PRINT May 1984


What is it?
I’m trying really to remember
The clock has stopped
Now I can never know
Where the edge of my world can be
If I could only enter that old calendar
That opens to an old, old July
And learn what unknowing things know . . .

—Romare Bearden

IN ONE OF ROMARE BEARDEN’S collages, a blind guitar player is led by a little boy holding a rose. The memory recreated there is a window on Bearden’s formidable art.

One “old old July” in the mid 1920s, when Bearden was 10 or 11, he visited his grandmother Cattie in Lutherville, Maryland, a rural town near Baltimore. Bearden remembers a Mrs. Johnson, whose grandmother had been born into slavery, and whose baking tins had been made by a slave blacksmith. Mrs. Johnson’s culinary specialty, passed down the generations, was a watermelon cake fashioned so expertly that it was difficult to tell from the real thing. She placed “seeds” of chocolate hardened in an icy stream in a red batter, painted the crust with melon stripes, and added a transparent sugar icing as the final touch. This Southern piece de resistance was in great demand among the rich white folk who lived or vacationed in Lutherville’s fine old houses. Each Saturday morning that summer, Bearden delivered the cakes for Mrs. Johnson.

Her husband, E.C. Johnson, was a locally famous blind guitar player, a folk singer like Blind Lemon Jefferson. One Saturday, E.C. told Romare that he would go along as the boy delivered the watermelon cakes in a little wagon. He always had his guitar, Bearden recalls; “Sometimes he’d go along with me just for a walk and hold on to me or to the wagon and he’d be walking down the country roads.”

When the two started out this Saturday, Mrs. Johnson gave the boy a pail, telling him that if he picked some blackberries on the way home, she would bake him a nice pie. “Along the way, Mr. Johnson held my free hand and strummed chords on the guitar with his right hand. After I had left the last cake and started back, I saw a good clump of blackberries a little ways off the road. I went with my pail to pick the berries and Mr. Johnson sat on an old tree stump and began to play his guitar. The music was strange to me and not like the church hymns, or the blues, or any of the popular songs that I knew. Finally I asked Mr. Johnson what was the music he was playing. He said ‘Oh, I don’t know; I’m just wandering over the chords, just as if the wind was moving my fingers.’ It was fine listening to Mr. Johnson’s music and picking the full ripe berries. I felt very good and I picked a beautiful rose I saw growing wild that I thought would please my grandmother.”

This is the ground bass of the memory, but the picture of the blind guitarist and the boy has overtones which are both mysterious and comic. E.C. Johnson’s music may have been strange and beautiful, but his visitations were unwelcome to all but the boy who led him.

E.C. Johnson was a latterday Tiresias who knew everybody’s business. He had a dream about anyone he could get the boy to corral, and the dream was consistently calamitous: “Oh Mrs. Jones. I dreamt last night I saw you just laying in that coffin just as plain,” he would say; “The casket was just so nice.” And finally the kicker: “How are you feeling, sister? I mean, you better take care of yourself, because I dreamed about you last night.”

As Bearden tells it, when people saw the guitarist coming, they scattered. “So there he was and he’d be strumming on his guitar. It was . . . out of a Greek play. . . . [T]he blind soothsayer . . . makes a dire prediction for the city.”

Bearden has sifted the details of this childhood memory so that the listener is given a new perspective with each retelling. What in one interview sounds like an extended recipe for watermelon cake sounds, in another, like the essence of the blues. He has done collages of a woman named Maudell Sleet at least three or four times, for instance. “Each time it’s different: I mean the facial characteristics. I wouldn’t recognize her as the same woman one for the other, but it’s faithful to my memory.” Like a jazz musician riffing first on one phrase, now another, he (in his own phrase) “calls and recalls” these archetypal images: the blind guitar player, the boy, the wild rose, the woman named Maudell Sleet.

