The Art of Romare Bearden: A Retrospective by Geoffrey Jacques

 

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Romare Bearden

Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, 1967

 

 

poem

The end of art being elliptical

By design,

                its purposes fill in ...

 

 

 

            Barrett Watten, Under Erasure

  

The Art of Romare Bearden: A Retrospective

Organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

 

At the Whitney Museum of American Art, from November 14, 2004-January 9, 2005.

At the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from January 29-April 24, 2005.

 

 

 bearden.jpg

 

Romare Bearden

Tomorrow I May Be Far Away

1967

 

 

In the years immediately following the Second World War, the artist Romare Bearden was one of the half-dozen "most talked about, exhibited modernists in America." This observation, from critic April J. Paul, writing in the February, 1986 issue of Arts magazine, might come as a surprise to many people, given what is generally presumed about Bearden, his work and career. But in the moment before Abstract Expressionism became the central strand of modern art in this country, Bearden was considered one of modern American art's major figures of the younger generation. He was an important enough artist that in the spring of 1947 he was one of six painters who showed in the first major postwar exhibition of American painters in Paris -- the others included Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell. Paul tells us that the show was a critical flop with the Parisian critics, and that the consequences, for Bearden at least, were unfortunate. What is interesting about all this is how it seems to be buried in most considerations of the artist's career, which is presumed to have lain in obscurity until the mid-1960s. This is despite the fact that during the 1940s, the artist had no fewer than seven solo exhibitions in spaces across the United States. At least three of these solo shows were in New York City. He also participated in some three-dozen group exhibitions, including in such venues as the Metropolitan Museum, and at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In these shows, Bearden was joined by some of the most highly regarded artists of the time. It is interesting, then, that our popular understanding of Bearden seems to depend so much on a belief that the artist wasn't a success in the "mainstream" art world.

 

The most striking thing about the traveling Bearden retrospective is that despite its size and breath, in the end it reveals just how narrow our understanding of the artist, and of his legend continues to be, more than a decade and a half after his death. Part of the fault lies in the self-made myth promoted by the artist. Exhibition catalogue essayist Ruth Fine points out that "Bearden's autobiographical notes throughout his life omit any record of formal art education except for classes with George Grosz at the Art Students League after his college years." Yet it turns out that his four semesters at Boston University and five semesters at New York University, from which he graduated in 1935, were "dominated by courses in art." It seems, then, that to the art world's silence Bearden added one of his own. This is not as inexplicable as it seems at first glance. One can see it as a kind of resistance move against a culture that has an ontological objection to you as such. In this case, hiding your immense learning under the guise of whatever role society allowed you to occupy -- native informant or "outsider" -- can be seen as allowing you a certain freedom. During the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s, more than one New School for Social Research or Iowa Workshop-educated poet or art-school educated visual artist struck such a pose. And why not? If the larger society was going to deny you your rights, if it was going to erase your accomplishments anyway, you've still got uncharted waters to mine. Besides, there was a whole audience from within your own culture that you could cultivate, many of whom didn't care about your Talented Tenth credentials. All they cared about was whether you could be counted on to help build a culture they could recognize and own as their own.

 

For Bearden, his self-made myth embraced the outsider status conferred upon him by the powerful art world conversation that dominated our culture during his career. That conversation sought to erase him. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this conversation was the talk of an "innocent country," an art world, which, to paraphrase James Baldwin, set the artist down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that he should perish. One could consider this retrospective from this point of view; that is, one could think of it as a resurrection story. But that, too, would probably be inadequate to the task of really understanding what's at stake when we consider Bearden's art. This is because such a large show as this one could have allowed us to rethink our assumptions about the art history of the last half-century or so. That this show can come and go without such a reconsideration having taken place is itself evidence of the pitfalls of the self-made myth as survival strategy.

 

This is not, of course, to fault the artist. It is simply to call attention to the fact that the most striking aspect of this show -- the one that provoked thoughts of Baldwin's famous letter to his nephew -- is the enormous silence that surrounds this exhibition. It is, in a sense, a ghetto-preserving silence, that perhaps not so coincidentally collaborates in putting to sleep our historical sense as well. The resurrection metaphor is one that conflicts, it seems, with what we already know about the artist. We are familiar with this long career and slow climb to fame, a climb that somehow burst into success in the last couple of decades of his life. We know how he worked for New York City's Department of Social Services until that fame arrived, making art at night in his Canal Street studio. It sounds like the poet Cavafy, working as a clerk in Alexandria and passing his poems around in hand-bound volumes. But Cavafy, who also belonged to a marginalized population, is not permanently ghettoized by such belonging, not destined, in the sense suggested above, to perish; and therein lay the problem provoked by the silences that greeted this exhibition.

 

It is striking how the Bearden retrospective seems to take place at both the center and at the margins of the art world, and, simultaneously, outside of that world altogether. During the final weeks of the Whitney leg of the exhibition, a brochure appeared in the streets of New York City, in cafes, bookstores and similar gathering places, which contained a calendar of events surrounding the exhibition. It was an extraordinary document. At first glance, this brochure seemed to show all of New York in the throes of a celebration of Bearden, his art and legacy. Closer examination revealed a disturbingly consistent tone to these "celebrations." It is true that galleries and museums throughout the city were involved in activities (exhibitions, musical and dance concerts, and educational and family programs) that were being held in relationship to the artist and his work. At the same time, it was as if Bearden was a figure unique in time and space, with no connection to the art world as such. We were asked to celebrate either Bearden's own world, or the world of African American culture, but rarely the artist's place within the history of American art. It seemed as if Bearden was more deeply connected (to use the description in the brochure of the Bearden show at the Met) to Harlem street life than to New York's world of the visual arts. All this is even more remarkable, given that the exhibition itself, and the marvelous catalogue, written by Fine, Mary Lee Corlett, Nnamdi Elleh, Jacqueline Francis, Abdul Goler, and Sarah Kennel, both take pains to give details about Bearden's contradictory, yet integral, relationship with the art world of his time. Yet even these essays, as good as they are, still seem bounded by the ghetto in which we are to presume Bearden to have lived within. There's something constricting about the way such topics as Bearden's relationship with jazz are discussed, for instance. It makes the whole topic far more obscure than it needs to be; and, on the other hand, there is too little discussion of Bearden's work in terms of its relationship to contemporaneous art trends, especially those of the 1960s, which suggest a sense of narrowness in these discussions.

 

The exhibition begins with about a dozen works from the years before 1955. These figurative, cubist-influenced works, like "Madonna and Child" (1945), give us a glimpse of Bearden's style from these years, but they hardly explain the reputation he enjoyed in the immediate post-World War II era, and it is here that the exhibition misses a significant opportunity. Rather than a virtually unquestioning acceptance of the "inferiority" or minor status of these earlier works, it might have been useful to explore them, and the sensibility that produced them, more fully. This could, in turn, help us understand how it was that such a widely exhibited artist could have, it seems, two careers: one in which his ethnic identity, though important, did not supplant his artistic one; and a second career in which his art seems to be understood -- at least by the art world outside of his own ethnic-cultural milieu -- as little more than an expression of ethnic identity.

 

In 1948 the gallery owner who took Bearden's work to Paris, Samuel Kootz, closed shop for a year. When he reopened, he had dropped Bearden and a couple of other artists from his roster. These artists, we are told by the available histories, did not conform to the then-new style of abstract expressionism, and were no longer in the artistic vanguard. For Bearden, this signaled a sort of artistic crisis. Like several other modern American artists of the time, he went to Paris. He was there for six months in 1950. When he returned, he seems to have plunged into an emotional crisis, and didn't exhibit for several years. He became a songwriter, and Billy Eckstine recorded one of his songs, "Seabreeze." His friends, including Hannah Arendt, urged him to go back to painting. By 1955 he was painting and exhibiting again. The bulk of the retrospective begins at this point. The glory of the exhibition begins not long after this point, as well. It is a glory that is itself stalked by the overall weakness -- not so much of the show -- but a weakness we, of the art-viewing public, suffer from when it comes to appreciating Bearden's work.

 

The glorious moment in Bearden's art, as presented in this exhibition, comes from the magnificent collages he began to make in the 1960s. Works like "Evening Meal of Prophet Peterson" and "Expulsion from Paradise" (both from 1964) are palimpsest-like collages consisting in part of cut-and-pasted images from magazines and newspapers, combined in a seemingly helter-skelter (but which is, in fact, a highly sophisticated, improvised) manner that at the same time suggests and denies narrative content. Interwoven with the photographic content are elements of painting, drawing, coloring and the entire range of modern art technique. The collages have the "overall" feel of abstract expressionism, without the mock-heroic ambience that so often makes such painting seem like little more than over-the-top masculinist boasting. Not that Bearden didn't engage in his own version of what some might call masculinism, (but what catalogue essayist Kennel refers to as the artist's "languid eroticism") as his fascination with the female nude in later works like "Down Home, Also" (1971), demonstrates. But some of these, with their Edenistic settings, are also intriguing for their almost obsessive attention to color as well. Bearden's use of magazine photographs raises, however, another consideration. It does seem as if there is an affinity between these works and those of artists associated with Pop art: the use of the purloined "realistic" image, reconfigured into a reimagined context. The very idea of the photograph as an icon of popular culture is suggested by the way the artist uses photographs here, but he uses them not simply as icons. Perhaps too much has been made of the symbolic heft and narrative content that is presumed to be foundational to the artist's work. Very often, especially in these collages from the mid-sixties, the pictorial content, drawn from such magazines as Ebony and Life, seem not to lose as much as the aura of their source as may seem to be the case at first glance. They remain recognizable as magazine photographs, even if they are placed in an environment that's completely of the artist's making. This is not to suggest that Bearden should be seen as a practitioner of Pop art, but it is to suggest that it seems difficult to come to terms with his use of the image unless we at least consider that his art suggested a dialogue with Pop art practices.

