New York

Romare Bearden

With this memorial retrospective, Romare Bearden clearly emerges as a major American artist, of the order of Stuart Davis. That is, like Davis, Bearden assimilates Modernist modes to his own ends. While Bearden ostensibly deals with black life—initially rural and eventually urban—themes of universal consequence pervade his art. Images of woman, for example, recur throughout his oeuvre, not only in the remarkable “Conjur Women” series of 1964 but to more pointedly erotic ends in paintings such as Madame’s White Bird, 1975 and Storvyille, 1979. Similarly, Bearden’s use of Modernist fragmentation, and the Modernist dialectics of abstraction and representation (manifest here as juxtapositions of painted planes and photography), are put to mythopoeic use. That is, they become symptomatic—indeed, emblematic—not only of the tensions in black American life but in modern life more generally.

Bearden, in fact, relies heavily on myth, whether biblical or classical in origin. It is as though only myth, rationalizing historical experience into a sublimely meaningful whole, can make life worth the suffering. Myth is the defense of the victim as well as the lie of the victor. For Bearden, a member of a victimized people, the ultimate myth is theodicy: God is excused for allowing evil to exist, because it is a way of achieving a higher good. Indeed, in Bearden’s use, the complex achievement of esthetic integrity is a process of theodicy and salvation: art rationalizes evil and unhappiness, making them bearable.

Thus, thematically religious works such as Madonna and Child and Resurrection, both 1945, signal Bearden’s later use of myth to dignify black intention, as in Sermons: The Walls of Jericho, 1964. The black warriors will prevail, and the walls of prejudice—the enemy—will come tumbling down. The broad, flat, relatively symmetrical synthetic cubist compositions of Summer Song and Three Folk Musicians, both 1967, confer a kind of dignity on otherwise anonymous figures. Indeed, Bearden tends to use cubist fragmentation—broken space—with a kind of ritual solemnity; ironically, it implies the brokenness of the black lives it memorializes.

At the same time, faces are often left more or less intact, as in Watching the Good Trains Go By and Evening: 9:10; 417 Lenox Avenue, both 1964. Full of character—symbols of survival—they presumably speak for themselves, but the important point is that they are foci of stability in near-chaotic scenes. This is Bearden’s repeated strategy: the face, and sometimes the whole figure, becomes an island in a fragmented world. It is itself a passing fragment, but one peculiarly anchored in itself, and as such not entirely subject to the blind flow of seemingly fated events.

Bearden experimented with a great variety of styles, but his best works are his collages, or, like many later works, are collagelike. Improvised groupings of elements that do not seem to belong together are forced into the same rather intimate space. They never lose their sense of being added on extraneously. As Bearden indicates, the collage is the ideal medium for the expression of the outsider’s feeling of being extraneous or alien—of not belonging even though he is clearly a part of the picture.

Donald Kuspit