An Artist Beyond Category
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:
There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: that painting is autonomous, pure, and for itself--therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is "impure." It is the adjustment of "impurities" which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.
Guston's 1970 show at Marlborough made a radical break with the abstract painting in which, unlike Bearden, he had achieved considerable success. By then Bearden had found his way. Both derived their new language from vernacular imagery--Guston from the comics, Bearden from photographs in magazines like Life and Ebony. Bearden's liberation came through a medium that combined collage and photomontage. The deep biographical question, to which I have no answer, is how he found this medium and made it his own.
Consider, for example, his 1964 work Evening. It is a scene of three black figures--two men and a woman--enjoying a game of cards under lamplight. It is 9:10, according to the clock in the lower right corner, which Bearden had cut and pasted from a magazine. Someone is snoozing on the daybed, which has a broken spring. The card players' heads have been cut and pieced together from magazine photographs, as have the cards they are playing with. So has the woman's dress, as well as the buildings we see through a window in the upper left. The table has the feeling of a Cubist still life. There is a banjo in the lower left corner. It is a small, dense work, and signature Bearden. What is striking about it is the way the two sides of his work intersect and overlap--his commitment to depicting the "Negro experience" and his great knowledge of modern art. This overlap defines his work from this point on, a powerful outpouring of creative energy in which Bearden produced masterpiece after masterpiece. It is positively thrilling to experience this in the second room of the show.
Look at the wonderful Watching the Good Trains Go By. A group of black figures are lined up as a train approaches from the right. Their faces and garments are collaged from scraps scissored from magazines. A figure in a cloth cap plays a guitar. If Evening refers to Bearden's Harlem experience, Watching the Good Trains Go By perhaps refers to North Carolina, where he was born and spent parts of his youth. It is a rural scene, with barns and paper hills. The train is a recurring symbol in Bearden's art, perhaps because it was a central symbol of the black migration, carrying people between North and South, city and country, as in August Wilson's great play The Piano Lesson, whose title is drawn from one of Bearden's paintings. Bearden's father was a railroad man, like the character Doaker in Wilson's play, who articulates the meaning of trains in black American mythology--"Now, I'll tell you something about the railroad..." There is a train in the background of Prevalence of Ritual: Tidings, which is an Annunciation, with a scary angel, looking like a tribal fetish, next to a demure young black woman with downcast eyes, cut from a magazine. One wonders if the train is Bearden's way of showing the Holy Spirit.