An Influential Citizen: ‘The Bearden Project’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem

A small, untitled drawing and collage on paper by Julie Mehretu speaks to her ability to craft a miniature version of her well-known, much larger paintings. With just pencil and a few colorful paper scraps, she conjures her vertiginous perspectival compositions. Simone Leigh’s Blush (after Romare Bearden) (2011) is a salt-glazed porcelain Brancusi head covered with metallic roses in white and black.

But the standout piece here is Rashid Johnson’s Clowns (2011)—an unframed, torn, vintage book page affixed to the wall depicting two black figures; the man’s face is obscured with a gob of shea butter.

The show claims that all of these artists have been influenced by Bearden, but it doesn’t make a strong case for that claim. The best artists look like mature figures in whom the traces of Bearden are scarcely evident. It is in the look-alike work that disappointment lies: Kerry James Marshall’s work is generally striking, but here his The Woman at the Window cut-paper collage is a dead ringer for Bearden, and ends up just looking derivative. John Outterbridge’s Godfather (2011) falls into the same trap, using mixed media collage in a manner too close to Bearden’s.

Most bothersome are the new-media tributes: Nicole Miller’s Untitled (2011) is a Cornel West YouTube video mashup on unstoppable repeat; Nadine Robinson’s drawing Audio Montage, Version One (2011) references a website URL which, upon lookup, seems to be an mp3 composite of newscasts about teens in the Bronx.

But it seems premature to pass judgment now, as surprises may be in store; artworks will be added to the show until it comes down on March 11, 2012. That open-endedness  is fitting, not only because it leaves the sense that the list of invited artists is unfinished (it would be contentious were it to seem complete; you would ask yourself who is missing), but also because it confirms a sense that Bearden, as an idea, is still growing, still vital.

Another way to think about this show is as a display of postcards and birthday letters to a dead artist. Faith Ringgold’s painting is “The Bearden Project” at its least critical: on posterboard she has painted the words, “Romare we love you: in celebration of the 100th anniversary of your birthday on September 2, 2000, your art so beautiful and true for all the world to see you love us too Faith Ringgold, July 26, 2011.” There is a moving series of recorded artist’s statements available on a museum-run phone line—why these were not transcribed and put in the galleries is a mystery.

Ultimately, “The Bearden Project” is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the artist. Hardly curated in terms of the individual works, it instead models an inclusive, dynamic engagement with history and identity that may be Bearden’s most lasting legacy. Floating effortlessly between the high and low, the established and the unknown, the imitative and the novel, the exhibition itself is the kind of pastiche Bearden might have appreciated.

An Influential Citizen: ‘The Bearden Project’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem