Crossing from the first to the second room of the generous retrospective of Romare Bearden’s art, on view through January 9, 2005, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is not simply to move from one phase to another in Bearden’s development; it is to leave one art historical period for another. Bearden was successful in both periods–in the 1940s of the first room, he showed with Samuel Kootz, whose gallery was dedicated to advanced art of the time; and in the 1960s of the second room, he was one of the stars of the important gallery Cordier and Ekstrom. But his work of the two periods was deeply different. In a way, Bearden was beached by the end of the 1940s, as American art moved in a direction that left him behind. It was as if he was then swept up by a different wave altogether, which made it possible for him to become the remarkable artist the show really celebrates. So the art of the second room, and indeed of the remainder of the show, is not an internal evolution out of the art of the first room. It is an art there would have been no way of imagining on the basis of what preceded it, for it is the result of political and artistic forces Bearden did not control. These forces account for the cultural turbulence of the 1960s. Bearden responded to these forces creatively, transforming himself as an artist into something altogether original. The art of the long final phase of Bearden’s life and career has to be explained through this creative response. There is no better way to appreciate this than by asking what happened to Bearden in the intervening decade. The 1950s is an essentially missing decade in this show. The 1960s rescued him from failure. That missing decade gives the show a drama that cannot be grasped if we simply think of the art of the second room as what he did next. In the 1950s Bearden was a kind of lost soul.
Bearden abruptly became Bearden around 1964–a miraculous year for him as an artist, when he broke through into a mode of representation distinctively his own and entered the calm waters of a marvelously personal style that was never again challenged, from without or within. It enabled him, over the remaining twenty-four years of his life, to evoke, in his words, “a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.” By “validity,” Bearden meant, I think, that his experience as an African-American was not ruled out as a “subject of the artist,” to use an expression that was current in Abstract Expressionist discourse. And by “its own logic,” he meant that the experience would determine the form through which it was expressed. The breakthrough, however, has to be understood through the collusion of two moments, one art-historical and the other political. In 1964 Pop art freed artists to draw on imagery from ordinary life. That April, Andy Warhol displayed supermarket cartons, including the Brillo box, that brashly defied the imperatives of aesthetic purity that had defined Modernist art. And a few months later came Freedom Summer, in which Southern blacks waged a concerted campaign to demand their civil rights. Bearden was liberated by Pop to find his own language, and the urgency of black liberation gave him his subject. He became a leading artist of the black experience. In the 1940s he had been a gifted cosmopolitan who simply happened to be black.
The Kootz gallery was one of the centers in which what came to be known as Abstract Expressionism was taking form. Kootz showed the work of Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes, who were part of the emerging movement. Bearden belonged to the figurative wing of Kootz’s stable, along with Carl Holty and Byron Browne. I think it’s fair to say that the work of these figurative artists was in some significant measure European in inspiration. Bearden’s work was in the modified Cubist style that had become a sort of lingua franca of Modernism. Always a person of deep culture and wide reading, he struggled in the 1940s to give visual embodiment to texts by Homer and García Lorca, as well as the Bible. The paintings from the Kootz period are quite rewarding and worth looking at closely. The underdrawing is in fact entirely in the Abstract Expressionist mode: It is made up of the swift, whiplike arabesques, with sudden jazzy reversals, that one sees in Pollock or de Kooning. The images that overlay them are constructed of Cubist panes of color, and feel, especially in the García Lorca series, as if they have been inspired by Guernica. But Kootz closed the gallery in 1948, and when he reopened it the following year the figurative contingent was no longer part of it.
1949 marked the beginning of what Mark Tansey, in a brilliant allegory, calls The Triumph of the New York School. Bearden, Browne and Holty belonged, one might say, to the American wing of the defeated School of Paris. And Bearden strove in the decade that followed, part of which he spent in Paris, to turn himself into an abstract artist. It was an extremely difficult period for him. He supported himself as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Social Services. For a time he turned his back on painting altogether and became a songwriter. He joined ASCAP, and one of his songs, “Seabreeze,” recorded by Billy Eckstein, was a hit. Interestingly, he was encouraged by Hannah Arendt and her husband, the philosopher Heinrich Blücher, to persevere as a painter. But it is one thing to return to painting, another to know what kind of painting to return to. In the culture of the 1950s, abstraction seemed to be the only option for a serious painter, but Bearden ultimately realized that he was not cut out for it. There was accordingly no clear path before him. He was not alone in his frustrations, and though I cannot say that he and Philip Guston were part of one another’s lives, they both went through the same sort of crisis. At a panel on the future of abstraction, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, Guston said: