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Life's Abundance, Captured in a Collage
October 15, 2004
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
IN July 1963, a month before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr.'s March on Washington, Romare Bearden met with a
group of other black artists in his studio on Canal Street
to talk about what they should do for civil rights.
"Western society, and particularly that of America, is
gravely ill, and a major symptom is the American treatment
of the Negro," Bearden said. "The artistic expression of
this culture concentrates on themes of `absurdity' and
`anti-art,' which provide further evidence of its
It was his idea that the group, which called itself Spiral
(based on the Archimedean idea of a spiral growing in all
directions at once, outward and upward), work together
making collages. The plan didn't catch on, but it abruptly
set Bearden, who was then 51, an abstract painter slow to
find his own voice, along a new path.
The collages that he made until his death in 1988 are among
the glories of American art. They now occupy a floor of the
Whitney Museum. This is the Bearden retrospective that
attracted mobs of admirers at the National Gallery in
Washington, where it was organized and first presented. As
in Washington, it has inspired a slew of events - lectures,
concerts and more exhibitions, at the Metropolitan Museum,
the Brooklyn Museum and elsewhere. Bearden, a beloved and
influential figure in the history of art and black culture
in New York, has finally come home.
It's a pity only that the retrospective is so big. Art like
his - mostly small, intense and intricate - deserves close
scrutiny. Good works packing a wallop are mixed with less
good ones. A visitor's attention can flag and wander.
So here's my advice: pick a few favorites and stick with
them. You might settle in front of "Expulsion From
Paradise," for example. Get lost in its profusion of cutout
birds, Old Master portraits, bra advertisements, a billy
goat, an angel, a British officer in profile, standing
stiffly at attention, and a waterfall surrounded by trees:
Or check out "Odysseus: The Sea Nymph," Bearden's sly
adaptation of Matisse as a submarine artist, the colors
almost suffocatingly lush, the shapes cool and sexy. Or
peruse his "Conjur" series of solo heads and bodies in
snappy silhouette. Or, in the show's last room, dive into
the late monotypes, like "Mirror and Banjo," "Waterfall"
and "Rain Forest," wet on wet pools of purple, blue and
green, dripping with tropical heat.
Bearden was not a great black artist; he was a great
artist, who wove his own life and the lives of other blacks
into collages, a distinction that needs restating. Collage
had a long history as a minor art dating back to medieval
Japan and medieval Persia and to Europe well before the
18th century. Modernists like Picasso, Hannah H÷ch and Kurt
Schwitters elevated it to a new position, akin to painting,
often with political implications. By the early 1960's,
Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and others (Jim Dine, Nam
June Paik, Lee Bontecou, the list goes on) took it and its
sculptural offshoots another step as a formal tool for
incorporating ordinary objects into the world of art.
But Bearden recognized the medium as a potential literary
vehicle, a narrative device, for synthesizing high formal
values with a new strain of social history. His genius,
aside from his poetic knack for piecing scraps of
photographs and other tiny tidbits together, was to see
collage as an inherent social metaphor: that its essence
was to turn nothings into something, making disparate
elements cohere; that it was about mixing and adding, a
What resulted was a transformation: a medium used mostly
for formal games, frequently serving "absurdity" and
"anti-art," became a means to produce works of high moral
ambition, now connected to black culture. It combined
elements of East and West, high and low, old and new:
African masks with ancient Greek art, Matisse with
His goal (this, among other things, he shared with Jacob
Lawrence) was not "the Negro in America in terms of
propaganda," as he put it. It was "to reveal through
pictorial complexities the richness of a life I know." He
explained further: "I do not need to go looking for
`happenings,' the absurd or the surreal, because I have
seen things that neither DalÝ, Beckett, Ionesco nor any of
the others could have thought possible; and to see these
things I did not need to do more than look out of my studio
Bearden had seen a world of change pass by his window. He
belonged to the Great Migration from the South; he was born
in 1911 in Mecklenburg County, N.C., to intellectual,
middle-class parents who settled in Harlem. His parents'
home became a meeting place for the Harlem Renaissance:
Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas and Duke Ellington stopped
by. Bearden got to know them all, learned the value of
public service, was inspired to read widely, to learn
music. Literature and music shaped his art no less than
Picasso, George Grosz and Vermeer did. And music to him
meant jazz, above all. Syncopation, call and response,
improvisation: Bearden adapted them to his purposes.
The show begins with his paintings from the 1940's,
fascinating failures, brightly colored, semi-abstract
pictures struggling to put religious themes into the
language of Picasso and the Mexican muralists. One of the
accomplishments of the exhibition is to highlight Bearden's
sources and show his creative arc.
In a sense, he traveled full circle, arriving by the end at
a free mix of collage and painting that recalled his early
works, transformed into lush Caribbean landscapes and
steeped in a heady stew of European art, Western mythology,
African religions, poetry and music.
His first collages of the 1960's are still among his most
amazing achievements: works like "Pittsburgh Memory," with
its lunging perspective and congested detail. Bearden
experimented with photostatic enlargements of some of these
early collages, transforming them in the process into black
and white, pushing their Cubist-derived spaces toward mural
scale. Cubism was based on small, intricately fragmented
surfaces. Blown up, it tended to look blocky or chaotic.
Bearden solved the problem. His big collages aren't always
successful, but at their best they've got something of what
Matisse's cutouts have - an organizing graphic punch, based
on sturdy architecture.
You can read Bearden's images in the way that you take in
the passing spectacle of the street, your eyes moving from
one place to another, making sense of the whole. Bearden
hit upon the perfect urban medium. Spirituality remained a
leitmotif in his art, too, along with images of the rural
South, of the hardscrabble industrial North, and of trains,
the classic emblem of the black migration.
And he devised countless variations of black bodies as
heroic and timeless symbols, something still new and
radical to modern art. They define his series about
Mecklenburg County, which is steeped in memory and
tenderness. There is a room of these collages in the show,
including "Tomorrow I May Be Far Away," with its charcoal
highlights and swirls of blue and bleach to describe
weathered denim. It's a scene of a man sitting in front of
A woman, bowed slightly, in profile, like an Egyptian
hieroglyph, feeds little birds in the back yard: she is St.
Francis of the South.
"There are roads out of secret places within us along which
we all must move as we go to touch others," Bearden said.
And that's exactly where he takes us.