Bearden told the E.C. Johnson story to Henri Ghent in an interview for the Archives of American Art to account for why, moving from one style to another, he had come to concentrate recently on subject matter that was more or less directed to his early experiences. “What I arrived at after a certain time was the space,” he told Ghent. “And after I got a certain space, that hasn’t changed so much. But a lot of the life that I knew in certain rural Negro surroundings is passing, and I set down some of my impressions of that life. It’s in a certain sense historical and has certain [classical] affinities.”1

Guitar players sound their folk blues in dozens of Bearden’s collages. These musicians, together with the recurrent motifs of railroad trains, conjur women, women at the bath, and the roosters that watch them bathe, not only suggest the idiomatic particularity of the landscape Bearden remembers, but act also as metaphors and icons in the terrain of Bearden’s painterly vision. Two collages in particular contain guitar players that Bearden associates with E.C. Johnson: Guitar Executive, 1979, and Childhood Memories, ca. 1966. Childhood Memories, exhibited in Bearden’s 1971 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, is the more striking because of its juxtaposition of a rural Southern memory and a big-city setting. The painting places guitar player and little boy before a cobblestone crossroad filled with New York City traffic and the anonymous pedestrians of the metropolis. They are displaced persons: the boy holds the musician’s arm with one hand and a wild rose in the other. The word “rose” decorates the man’s pocket, and his massive hands seem to overpower the neck and strings of his guitar. Pulling together all these elements is a gigantic eye-clock in the upper center of the collage, unblinking, giving its own version of the city’s time.

At 69, Romare Bearden enjoys a special place among American artists. He is at the height of his imaginative power, and his work continues to surprise. He has returned to jazz and the South in series after series: “Of the Blues,” 1975; “Of the Blues/Second Chorus,” 1976; “Profile/Part I: The Twenties,” 1978; “Jazz Collages,” 1980; “Profile/Part II: The Thirties,” 1981. The jazz collages represent a blues odyssey, tracing the music from its sacred and secular sources through cities like New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York, the ports of call for its major styles. Similarly, the profiles recapitulate Bearden’s own odyssey, which has taken him from Charlotte, North Carolina, to New York, Pittsburgh, and Paris. Now, twice in as many years, Bearden has returned to his memories of Mecklenburg County. The 14 oil paintings with collage in “Mecklenburg Autumn,” 1983, are the product of Bearden's season of full maturity, the culmination of a long voyage out and nostos to the oldest of places.

The Piano Lesson, a collage with oil paint in the “Mecklenburg Autumn” series, illustrates Bearden's double identity—as a Modernist but also as an idiosyncratic painter. On the one hand, he absorbed the legacy of the Cubists, Matisse, and Mondrian, and had established his reputation as a semiabstract painter by the 1940s. On the other, he transformed the legacy into a Southern idiom, always stressing the ceremonial dimension in Southern life which gives it universality. In The Piano Lesson, a stern teacher stands over her pupil, her finger pointing didactically, while the young student performs intently. The structural formality of the collage suggests the internal logic of Mondrian’s work. At the same time, Bearden’s use of the metronome as a recurrent triangular motif recalls Matisse’s Piano Lesson, 1916, while the figures of teacher and student and the ornamentation at the top of the piano and on the music to its left suggest Matisse’s more naturalistic Music Lesson, 1917. These nods and allusions notwithstanding, the flower-patterned aeolian window, the chandelier, the furniture, the piano, and each detail of costume are unmistakably from a Southern parlor. Bearden says that if he were to place a narrative beneath the collage, as he did with the “Profiles,” it would read as follows: “Miss Pinkney taught strictly in the old classical way; her pupils would play MacDowell, or ‘To a Water Lily’—but please don’t play any jazz in her parlor.”

Bearden’s childhood memories of Mecklenburg County have great emotional pull, probably because they are among his earliest remembrances and because he knows that so much has now been eradicated, except in the mind and in art. A 1976 article in the Charlotte Observer (“Artist Seeks Childhood Scenes in Charlotte”) described Bearden’s disorientation as he searched for the site of his great-grandfather’s home near the railroad trestle where he played as a child. He had not been back to Charlotte in nearly fifty years. “A newspaperman researched it and found out exactly where it was,” Bearden commented recently. “It is a parking lot now. My great-grandfather had a great deal of land, but during the depression, after he and my great-grandmother had died, it was put up for sale. I think that all that land was bought for $15.00.” He can remember the Magnolia cotton mill of his Charlotte childhood. “When they turned the machinery on, you could hear it all over the fourth ward,” On the sites of his most recent “Mecklenburg Autumn” landscapes, such as November: Early Frost-Cherokee Lands and December: Time of the Marsh Hawk, there are now golf courses and shopping centers. Bearden wants to recapture the light of those landscapes, the look of a schoolbell atop a long-demolished schoolhouse, the sound of the Magnolia Mill.

The people and places of Bearden’s memory have become elemental to his art. “One day these people came walking into my work and seemed to know just where to go within the painting.” At the same time, Bearden has a reproduction of Vermeer’s The Concert, 1658–60, on his studio wall next to a reproduction of Picasso’s Three Musicians, 1921. To explain what triggers the memories, Bearden points to the Vermeer: “I’ll say to myself, ‘Well, I saw something like this; I’ve been in places like this, with the same kind of stillness, and the light coming in from this source.’”

As a meditative human being, Bearden wishes to preserve the uniqueness of his own experience, and, by extension, part of America’s experience, from demolition by modern technology and the pace of life it dictates. He wishes nothing less than to wage war on time itself, to recapture and thus free the terrain of memory. But these artistic and human concerns cannot by themselves explain the authentic creative impetus behind Bearden’s work, or what makes him a master of collage. Where others might have protested or lamented the facts of the black Southern experience, Bearden has chosen to sing his past on the canvas; the blues is therefore his quintessential idiom. As he has said, “Art celebrates a victory” over the circumstances that give rise to it.

In an autobiographical statement in the Archives of American Art, Bearden wrote that one of his earliest visual recollections was of a beautiful tan, orange, and brown tiger lily he saw in his great-grandfather’s garden in Charlotte when he was 9 or 10:

Each day I would go and look at that flower; but one Sunday I found it gone, and only a green stem trembling in the air like a small garter snake. My great-grandfather saw my concern. He told me that my [great-]grandmother had worn it to church. Then he said, “Don’t worry, this is good soil and next year your tiger lily will be back once again.”

The salient themes are all there in the anecdote: the childhood entrancement with a beautiful object, its destruction, and the child’s urgent desire to retrieve it. But the most important part of the story is Bearden’s reflection:

But I think that the things that make an artist paint [are not] early recollections of things, or a sunset; Malraux said that few artists are impelled to paint because of these early sensations. It’s seeing finally the work of other artists that makes you want to paint rather than things from nature.

As André Malraux put the matter in The Voices of Silence (1951): “Artists do not stem from their childhood, but from their conflict with the achievements of their predecessors.” Bearden’s art, in Malraux’s terms, thus stems from a creative conflict with an enormous range of predecessors: Dutch, French, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and African. He has reached the point, by now, at which he has made his predecessors such a part of himself that their art opens his memories. Bearden’s only formal training in art was a period of several years at the Art Students League in New York City, where he studied with George Grosz, master of corrosive satire. When he got his own studio in 1940 and turned to painting, Bearden’s first efforts were in gouache on large sheets of brown paper. He painted his remembrances of the South he had seen as a young boy.

Folk Musicians, 1941–42, one of these early gouaches on brown paper, is in striking comparison to Three Folk Musicians, 1967. The more recent work, a collage, has the same basic configuration, but illustrates dramatically how much Bearden has changed in his handling of color, form, and volume. The earlier gouache is rendered realistically in subdued colors, although the hands, especially those of the guitar player, are monumentally large; the triangulated noses of the two left figures are outsized; and the interplay of caps, noses, and faces is a study in diagonal and curvilinear forces, Furthermore, although the eyes of the three men stare fixedly at the viewer, those of the figure at the right seem hooded and mysterious. In the 1967 version, pieces of photographs have been mixed with cut paper and paint to create an entirely different interplay. Like his 1941 counterpart, the figure at the right—now a banjo player whose facial contours resemble Bearden’s—is made ghostly and mysterious by the pervasive grays of the torso, the streaks of blue and white through the face, and finally the eyes, which convey the unblinking stare of stone statuary. The white disk of his banjo is a ghostly echo of the red disk of the sun, and is also set off by the warm colors of the two guitars.

If Bearden’s two versions of Three Folk Musicians seem starkly different, imagine for a moment what Picasso’s two versions of Three Musicians might have been if a quarter-century had separated the first from the second. Bearden’s musicians allude to Picasso’s, and in a sense, the agenda for Bearden’s art over the past four decades has emerged from his battle to define himself in the late 1940s with relation to the Cubist legacy. For Bearden, as for Karl Von Clausewitz, the military strategist whose treatise On Warfare (1833) Bearden is fond of quoting, the solution to a battle is really simple; the difficulty lies in the multiplicity of choices. Bearden has called Cubism “the great space idea of this century,” and he still considers himself a Cubist. That, after all, is what Bearden meant when he told Henri Ghent that after a certain time, what he had arrived at was the space. The way he arrived at it, the choices he has made within the legacy, and the stylistic directions he has taken, are entirely his own.

