential subject of the collage. A particularly fine example is Artist with Painting and Model, 1981, a veritable love letter to Matisse. Bearden plays marvelously with the ambiguous nature of collage. The figure of the model is a reddish-brown silhouette, but the artist’s studies on the floor are real drawings of a standing model — pencil on paper — pasted down, and the painter’s white shirt is more used drawing paper whose accidental smudges become purposive shading: three levels of representation, to begin with.

On the way to such images, Bearden traversed a lot of ground and did not find himself early. The son of intellectuals in New York City, themselves deeply involved in the Harlem renaissance of the ’20s, Bearden spent long stretches of his boyhood and youth in the rural South and industrial Pittsburgh. The range of his acquaintance, from field hands, ironworkers and Storyville pimps to such heroes of black culture as Duke Ellington, was large: wild enough to make a novelist — or, in Bearden’s case, to give the young artist an abiding love of actuality and pictorial anecdote that abstract art could not possibly satisfy.

He went the route of many young American abstract painters in the late ’30s and ’40s: colonial Cubism diffused into WPA-style figure painting. His sympathies did not lie with Abstract Expressionism, the avant-garde style of ’50s New York. “When Delacroix began to transcribe his romantic vision,” Bearden wrote, “he had the heritage of Herder, Schelling, Schiller and all the French Romanticists who were of his time. So when I look at Stamos, Baziotes and the rest, I wonder what point their work has, and to what end does it drive.”

An excellent question, to which Bearden found no answer. In 1951 he went to Paris and there suffered a severe attack of painter’s block, from which he gradually extricated himself by copying old masters and then, in the late ’50s, doing derivative, pastelly Ab-Ex pictures. What caused this crisis neither the exhibition nor its catalog indicates. But he got out of it through collage.

Bearden’s largish photocollages of the ’60s and ’70s remain his most distinctive work, for two reasons: their use of the medium and their sharply observant, full-blooded, encyclopedic imagery of black life. Since the work of artists like Max Ernst, John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch in the 1920s, collage had always been small — keyed to the actual size of the reproduced images in print, which the artist cut up and rearranged. Bearden, however, had the original images, his source material, photographically blown up so that the . eyes, faces, hands and mouths could make larger, more wall-holding pictures. The human features were all cut to a razor profile, with sudden abutments, breaks and repetitions that functioned, for him, as a visual equivalent to the jazz he loved.

Having moved to a larger scale, he could use paint more freely and combine his effects with the “pure” collage, the painted and cut sheets of paper without printed design, that his idol Matisse had employed in his last decoupages. Bearden was a gifted colorist whose yellows, deep blues and fuchsias played against the photographic gray and produced, in works like Three Folk Musicians, 1967 (his riff on Picasso’s Three Musicians in MOMA), a truly lyrical zing. But always the human effigy predominated: those crowded faces and bodies, shouting, working, grinning, making music, suffering, pressed with ebullience and awkward grace against the picture plane like people on the other side of a window — Here I am! Notice me! “I felt,” Bearden once explained, “that the Negro was becoming too much of an abstraction, rather than the reality that art can give a subject. What I’ve attempted to do is establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.” In this he succeeded, and the show is the proof.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com