An Artist Beyond Category
Photomontage flourished in the German Dada movement of the early 1920s, where it became a powerful vehicle for political commentary. I suspect that Bearden learned about it through the German refugee artist George Grosz, with whom he studied at the Art Students League in the 1930s. Grosz had exhibited in the 1921 Dada Exhibition in Berlin, along with the great montagists Hannah Höch and John Heartfield. Bearden's ambitious montage, Sermons: The Walls of Jericho, uses photographs of Benin heads, together with fragments of Roman architecture, to convey a feeling of walls tumbling down. Of his 1964 works, it is closest, I think, to Hannah Hoch's angry 1920 masterpiece, Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, in which cut-out newspaper images of German political figures and entertainers are pasted together with machine parts and headlines to form a sour indictment of Hoch's times. Bearden is almost never polemical in this manner. Sermons--reproduced in the catalogue but not included in the present venue--is atypical. For the most part, his imagery is amused and affectionate. These are the people, these are the forms of life, he loved.
Interspersed with the photomontages in the second room are larger photostats of the same works, which Bearden called "Projections." It was these that first caught the eye of the gallerist Arne Ekstrom, who presented the first show of his new work. So far as I can tell, it consisted of twenty-one photostatic enlargements of his montages, which I find somewhat baffling. The photostats are monochrome, of course, and the figures seem to float in a kind of brown twilight. I don't know if the montages existed for the sake of the photostats, which have an entirely different aesthetic. Seeing a photostat next to its corresponding montage feels like an allegory of Walter Benjamin's juxtaposition of the art of mechanical reproduction alongside an artwork with aura. I don't think the role of photostat was documentary, as a wall text somewhat lamely suggests, but what Bearden was getting at remains an unsolved issue in interpreting his work. In any case, the "Projections" seem to drop out of the picture after 1964. In my judgment they lack the charm and energy of the montage/collages they reproduce.
Near the end of the show there is a wonderful 1981 self-portrait--the only one Bearden is known to have done--that shows the artist on one side of a framed painting on an easel, with a black model, her back to us, standing on the other side. It is called Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Artist With Painting and Model. It is a kind of history of his development as an artist. The painting on the easel is a version in bright, clear colors, of an early painting, The Visitation, which you can see, in far muddier colors, near the beginning of the show. Not only have Bearden's forms become more clarified and his colors more intense in this 1981 reworking of a 1941 painting, but Profile uses cut paper as the studio floor covering: a plaid rug for the model to stand on, and a neatly cut piece of gift wrapping for the rest. There is a drawing of the model on the floor, and a cup of brushes on the left--in the 1930s, Bearden had not yet discovered cut paper as medium. The model is wearing a piece of African textile around her middle, which is painted rather than collaged, as are the painter's own garments. Bearden has not given himself much by way of facial features; it's as if he were saying that his work is his portrait. On the wall behind him is a reproduction of a work by Duccio, part of his great Maestà, which Bearden had closely studied. I suspect the Duccio gives the work its title--it refers to the time when Bearden was studying the old masters, under the guidance of Grosz.
There is a superb essay on Bearden by Mary Schmidt Campbell in the catalogue for his 1991 memorial show (he died in 1988) at the Studio Museum in Harlem, "Memory and Metaphor." In it she asks an interesting question: "What is Bearden's role in the history of American art? Will Romare Bearden appear to be an anachronism in American art, his new forms an aberration, exotic and interesting, but ultimately not part of the central story of the art of the [twentieth] century?" I would like to address this question here. I don't think Bearden shaped the direction art took in the 1960s; we cannot imagine the 1960s without Warhol, but we can without Bearden. It was the 1960s that made him possible, rather than the reverse. And yet Bearden was among the great beneficiaries of the period, and ultimately became an innovator in his own right. He was able to make art out of his own reality, and to find, in the history of Modernism, the formal means of doing this. Through this, he became a paradigm of what happened to art history through the 1960s and into the present. He turned his life into art, using what he had learned from Duccio, Giotto and Dada, as well as from Benin and Baoulé. But the art he created is for everyone. I think that is the kind of achievement artists today aspire to.