Several series of watercolors and oils on gesso, each inspired by a literary theme, established Bearden’s reputation as a semiabstract painter by the late 1940s. With “The Passion of Christ,” 1945, and a bullfight series inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s dramatic poem, “Lament for the Bullfighter, Sanchez Mejias,” the following year, Bearden became part of the heterogeneous group of artists whose work was exhibited at the Samuel Kootz Gallery in New York. The group included William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, and later Hans Hofmann, Byron Browne, Adolph Gottlieb, and Carl Holty. The work of these artists represents a spectrum of possible directions Bearden eschewed, although his close friendships with Baziotes and Holty influenced him greatly. He credits Baziotes with having introduced him to certain ideas of feeling through painting. Holty, to whom he was intellectually close in spirit, helped him to find a systematic way of thinking about abstract art, and began collaborating with Bearden as early as 1949 on a three-volume project, the first part of which was published as The Painter’s Mind (1969).

Bearden’s variations on The Iliad from 1948 brought the work of these years to its culmination. These Cubist-inspired watercolors have what critics called “the look of stained glass”—prismatic colors enclosed by architectural black lines. Bearden likens the intervals between colors to the lead in the stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral. The lead holds the colors together, both literally and figuratively: “If you forgot everything else and just traced the black lines of the lead, that would be interesting too.” At least one of the watercolors in this series, The Parting Cup, 1947–48, shows a characteristic pattern of Bearden’s creative growth: each time he reaches a synthesis, he begins to break it down from within in an effort to find a new form. In The Parting Cup, which focuses on the goblet held out by a woman to her departing warrior, a vertical red line descends from the center of the goblet and becomes the outline of a brick wall at the lower center. While black lines predominate in enclosing the colors of the warrior’s torso, red lines establish the contours of his helmet, and a light, pinkish red unenclosed by any line establishes the woman’s head and part of her drapery. This interweaving of black and red architectonics is the beginning of Bearden’s effort to find another way of establishing the intervals between colors, by using color as form.

Bearden’s letters to Holty, which began in late 1948 when Holty took a teaching post in Georgia, show how precisely he was defining problems whose solution would trigger his artistic growth. The exchange of letters excerpted here begins about the time Bearden exhibited his Iliad variations.2 “I wish you were here to talk about painting,” Bearden wrote in November, 1948. “I’m thinking of the big track, or overall shape, that can set your picture for you. This is a Roger Van der Weyden, and from this little sketch, you might recognize the picture. The white shape sits so beautifully in the painting. If you can get this big shape to sit right in your painting, not regarding the smaller details, it would seem that half your battle would be won.”

Holty wrote back in December:

Now, I’d like to answer your questions relating to a “containing form” or shape. I don’t have to tell you how soon and how often this admirable device was used but the ornamental cubists, Picasso, Braque and Gris, were the most recent masters to use it, and I do remember that I told you to use it . . . only as a step for you in the assembling of forms—not as a final method by any means. I doubt very much whether the emphasis of such a form ever really did set a picture, otherwise a host of abstract cubist painters would have been great. When it does seem to set the work, I think it is because the method went with the space and image intention of the artist.

What is truly effective in a painting, Holty went on to assert, “arises out of the total concept, which is what that containing form did, say, in the picture of Van der Weyden that you used as an illustration.”

Bearden wrote again shortly after Christmas 1948 to thank Holty for his analysis. “For the past week I have been doing some drawings again to try and clarify a few things,” he said. “Now I notice that the present drawings are rather different from the Greek [Iliad-inspired] ones. In what ways I can’t say with certainty as yet, but I do notice a different color approach (seemingly less colors) and a general emptying out of the surface. . . . Isn’t it strange in this painting business that you work harder and harder to put less and less on the picture plane.”

