Whose idea was it to host concurrent retrospectives of Romare Bearden and Isamu Noguchi at the Whitney Museum of American Art? It was a brilliant stroke, really. Noguchi’s streamlined, abstract sculptures distill experience by expunging it of clutter; Bearden’s collaged portrayals of farmers, jazz musicians and religious ritual embrace clutter as a glorious and, at times, heartbreaking coefficient of history. Notwithstanding the stark contrast in style, they are, in significant ways, peas in a pod.
For the politically correct among us, the fact that Bearden and Noguchi qualify as the “other”-an insidious and (fingers crossed) obsolete bit of jargon connoting human beings who aren’t white standard bearers of Western culture-is a gauge of their importance. Noguchi was the illegitimate son of a Japanese father and an American mother; Bearden, an African-American born in North Carolina.
Noguchi voluntarily entered an internment camp during World War II with the intention of improving the conditions for its Japanese-American inhabitants-a gesture, sadly unrealized, betokening ethnic solidarity. Bearden’s mature work, the collages for which he is justly renowned, were spurred by the civil-rights movement of the early 1960’s. Noguchi and Bearden would seem prime exemplars to further the cause of identity politics.
Fat chance. It should go without saying that every artist is shaped by culture, a term used here as it refers both to sociology and aesthetics. What’s remarkable about the art of Bearden and Noguchi is how it expands upon and, ultimately, eludes the constraints of identity. Universalism is a corny aspiration-that is, until it’s put in motion by someone with the artistic goods to make it a compelling reality. Bearden and Noguchi had the goods, and then some.
Art was, for both men, an avenue of freedom from definition. Bearden’s ambition to give pictorial “validity [to] my Negro experience” was emboldened and enriched by an inquisitive, catholic eye-art, in all its variety, offered a conduit leading away from the strictures of self. Noguchi, too, bristled under the attempts to peg his art as this, that or the other thing. To claim that he “helped pave the way for … multicultural artists” and “many post-modernists”, as does Valerie J. Fletcher, the curator of Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor, in the accompanying catalog, is to impose contemporary mores on a man whose art can do without them, thank you very much.
What makes the pairing of Bearden and Noguchi important-and, one hopes, inspiring to artists-is their relationship with tradition. Both men took inspiration from the startling changes in form brought about by the advent of Modernism. It’s impossible to consider Bearden’s art apart from Cubism’s fracturing of the pictorial plane or the jarring images resulting from the experiments in collage typical of Dadaism and Surrealism. Constantin Brancusi is an inescapable figure when pointing to Noguchi’s art, as are Joan Miró, Hans Arp and Alexander Calder, sculptors whose playful brand of biomorphism found a stoic corollary in Noguchi’s hands. Other pivotal influences-African sculpture, Byzantine art and the paintings of Pieter de Hooch for Bearden; Chinese calligraphy, Hinduism and the Utopian futurism of Buckminster Fuller for Noguchi-are discernible in the mix as well.
The two Americans took their lessons from antecedent and ran with them. In the process, they created utterly distinctive visions-distinctive, one should add, but not innovative, at least not innovative as the word has come to be known. As an adjective, “radical” doesn’t jibe with the art of Bearden or Noguchi. Their work didn’t revolutionize artistic form; upsetting the apple cart was anathema to their respective worldviews. The urge to negate the past, or for that matter, make light of life was absent. As Bearden wrote in 1967:”I do not need to go looking for ‘happenings’, the absurd or the surreal, because as a Negro I have seen things that neither Dalí, Beckett, Ionesco, nor any of the others, could have thought possible.”
Instead, Bearden and Noguchi built upon precedent with a slow and steady persistence, discovering new, unexpected and individual facets residing within its foundation. Ethnicity didn’t make them outsiders as much as tenacity: Like Jean Hélion, say, or Fairfield Porter and Richard Lindner, they sought-and discovered-alternatives to the prevailing aesthetic. Here’s a label you can pin on Bearden and Noguchi: They were positivists, in so far as it indicates the optimism both men put into practice.
Noguchi and Bearden have little to offer those addicted to novelty. The innovations of early Modernism revitalized art by transforming a moribund tradition from the inside out. In contrast, innovation for innovation’s sake, the lingua franca of the contemporary scene, is an empty gesture that attempts to disguise a poverty of imagination with instant and fleeting outrage. Aesthetic pleasure can’t be engendered by bumper-sticker nostrums or workaday nihilism. It is an experience that is demanding, complicated and elusive, often slow as molasses, yet ultimately rewarding.
As evidenced by their respective oeuvres, Noguchi and Bearden were hip to that daunting truth. Whether it was the Whitney’s intention to underscore such an unfashionable notion in hosting the two exhibitions is less important than the exhibitions themselves. The Art of Romare Bearden closed last week-you’ll have to catch up with it at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta later this month. As for Master Sculptor, it’s up until the weekend. You’ll be kicking yourself Monday morning if you don’t make it to the Whitney before then.
Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until Jan. 16.