Romare Bearden Tied His Work to Race, But Was a Cubist

With certain exhibitions, this writer finds himself in a position not so much to “review” them as to recall his previous critical encounters with an oeuvre to which he paid close attention in the halcyon years of the artist’s production. This is the case with the large retrospective exhibition that Ruth Fine and her colleagues at the National Gallery of Art in Washington have devoted to Romare Bearden (1911-1988). Certainly the most comprehensive survey ever attempted of this artist’s development, The Art of Romare Bearden brings together 130 items, ranging in size and importance from mural compositions to magazine covers and other marginal and ephemeral endeavors. As far as I’ve been able to determine, nothing in either the artist’s life or his work has been overlooked, and the abundantly illustrated and annotated 334-page catalog is likely to serve as the definitive guide to Bearden’s achievement for many years to come.

What’s new to me in this exhibition is some of the early work from the 1940′s, executed in the vernacular expressionistic style that was then a common pictorial idiom for painters attempting to align themselves with the politics of social protest. As an African-American, born in North Carolina and raised in Harlem in the Jim Crow era, it was all but inevitable that Bearden would ally himself with that imperative. As early as 1934, in an essay called “The Negro Artist and Modern Art,” Bearden affirmed that alliance in declaring that “An intense, eager devotion to present-day life, to study it, to help relieve it, this is the calling of the Negro artist.”

Yet even in this early period, Bearden’s art never conformed to the simplistic conventions of the 1930′s social-realist school. Picasso was a more potent influence on his work than, for instance, the likes of William Gropper, and when Bearden hit his stride in the 1960′s, it was in the medium of Cubist collage that he found a style in which he could triumphantly integrate the demands of his modernist aesthetic aspirations with those of his embattled social conscience.

In 1970, in The New York Times , I wrote about this development as follows: “The collage paintings of Romare Bearden, with their fragmented images of Negro life locked into an elegant Cubist design … raise some interesting questions about the relation of black experience to modernist forms of painting and sculpture. Mr. Bearden uses a great many photographic fragments of African masks in a sort of montage synthesis with contemporary black figures. There is an interesting idea at work in the use of these African mask motifs-a suggestion of the morphology of certain forms that derive originally from African art, then passed into modern art by way of Cubism, and are now being employed to evoke a mode of African-American experience.”

Returning to the subject in 1977, I coined the term “Patchwork Cubism” to characterize certain aspects of this development that proved to be crucial to the artist’s later work. “What is remarkable about his vein,” I wrote, “is that it permits Mr. Bearden to do many of the things that modernist art is not supposed to do. He attaches his art to a story-in this case, the story of his own life. He is anecdotal. He is affectionate-in fact, tender-in the attitude he takes toward his subject, and there is never any doubt that he does, indeed, have a subject, and that the subject is not art itself.”

And further: “The style that serves this personal iconography might best be described as patchwork Cubism. The folk-art conventions of the patchwork quilt have often been used by Mr. Bearden in the past, and they are again used here. Actual quilts, too, are depicted in appropriate settings. I think there is a key here to the special quality Mr. Bearden achieves in his collages. The patchwork quilt is, after all, a kind of primitive Cubism in itself, and its use allows the artist both a free play on personal memory and the discipline necessary for art.”

What I didn’t know in 1977 was that Bearden had already created his most ambitious foray into patchwork Cubist collage in an astounding mural that measures 10 by 16 feet. If this isn’t the largest collage ever created, I don’t know what is. Its title is Berkeley-the City and Its People (1973), and in January 1974 it was installed in the City Council chambers of what was then the City Hall. As a caption in the current exhibition’s catalog states, “This was one of Bearden’s rare undertakings not rooted in autobiographical experiences in Mecklenburg County, Pittsburgh, or New York, yet he managed quickly to grasp the essence of his temporarily adopted university community” in the Bay Area.

I cannot recall ever reading about this mural before the current show in Washington, and none of my artist friends in the Bay Area has ever mentioned it, which suggests to me that they are unlikely to have seen it. Yet it’s without doubt one of the most successful achievements in public art in this country in the 20th century-and I mean aesthetically successful. Almost as amazing as the work itself is the fact that it has been brought to Washington for this retrospective-yet another reminder that we’re still discovering the full scope of Bearden’s accomplishments.

The Art of Romare Bearden remains on view at the National Gallery through Jan. 4, 2004. It will come to the Whitney Museum in New York next fall (Oct. 14 to Jan. 9, 2005), and will also be seen at the Dallas Museum of Art (June 20 to Sept. 12, 2004) and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art (Jan. 29 to April 24, 2005). I am told that the Berkeley mural will be traveling to each of these venues.

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