Bearden went on to wonder what “actual philosophy” would justify what he and Holty were each attempting in their art. “To know,” he wrote, “would certainly clarify the problems—even those of structure.” By “the justification of philosophy,” Bearden said, he meant the extent to which Rembrandt was influenced by Spinoza’s humanism, “either directly or by osmosis,” or, say, the Cubists by Mondrian. “Most all of [Mondrian’s] followers miss the true touchstone of Mondrian’s genius,” Bearden wrote. “[He] offered a ‘point of view’ more than a plastic method.”

Earlier in the letter Bearden had set forth his estimate of his artistic identity in relation to the Cubist legacy. The philosophy justifying their work, Bearden made clear, must emerge from a careful study and resynthesis of the tradition: “The cubists have left us with a synthesis of reality—and their work is based on the real. We contemplate the picture on their terms—plastic ones. Mondrian was the logician of the movement (more mystic in the true sense of mysticism than one would imagine) and Mondrian’s [philosophy] dealt in ratiocinative terms with the actual—or real.” Bearden went on to explain what he meant by Mondrian’s mysticism in a way that reveals much about the approach he himself would take in the decades to come: “You know the old Hindu mystics, and most all others, considered the actual world as illusory, and all of their thinking was in terms of an ‘abstract’ compounded out of inner meanings that transcended the actual. And it seems . . . that insofar as Mondrian in his paintings interlaced this duality between the ‘actual’ and the ‘imagined’ he was able to give more credibility to them.”

Bearden’s wish to preserve the element of mystery in his art helps account for his many conjur women, and the masklike faces influenced by Benin imagery. In a way analogous to his perception of Mondrian, Bearden seeks to capture the points of conjunction between the spiritual and the sensual, the timelessly ceremonial and the specific. This accounts in part for his many folk and jazz musicians, Storyville odalisques, or solitary nudes bathing in the midst of lush rain forests. Bearden’s art, as the subtitle of his 1971 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, “The Prevalence of Ritual,” makes explicit, asserts the strength of myth, embodied in fundamental human rituals, rites of passage, and rites of play. By these means, he is able to express the universal in human experience, even while his “subject” may be as particular as a woman he will name Susannah, taking a bath in a Harlem kitchen in the 1930s.

Early in 1950, Bearden traveled to Paris, armed with letters of introduction from Samuel Kootz to Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, and Jean Hélion. He lived in a pension at 5 rue des Feuillantines in the 5th arrondisement, near the Luxembourg Gardens, where $37.50 a month bought a skylit studio, with heat and laundry figured in, and three meals a day. Since he was eligible for educational benefits under the G.I. Bill of Rights, Bearden had arranged to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. Although he purchased an easel and planned to work in gouache, he hardly painted. Instead he joined the intellectual and artistic life of the city.

In Paris, Bearden read Delacroix’s Journal and was strongly affected by Delacroix’s description of constantly going to the Louvre to copy the old masters. “Here I thought, is a great painter learning something from a method now frowned upon because some of our educators felt—and still feel—there is a genius lurking inside us [that] only needs to be conjured out—but I decided to try that old method.”3 On his return to the United States, Bearden copied works for three years, starting with Early Renaissance painters like Giotto and Duccio and proceeding to such later painters as Veronese and Vermeer, and finally to Matisse, giving up his own work almost entirely. He had trouble only with Pilate Washing His Hands, a late 17th-century work long attributed to Rembrandt. While it looked simple on the surface, each day he found elements he’d previously neglected. “My God, I felt . . . Rembrandt is the most mysterious of painters—rhythms that started, for instance, in a jacket I found reappearing in a face.” Schooling himself gave Bearden a new feeling for painting: “Here is where you enter; all these rhythms and planes make for movement in a painting—not motion, as the Italian Futurists attempted.”

With his return to his own painting, Bearden found that he had definite new ideas about color. He had written Holty years earlier from Paris, “It’ll be grand when I can get the colors to walk about the picture like free men, not isolated in certain areas like people with smallpox. But to find those controls whereby the colors can act like free men and not exist in a state of anarchy.” Now, in the mid 1950s, Bearden began to expand his canvases dramatically, painting in an increasingly nonrepresentational manner, and allowing color to give itself free rein. “I began to just put color down in big marks and I found that using the color in this mosaic-like way destroyed the form, opened up the form,” he told Henri Ghent. “And I felt by using these tracks of color up and down and across the canvas that I learned a great deal about the color’s action.” The colors could now “walk like free men” because Bearden had found a way of using advice that his friend Stuart Davis had given him: “that in a painting color has a position and a place, and it makes space.” Davis, who also used jazz as a recurrent theme in his work, played Bearden his records of Earl Hines’ piano stylings, with their dazzling, Louis Armstrong–derived staccato octaves, and he talked to Bearden about how a painter could use a jazz musician’s sense of intervals in his handling of color. A Walk in Paradise Gardens, 1955, shows how successfully Bearden had come to handle color not as a separate entity but as form itself, the very means of creating space in a painting. The thick tracks of color form the figures almost in bas-relief, and the colors themselves are juxtaposed in surprising ways without Bearden’s ever surrendering control.

A mathematics major in his undergraduate years and a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the Sorbonne, Bearden has a proclivity for logical juxtaposition and a taste for aphorism. When Henri Ghent asked him if, as a man and artist, he had any desire to escape from reality or tensions, Bearden replied: “I think the way to escape from reality is to get to the heart of it; confronting it, moving to the core is the only way.” He went on to liken this to flight into the eye of a hurricane, where calm is surrounded by destructive force.

Bearden’s “Projections” of the 1960s were not only the result of his decisive turn to collage in 1963, but also the successful articulation of Bearden’s attitudes as an artist toward political and social upheaval. The Spiral Group, concerned with the position of the black artist in relation to the civil rights movement, met initially at Bearden’s Canal Street studio. With Norman Lewis as its first chairman, the group included Charles Alston, Emma Amos, William Majors, Richard Mayhew, Merton Simpson, Hale Woodruff, and James Yeargans. It was the time of the first march on Washington, and the group met to discuss hiring a bus and joining the demonstration. Bearden’s work with photomontage emerged almost improvisationally from the idea of a collaborative collage by the members of Spiral. Everyone lost interest but Bearden, and he went ahead on his own. He enlarged his small photomontages photostatically from their original dimensions, about the size of a piece of typewriting paper, to 3 by 4 feet, or 6 by 8 feet. These and other “Projections” were first shown at Cordier & Ekstrom, New York, in October 1964, then at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. in October 1965, both times exhibited with their source collages. They seemed a radical departure from Bearden’s abstract paintings of the 1950s and early 1960s, because of their photographic and documentary quality. While they spanned the entire range of Bearden’s memories of the South, Pittsburgh, and Harlem, a number of them represented urban street scenes filled with faces set against brick walls, stairways, lamp posts, tenement windows, latticed fire escapes, and bridges. The Street and The Dove, both 1964, show Bearden striving for maximum multiplicity in his use of space. The faces and bodies are built up from portions of photographs taken out of their original spatial configurations, and are quite different in scale from one another.

In 1975, in a rare letter to a critic (the review, in the International Herald Tribune, had stated, “His collages are peopled by black faces cut out of magazines”), Bearden took pains to explain how he used a variety of found objects to create relationships that did not exist among them prior to the collage:

In most instances in creating a picture, I use many disparate elements to form either a figure, or part of a background. I build my faces, for example, from parts of African masks, animal eyes, marbles, mossy vegetation, [and corn]. . . . I then have my small original works enlarged so the mosaiclike joinings will not be so apparent, after which I finish the larger painting. I have found when some detail, such as a hand or eye, is taken out of its original context and is fractured and integrated into a different space and form configuration it acquires a plastic quality it did not have in the photograph.4

In the photomontages distortions of scale and fracturings often extend the larger rhythms of Bearden’s picture, but are always subordinated to the total structure. This structure is set, as it had been in Bearden’s 1940s watercolors, by the rectangle, although its mathematical precision is obscured by the jarring immediacy of the photographic images. As Bearden told Henri Ghent in 1968, “I first put down several rectangles of color, some of which, as in a Rembrandt drawing, are of the same ratio as the canvas.” “Slanting directions I regard as tilted rectangles,” Bearden wrote in Leonardo in 1969, “and I try to find some compensating balance for these relative to the horizontal and vertical axes of the canvas.”

