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“The Art of Romare Bearden”

At the National Gallery of Art

to Jan. 4, 2004

The first solo show the National Gallery of Art has given to an African-American, “The Art of Romare Bearden” is, on the whole, a joyous thing, with uncorked racial pride on one side and buttoned-up, blue-blooded self-satisfaction on the other. An overdue consideration of the contributions of one of the leading lights of black modernism, the show is also an opportunity to consider the relative achievement and impact of different facets of 20th-century African-American artistry, as well as a case study in the way in which an august white institution chooses to present the narrative of black striving.

It’s been a long journey to the East Building from Charlotte, N.C., where Bearden was born in 1911. In fact, Bearden, who supported himself as a social worker after beginning his artistic career in New York in the ’30s, was already in his early 50s when he undertook the collages that secured his place in history. Presenting a fragmentary tapestry of black life just as racial tensions threatened to sunder the country, they were the right work for the time—as well as wholly unlike the derivative figuration and abstract expressionism that previously constituted the artist’s canon. Success came quickly: Bearden had solo shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1965 and the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. Rivaled only by Jacob Lawrence, he came to be accepted as the public personification of mainstream African-American visual expression. Less than a year before his March 1988 death, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan.

Bearden’s masterpiece was 1964’s The Street, a wave of faces—some unflinching, some anxious, some tired—pouring out from the tenements of Harlem, circumspection and accusation in their eyes. It’s a pent-up picture, one that feels poised on the verge of something momentous. When Bearden blew the image up into a large photostat, it lost color and definition but gained scale and force, as a thousand separate details came together into a single, simultaneous, cubistically multivalent moment that in its confusion felt more like reality than the news—with its insistence on one thing after another, one story at a time—ever could.

Having bloomed so late, Bearden enjoyed only a brief peak. Collage was for him a triumph of method, an endlessly adaptable process that, from the outset, he had used for a broad range of subjects, from genre scenes to depictions of religious rites. In a 1968 catalog essay, Ralph Ellison wrote, “Bearden’s meaning is identical with his method. His combination of technique is in itself eloquent of the sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, paradoxes, reversals, telescoping of time and surreal blending of styles, values, hopes and dreams which characterize much of Negro American history.” For decades, this has been the standard line on the artist.

Despite all the autobiography insinuated into Bearden’s pictures, from the Pippin-esque North Carolina interiors to the pulsing, thickly populated cityscapes, his implied “I” resounds more clearly as “we.” Even in his sole self-portrait, 1981’s Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Artist With Painting and Model, his image functions less as a human presence than as a visual bridge from African and European pasts to the syncretic African-Americanism of his own era: With his foot lying under a sketch of an African mask on the floor and his elbow partly obscuring a Duccio reproduction on the wall, he drapes his left arm over the frame of the painting on his easel, his thumb and index finger bracketing the head of a female figure in 1941’s The Visitation as if to indicate where she came from. Although based on photographs taken in Bearden’s studio, the self-portrait is less about the individual circumstances of his own life than about the cultural equation Negro modernists had been asked to complete.

In the ’60s, the effacement of the individual in deference to the needs of the race served Bearden’s politics well and in so doing amplified his art. But now that this universalizing rhetoric has outlived its direct political utility, surviving as a historical trace of an era defined by monolithic struggle, it can make his epics seem somewhat generic. For all the graphic panache of the giant mural he executed in 1973 for the city-council chambers of Berkeley, Calif., its effect is virtually indistinguishable from the hail of historic import conjured by the clash-of-cultures montage in a PBS documentary on the ’60s. Indeed, its central group of peace-signing protesters might as well be marching along to a chorus or two of “For What It’s Worth.”

And comfort and polish drained the urgency from Bearden’s signature style. The disjunctive comedy of works such as 1964’s Expulsion From Paradise gave way in later pictures to a celebration of the landscape that served as its biblical backdrop. In richly colored painted collages such as 1971’s Blue Snake and 1984’s In a Green Shade (Hommage to Marvell), Bearden demonstrated a flair for rain-forest pastorals (reinforced by part-time residence in the Caribbean), but his ease with this softer mode retrospectively weakened stronger, earlier work, which came to seem not all that far removed from these humid mood pieces.

