Harlem's Late Renaissance

John Haber
in New York City

Romare Bearden

In 1968, a black artist made the cover of Fortune and Time magazine. What could make him more a man of his time? The year that Martin Luther King, Jr., died may yet stand as a high-water mark in a decade of activism and aspirations.

Romare Bearden's work already looked far older, however. Not that he was nearly done yet. He had sixteen more years to live and to create. Yet from the very start his art commemorates lost faces, distant voices, and an older ideal of modern art. His retrospective brings that idea into the present, but he did, too, in his own way by turning to collage in the very heyday of art's obsession with popular culture. Culture, for him, had deep roots. The Return of Odysseus (Art Institute of Chicago, 1977)

Pop as American Modernism

A textbook might call Romare Bearden a Pop artist. He found his voice in the 1950s and 1960s, when his collages appropriate everything in sight. Like James Rosenquist, he learned from billboards, for he loves both the side of buildings and close-ups on faces within. Like Robert Rauschenberg, he layers images to the point that his spaces defy easy talk of a top layer or firm ground. Like Larry Rivers, he feels at home in jazz circles. Like George Segal, he has a conscience, one inseparable from a group identity he could hardly choose for himself.

All that makes sense, up to a point—the point at which one sees his work. In its Cubist vocabulary, urban realism, and nostalgia for small-town America, it could pass easily for prewar American art rather than a uniquely black and southern art. (A related review of Bearden's 1971 The Block and the Bearden Project in his honor asks further if that is the whole picture.)

He helped found "Spiral," an African American collective in 1963, but his roots lie in early American Modernism. If he never seems a young man, in a sense he never was. Most likely born in 1911, Bearden has little to show for his first thirty years. When his retrospective at the Whitney, which began at the National Gallery in Washington, really gets going, he has turned forty. He has studied in Paris and at the Arts Student League. His work of the 1940s makes me think of the brooding, crowded life of social realism, like the early work of Philip Guston.

He prefers traditional materials to found objects, working in ink, graphite, fiberboard, paint, and colored paper. He sees popular culture not as a means of reproduction, but as shared wisdom. His is the art of the handmade. If collage suggests an art of citation and self-reference, here that means celebration rather than irony. Rather than shred the very idea of painting, it elevates the artist's sketch.

Bearden remains a humanist—in his methods, in his political and cultural awareness, and in his empathy. He takes as his subject the fate of human beings, and he takes for granted that they have desires beyond the reach of advertising. In perhaps his finest work, approaching the middle of his career, he shows a city block as a teeming community, and each tenement window has a story to tell. One can all but hear the children crying. Even the metaphor, of art as a window onto reality, roots Bearden in tradition.

Call it a distinctly American humanism, however, as funky and as ordinary as a Harlem street corner for Gordon Parks. Except for an educational video more appropriate for public television, the curator, Ruth Fine, departs just enough from strict chronology to bring out its character. If Stuart Davis or Charles Sheeler updated Cubism for a demotic America, Bearden updates Davis for the mid-century black experience. Like Davis, he offers, in fact, an alternative history of Pop Art. Sure, one can call Pop Art a radical turn against Abstract Expressionism, an embrace of the movement's epic scale, or a displacement of time and space comparable to Surrealism. Bearden, however, reminds one that American Modernism always lived high and painted low.

Paradise lost

Bearden's nostalgia addresses art's distance from the past. It includes as well a black man's distance from self-definition—and the isolating force of a modern city. In the street scene, that sense of community does not exclude helplessness. Other apartments may or may not hear the baby, and they have no power to stop the crying.

Bearden's is an art of commemoration and of loss, but he takes each loss personally. In Pop Art, it never really makes sense to speak of nostalgia. (Ironically, a retrospective of Barkley L. Hendricks from mostly the 1970s calls itself "Birth of the Cool.") A feeling for the past requires a sense of the present. Pop recycling offers too thoroughgoing a critique of presence for that, even when Andy Warhol shows his love for mass culture or Roy Lichtenstein for the painted brushstroke. Bearden prefers individuals.

More than once, Bearden shows the expulsion from Paradise. When Rauschenberg quotes that old motif, he reduplicates the fall from grace. Rauschenberg places Adam and Eve beside John F. Kennedy, spaceflight, and another silkscreen image from art history. America and art share responsibility for the sin of pride, and even the satisfaction of punishment has grown as remote as myth. For Bearden, the motif takes up the entire composition. Adam and Eve exiting to the right—at a very real distance, in a very real garden—have a familiar human face.

It is also a black face, expelled from the garden by white angels. Bearden's consciousness of exile is definitely social. He came to New York in the wave of northern migration depicted by Jacob Lawrence. He knew life in the ghetto. He knew the years it took a black man to establish himself as an artist. He knew the slow rhythm of the passing freight train, the rhythm of Watching the Trains Go By.

Bearden's consciousness of exile is personal as well, almost to the point of an African American "outsider" artist like Thornton Dial. Perhaps it goes back to his move from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, at just three years old. If anything, it increases with age and with his recognition as an artist. His work has more memorable images of strong women than of men, and he has more of them as he gets older. He also has more and more rural scenes, many named for his birthplace. In his very last work, softer washes and gentle recollections turn even the midtown Manhattan of his twenties into a garden.

The consciousness of exile also represents Bearden's core empathy, that supernaturally resilient humanism that would resonate with many a European in exile, like Marc Chagall as a Jew. Lawrence depicted migration as a mass movement. Bearden's collage fills in the gaps in history, and he sees people as particulars. At the same time, he sees an African American's tale of exile and return as the human condition. In the 1960s, he shows the return of the prodigal son. In the one classical theme in his retrospective, a series tells of the homecoming of Odysseus.