The underlying rectangular structure of Bearden’s photomontages is overwhelmingly clear in his transformation of the 1964 “Projection,” The Street, in a large collage (roughly 3 by 4 feet) of the same title over a decade later. The 1975 Street abstracts much of the Projection’s documentary detail by the use of broad areas of color and cut-and-pasted paper. Large, masklike facial images still anchor the bottom right and upper left of the picture, a bridge occupies the upper right, the face of a boy tilted diagonally right is near the center, and a guitar player establishes the central group of figures. But in the more recent version, as if the viewer could penetrate the tenement wall, there are three rectangularly framed interiors—a figure, seen from above, ascending a stairway; a couple embracing; a mother holding her baby. Outside, a plane of green light parallels the stairway railings. The massive fingers of the man standing just behind the black cat in the 1975 Street are those of a piano player (probably Earl Hines), transposed note for note from another 1964 collage, Jazz 1930s: Grand Terrace Ballroom.

One test of the lasting validity of the “Projections” is that today, when the very word “confrontation” seems antiquated, part of an era now far removed, images like Spring Way remain immediate and eloquent. In fact, detached now from the rhetoric and the emotion of the mid 1960s, which inevitably lent their reception an ambiance of political and social protest, the “Projections” seem more eloquent, the statement of a sensibility that was not caught up in the hurricane, but instead had found its eye.

In a transition toward his collage method in the 1960s, Bearden had experimented with various combinations of déchirage, collage, and the use of broad areas of color. The day before leaving Paris, his friend Albert Murray remembers, “Romie spent the whole day buying papers . . . all kinds of drawing papers, rice papers, special sizes and surfaces, different colors.”5 In his experiments, Bearden painted broad areas of color on rice paper of various thicknesses and glued these sheets to canvas, usually in several layers. He then tore sections of the paper away, always attempting to tear upward and across the picture plane until some motif engaged him. When this happened, he added more papers and painted additional colored areas to complete the painting.

Collage is almost by definition an improvisational medium, in that it allows the artist to combine found objects from the everyday world—pieces of wood, fragments of photographs from old catalogues, fabrics—and literally “play with” them until they form a related composition. Bearden has been able to synthesize the classical temper of his art—his liking for the interiors of the little Dutch masters, the precision of Mondrian, and the frontality of African sculpture—with the improvisational nature of collage. The stylistic possibilites he has opened up by means of this synthesis have been rich and surprising.

In the late 1960s, Bearden synthesized the texture and color of the small original collages from which the “Projections” had been made with the monumental scale of the “Projections” themselves. By 1967, Bearden had moved to larger canvases, often 4 by 5 feet, was working in color, and was handling the paper differently. Instead of using prepared colored paper, Bearden now painted the paper himself before pasting it down on hard Masonite board.

His work since 1971 has moved away from inclusion of photographic materials. There is much less fracturing of parts of the body, particularly the face, and less distortion for effect. The collages of the 1960s, frequently filled with figures, have given way to compositions often focused on one or two people. They rely more on pure color because, as Bearden comments, “It gives the work more sonority, more amplitude.”

“Of the Blues” and “Of the Blues/Second Chorus,” the first a series of collages and the second a kindred series of oils-on-paper or monoprints, gave Bearden and his friend, the novelist Albert Murray, the opportunity for the closest of collaborations. Murray, whose phrase “The Prevalence of Ritual” was used as early as 1964 for a group of “Projections,” wrote the catalogue introduction for “Of the Blues,” suggested some of the sequences, and wrote virtually all of the titles for both exhibitions. Bearden’s work here was particularly rich and celebratory. He was coming to exploit the possibilities of collage as an improvisational medium in a way that allowed him to unite a freer, more open approach to the canvas with his very subject matter, blues improvisation.

Carolina Shout, 1974, a striking collage from “Of the Blues,” is a fine example of the synthesis of subject and style. As Murray commented, “The figures suggest an ecstatic high point in a downhome church service. At the same time, however, the title, made famous by a Harlem stride-piano composition [by James P. Johnson], implies that the movements and gestures are not unrelated to the dance hall, the juke joint, the honky tonk, and the barrel house.”6 The collage sets a group of masklike figures against a hot red ground, and is an early instance of the way Bearden now approaches painting. In his recent work, which has moved from collage with oils to oil painting with collage, Bearden begins by painting broad areas of color on a fine, acid-treated Arches paper on Masonite. In the way of masters like Goya and the Venetians, who painted on reddish brown bolas grounds (consisting of red ocher and gesso tempered with linseed oil), letting these play through in their paintings, especially in the shadows, Bearden will first allow the ground to predominate. Thus the ground gives a unifying effect to the picture. Then he will weave in other colors. Finally he lays in the figures, now cut from paper and painted. He has come very close to fulfilling an intention he expressed to Carl Holty as early as 1949: of exploring the possibility of abstracting light by means of color as form. “I rather envision large planes of light that spell out the form,” Bearden wrote, “with the philosophic intent that in a world of darkness we could hardly conceive of form except in a tactile sense. And in a sense, the artist with his colors lights his world.”