Bearden’s most lasting legacy may actually be his influence on illustrators, animators, and designers. In simplified guise, the formal language of his collages was taken up in the ’60s and ’70s for “sociological” illustrations of the urban predicament. Thrown into motion, his fractured visages have long since become fodder for low-budget animation: Ben Stokes’ funky, frenetic video for DJ Shadow’s “Walkie Talkie,” for example, is unimaginable without Bearden. The same can be said for Christopher Myers’ award-winning picture book Black Cat, which adopts not only Bearden’s method and milieu, but also his feline muse.

Because the depiction of black life has long been an established political and aesthetic goal of much black art, representation—even illustration—never became the taboo it was to white modernists. Bearden’s skilled but slight illustrations of the bluesmen, horn-slingers, and songbirds of the uptown stage now allow his NGA patrons to vicariously honor the culture heroes of black America, even as the artist’s diligent study of masters from Cranach the Elder to Cézanne pays homage to the role of the gallery as a repository of knowledge and an arbiter of taste.

To view the exchange cynically, the National Gallery is using Bearden in much the same way that the Catholic church is using the non-European saints that have been canonized over the last few decades: as a means to extend its reach in the face of advancing demographic trends while remaining much the same. And the processional it has the artist marching to is played in the New Orleans neocon style of the Marsalis brothers: An accompanying video has Wynton on hand to explicate a formal device used on one of his album covers, and Branford’s quartet has released the tie-in CD Romare Bearden Revealed, an unplayed copy of which recently changed hands on K Street like the meaningless cultural chit the power elite now takes jazz to be.

It would be easy to let the supposed identification between Bearden and jazz pass as smoothly, but that wouldn’t be fair to either. As presented by the National Gallery, Bearden’s work has always been directed toward winning him his own personal slice of American pie, and it’s anticlimactic when he actually gets it. There are differences between receiving a place at the nation’s table (as Bearden has done); catering an ongoing, private affair for friends and family (as much of the black art world has done); and building your own goddamn table, then laying it with a feast so lavishly magnificent that the whole world is clamoring for the recipes (as 20th-century African-American music has done). The Bearden retrospective may signal the beginning of the end of the marginalization of African-American art history in white America’s most hallowed halls, but it’s easy to see how his narrative got pushed to the side in the interim: It was simply too easy to tell the visual-culture story without him.

Measure this against the narrative of 20th-century music—and recognize that this is a comparison that Bearden and his defenders urge you to make, though it seems they wish you wouldn’t peer past the glossy surface similarities. Without African-Americans, the accepted music history of the last 100 years—in the United States, and in many other countries as well—simply makes no sense. (It’s telling that the task taken up by revisionist jazz historians such as Richard Sudhalter is to ensure a place in the narrative for whites.) But for decades, the standard 20th-century American art history was one without any—later, without many—black people in it. Bearden may be one of the best black modernist visual artists, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Armstrong, Ellington, Monk, or Miles.

The difference, I suspect, is largely a function of economics and the way a lack of economic access restricts both a talent pool and an audience. Popular culture, out of which jazz arose and of which the blues has always been part, thrives by concentrating small, scattered nuggets of the wealth of people who aren’t necessarily wealthy; “high” culture—and visual art belongs here, for financial reasons if for no other—requires far fewer (if larger) chunks of the wealth of people who have a lot of it. Historically, black America, systemically shut out from the prosperity that marked the white overclass, was much better placed to foster popular culture. Consequently, the development of black music has far outstripped that of black art.

But the economics of black America are changing, and once African-American collectors complete the assimilation of their history up through modernism (if they aren’t stuck in a “Black Romantic” holding pattern), they’ll move to embrace more contemporary modes. (Eileen Norton, of course, has been on the scene for years.) The background of artists and collectors is changing, too: Even if the unreproducible fine-art object can’t become a piece of take-home popular culture, everyone now expects high culture to be versed in the pop vernacular. When you consider that the coming generation of collectors, both black and white, will be the first raised in the age of hiphop hegemony, you can see the makings of a significant change in the art world. As in the case of visual artists influenced by jazz, the challenge—by no means a trivial one—for those who reference hiphop will be that of living up to the example of a powerful sound, rather than simply feeding off it.

It would be healthier, then, to view the Bearden show not as a peak at long last attained, but as a jumping-off point for the new century, which may, in some distant future, be looked back on as the era in which African-American visual expression came of age. The danger of not doing so can be illustrated with a simple thought experiment: What would have happened to jazz after 1938 had musicians been complacent about finally having made it to Carnegie Hall? CP