An Artist Beyond Category

An Artist Beyond Category

Also in this issue, Branford Marsalis talks about Romare Bearden with Adam Shatz.


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:

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.

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.

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