 

As was the case with his connection with the sources of cubism, Bearden seems to be engaged in reconfiguring the source materials of Pop art for his own ends. These collages are very engaged with projecting a liminal space between narrative closure and open-ended declaration. It is here that both a contrast and a link between Bearden's art and Pop art can be drawn. What makes the connection between the two styles obscure is the intentional emptiness of most Pop art, an emptiness in which any apparent social relevance of the art can be said to be vitiated by the artist's plausible deniability of intention with regard to such relevance. On the other hand, Bearden, who was educated by an older tradition of American art, one which recognized the possibility of a social "role" for the work of art, is, in fact, more coy about the idea of "subject matter." The idea that Bearden's art is considered foundational to twentieth century African American culture in part rests on a presumed narrative function that is said to inhere within the work. But it seems that such a presumption is difficult to sustain without a reliance on materials (reading titles for presumed meaning, or an overdetermed reliance on an interpretive symbology) that can only be found outside of the work itself.

 

One result of his turn to collage was the emergence of what might be called a neoclassical style -- neoclassical, that is, if we don't restrict ourselves to Greco-Roman frames of reference and think about West African ones, too. And all this brings up a point that seems to be at the heart of Bearden's style. It is a point that his many imitators don't seem to get, which accounts for the sterility that's often seen when artists turn to Bearden as an influence. As for Bearden, some critics, including the essayists in the exhibition catalogue, speak of the artist's relationship to older artists primarily in genealogical terms. And although such a relationship was undeniable, it is perhaps more productive to see that Bearden was, throughout his career, in an ongoing conversation with Picasso. One reason that his relationship with Picasso is often framed in terms of influence is because some of Bearden's most famous pictures seem to echo those of the older artist. This is especially true of works like "Three Folk Musicians" (1967). But to consider the relationship between this work and the older artist's "Three Musicians" (1921) as one simply of influence elides the dialogue Bearden seems to want to provoke with his variation on Picasso's title. It was a dialogue about the sources of modern art and their uses, and about the question of cultural propriety and ownership. That's why those who want to cast Bearden as a kind of native informant simply, in the end, set their sights so low that they seem to miss what's at stake for Bearden, and what seems to be happening in the art. Bearden grew up in a household where many of the writers and artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance came and went. As a youth, he must have been exposed to some of the ideas animating that group. One of these was a problem which was a central one for American artists of African descent during much of the twentieth century. That problem can be summed like this: How do you go about making works of art that are true, real, modern, and aesthetically valid in terms of the artist's own (ethnic and political-minority) culture, when the (racially, culturally and politically hostile) larger culture has appropriated all of your aesthetic tools for itself? Langston Hughes wrote a famous poem about this problem, which begins, "You've taken my blues and gone." Bearden himself published an essay exploring this issue, "The Negro Artist and Modern Art," in the National Urban League's Opportunity magazine in 1934. He grew up and lived much of his life in a culture which was saturated with images, speech, narratives and style that were alleged to derive from black people. But it was a culture from which real black people were absent. The original Amos and Andy, don't forget, were two white guys. When it came to the visual arts, you have a whole movement -- modernism -- which started out imitating African art. From the very beginning of his career, Bearden tackled this aesthetic problem by trying to have a dialogue with the source. By the time we get to the 1960s, we see an artist who is completely comfortable with this conversation. And the conversation, too, has moved someplace else -- or, perhaps to put it another way, Bearden has moved the conversation on to some really edgy terrain. That terrain is itself informed by the question posed here a moment ago; and it is a question that Bearden took up with enthusiasm. For him, the answer lay in recognizing that this question wasn't one just for so-called "marginal" populations. It is, in our globalized world, a universal concern. Perhaps this is what accounts for the official art world's contradictory and simultaneously embracing and distancing gestures with regard to this artist. It's safe to say that no other American visual artist of his generation has achieved as much enduring popularity as he has; and yet, if Bearden's artistic quest is framed by and raises universal, rather than particular, philosophical concerns, what does that say about the art world's own preoccupations? The reasons for this artist's popularity must rest, at least in part, in his preoccupation with the sentiments expressed in Langston Hughes's poem. But unlike the speaker's sentiment in Hughes's poem, Bearden's art does not rest on a complaint. Bearden is engaged in another type of conversation, one that might make the "you" of Hughes's poem quite uncomfortable. And maybe that accounts for the edginess in his art.

Steve CannonTribes