Autumn Lamp, 1983, an oil with collage, is Bearden’s most recent guitar player; the work is warm in texture and quite musical. It did not come easily. Watching it change was the visual equivalent of a pianist’s sense of wonder as he listened to Bud Powell’s three successive versions of “Un Poco Loco” (1951), a classic of jazz improvisation. In fact, Bearden likened the struggle to jazz: “You do something, and then you improvise.” As Monet observed of Manet’s Olympia, 1863, Manet always wanted his paintings to have the air of being painted at a single sitting, but often he would scrape down what he had executed during the day. He kept only the lowest layer, which had great charm and finesse, on which he would begin improvising. In this sense, for Manet, a painting was never absolutely finished. This is no less the case for Bearden: “As my friend Carl Holty used to say, ‘Don’t close your picture too quickly. Keep it open until the very last, and that gives you room to maneuver.’” Bearden will reach a point he calls “getting onto the surface” of the painting, when he feels he has the composition under control. “All the elements seem to focus so that the colors and the forms will set. And at that point, I can relinquish the painting.” That is the way it happened with Autumn Lamp. Bearden began with other ideas and then improvised. “It just wasn’t setting right to me. I had it another way without the denim shirt on, and then I knew when I put these denim sections in that it had a kind of set to it. I don’t know how I can define that. He just seemed to be sitting in the picture right.” By the time Autumn Lamp was finished, the only fabric remaining was a small section at the upper part of the guitarist’s shirt surrounding his square chin. His guitar is at rest on his thigh; his long hands are at rest one on top of the other. There is a wise smile on his lips and in his knowing eyes; he has played.

Bearden wrote recently to a young artist-in-residence who was confused by his latest work. It seemed to violate many of the rules she had been taught about color, harmony, and structure, yet she found it beautiful. How should she proceed? Bearden explained that only after a long period of rigorous self-training in the work of Renaissance, Chinese, and African masters was he able to understand those mysterious elements of structure that need only be implied: “[H]ow to take the life . . . of the painting and let it, so to speak, breathe. All this, I’m sure, is a matter of being confident that finally everything will turn out all right, because for the most part you struggle along in a deep, colorful fog.” To paint in the way the artist’s letter suggested she would like to, Bearden wrote, “You must become a blues singer—only you sing on the canvas. You improvise—you find the rhythm and catch it good, and structure as you go along—then the song is you.”

A careful look at both his earlier and his latest work and at his struggle with problems of composition shows that Bearden’s fundamental attitudes toward art have remained constant. He has simply continued to grow by resynthesizing all his past work with each new modulation in style. The guitar player of Autumn Lamp is the latest transformation of a memory that goes back nearly sixty years to an old July, when E.C. Johnson sat on a tree stump telling a little boy how his sound came from the wind moving through his fingers over the guitar strings. He is by no means Bearden’s final statement on the blues, Mecklenburg, or memory, but one more stop on a long odyssey back home to a place that, in the last analysis, belongs to all of us.

Myron Schwartzman is an associate professor in the Department of English at Bernard M Baruch College of CUNY, and is working on a biography of Romare Bearden.



1. Romare Bearden, interview with Henri Ghent, June 29, 1983, and the Romare Bearden papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, also interviews with the author. Subsequent Bearden quotations attributed to his interview with Henri Ghent are from the source mentioned.

2. Excerpts from the correspondence between Romare Bearden and Carl Holty are contained in the Carl Holty papers, Archives of American Art.

3. From a letter written by Bearden in reply to an inquiry from a young painter, 1984.

4. Letter to Michael Gibson, June 15, 1975, in the Romare Bearden papers, Archives of American Art.

5. Quoted in Calvin Tompkins. “Profiles: Putting Something Over Something Else,” New Yorker, November 28, 1977.

6. Albert Murray, “The Visual Equivalent of the Blues.” in Romare Bearden: 1970–1980. Charlotte, N.C.: Mint Museum, 1980 (exhibition catalogue), pp. 17–28.