Because he knew

Why then did Bearden turn to collage? Because he knew.

He knew its rhythms. As perhaps the best-known African-American modernist, Bearden will always enter textbooks as the artist of the jazz era and the Harlem Renaissance. In the twenty-one works in a centennial exhibition some years after his retrospective, nothing appears as often as jazz—at the Savoy in Harlem, in Kansas City, or in Mecklenburg, just outside of Charlotte. He loves the men with cigarettes and fedoras, staring ahead or strumming a guitar. He came inevitably to the improvisatory art of cutting things up and putting them back together, from a tin-foil hat poised like the mute for the musician's horn to actual musical scores.

He knew the score. The show of collage alone begins in 1964, after Rauschenberg had put combine paintings front and center and when Pop Art was all the rage. When King and Queen of Diamonds borrows advertising to serve the couple their whiskey sours, Bearden was just keeping up. Well into his fifties, he was keeping up, too, with the anger and awareness of Tenement World, in 1969. Or because he knew the future. The show ends in 1983, five years before the artist's death, when irony and appropriation were all but crowding out painting.

Those answers come easily, but maybe the real lesson is that one never thought to ask. Even his Whitney retrospective took the collage for granted. It fit with the subjects and sharp edges of his painting before those years, and it fit with his aspirations to take on more. He is still taking on more in 1977, returning to myth in a Fall of Troy with black warriors. Besides, the blade of a knife plays to Bearden's strength all along, in drawing, like earlier simple curves that so quickly outline men and women together. Romare Bearden's Untitled (The Family) (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, c. 1969)Conversely, it also reins in that ease, just when virtuosity can take over from art, and it helps supply patterns and colors that might not have come to him half so easily.

Then, too, easy answers have a way of proving wrong or at least incomplete. Maybe he does have those whiskey sours, and magazines supply his Fish Fry with outrageously large flatware. More often, though, he puns on colors, shapes, and textures, like the pattern of print dresses or the casual note of a collage element peeling off the page. He is still the elder modernist, happy to look back to Picasso's Cubism after all those years, just as with the sheet music. He does adopt what the 1980s liked to call rephotography, as with Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, when he actually eliminates the knife edge by photographing his own assemblage and then abrading parts of it away. Yet he defers to his sources without cynicism, and he is rephotographing only himself.

Ultimately, collage intensifies that confrontation of closeness and distance, which is why it counts as his best work. Bearden can seem a gentle soul, waxing nostalgic for dead jazz styles and a man's world. Here, though, a realism comes through about the cost of that world. He knows how much it has suffered abrasion, and how much of it lies in the past. He can tackle the poverty and emotional distance of a woman in white and a man in black holding their child. He can picture a skeleton lying on the city street, in front of a rigid line of what could equally well be mourners or gawking onlookers, all beneath a smiling skull.

All that jazz

Bearden's consciousness gives him depth and warmth. It contributes to his preference for easily legible compositions. It helps him keep people front and center, no matter how busy the collage. It helps him turn black skin, earth tones, night in the city, and simple clothing into a coloristic vocabulary of his own. It supplies a moving alternative to Abstract Expressionist's primary colors and to Minimalism's cool industrial hues. The knife can give him an edge that one never fully knew.

Bearden's fame coincided with a resurgent political activism. Between art and jazz, he participated in a renewed urgency to forge an African-American identity. As with the expulsion from paradise, however, he finds that urgency fully compatible with old traditions. When his Odysseus comes home, the elegantly posed, turbaned hero pays homage at once to Pintoricchio, the Florentine artist, and to Benin. When he portrays two maternal figures joined in friendship, again in his retrospective, he quotes a Renaissance Visitation by Piero di Cosimo. And why not, he might add, given the role of the church in black neighborhoods?

Bearden can pay a price for his humanism—the price of complacency. One has to wonder now and then about all that good nature, especially in the country gardens of his last years. He had become everybody's favorite black artist because he showed black culture as something comfortable and familiar as old melodies. One can almost forget that his first solo show, in Harlem in 1940, came after the years normally associated with the Harlem Renaissance. When he portrays jazz musicians, he ignores the avant-garde of his own day. Not surprisingly, he became friends with jazz's most noted cultural conservative, Wynton Marsalis.

As it happens, the Whitney had Lawrence's war series on display, just a floor above, as one part of a focus on war. Call it one more proof that artists and museums after the invasion of Iraq still care about such things as politics, brutality, and suffering. Lawrence's figures adopt large gestures, rooted as much in German Expressionism as in folk art. Bearden's smaller, more individualized characters may reflect his roots in art of the 1930s and 1940s rather than the 1920s. For all their life in exile, however, they never come near to outrage. Perhaps he experienced exile too closely to express engagement in the way way.

One really can mistake Bearden for an older artist, not just because he admires the past, but also because he has trouble letting go of it. His next most common subject is a female nude. Nor is that refusal to let go so bad: sometimes counting one's losses and nurturing one's hopes matter, too. The other Renaissance, the one in Italy, did it, with the period known as Mannerism. And that period, too, could turn slick, poignant, or both at once.

Nostalgia can mean a heightened awareness of past and present—or an escape from both. Pop Art manages to throw even that opposition to tatters. At his best, Bearden simply keeps them both up in the air.

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"The Art of Romare Bearden" ran through January 9, 2005, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Jacob Lawrence's "War Series" through January 31. Bearden's collage ran at Michael Rosenfeld through May 21, 2011. A related review looks at "The Block" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and "The Bearden Project" at the Studio Museum in Harlem, in honor of Bearden's centenary.


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