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Romare Bearden: Assembling America

The Street by Romare Bearden, 1964
Milwaukee Art Museum/John R. Glembin/© 2020 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Romare Bearden: The Street, 12 7/8 x 15 3/8 inches, 1964; from Bearden’s ‘Projections’ series

Every year, Congressman John Lewis has made a pilgrimage to honor the anniversary of the campaign to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. The journey began on Sunday, March 7, 1965, when Lewis, then twenty-five years old and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was severely beaten and nearly killed by state troopers as he led six hundred peaceful protesters in a march that started at a church in Selma and was forcibly intercepted by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after the Confederate general and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

During the month of what culminated in a roughly fifty-mile protest, the path of America changed. African-Americans made up more than half the population of Selma’s Dallas County, yet violently enforced voter suppression meant that only 2 percent of African-Americans in that county managed to make it through the registration process to exercise this legal right. Numbers can be abstract. As Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s research found, John Lewis’s great-great-grandfather registered to vote after emancipation in 1867, but due to the backlash of Jim Crow rule, no one else in Lewis’s family could do so for nearly one hundred years. The coverage of Bloody Sunday, as the Selma violence came to be known, in print and on television galvanized the nation and helped lead to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that summer. After the passage of that bill, Congressman Lewis and his parents could vote in Alabama.

At the end of Lewis’s most recent pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery, he wanted to speak at a gathering with other congressional leaders about the catalytic role of images for the history of justice in this country. I was surprised to receive the invitation to join him for this talk and expected that we would want to discuss the indispensable craft of civil rights photographers, from Spider Martin to Danny Lyon (who was a roommate of Lewis’s in the early 1960s in Atlanta, where they worked together on SNCC). But Lewis also wanted to speak about something else—how artists Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and especially Lewis’s friend Romare Bearden contributed to the long arc of the civil rights movement by changing the narrative about African-American life. Why would Bearden’s work have such resonance with Lewis’s journey? A new biography on the artist offers a revealing answer.

An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden by Mary Schmidt Campbell, the distinguished art historian, former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and president of Spelman College, tells the captivating story of how Bearden’s heritage, education, community, and politics informed the evolution of his artistic career. It addresses a foundational question: What is the role of the artist in the history of race and rights in this country? Campbell opens with a brief reflection on the work of Frederick Douglass. Before the New Negro Movement and the civil rights movement, it was Douglass who argued that images—specifically, the new medium of photography—had the potential to help America see itself more critically and capaciously. In lectures delivered during the Civil War, Douglass argued that pictures and images could help America out of its democratic crisis. As the most photographed American man in the nineteenth century, Douglass knew that photographs could inaugurate counternarratives that expand our notion of who counts, who belongs in society. His was a new argument about the power of representational justice—he asserted that being represented justly was a crucial tenet of democracy. At the end of one speech, Douglass said that, over a century later, others might develop these ideas. Bearden, who recognized the potency and complexity of images at an entirely different moment in American history, is the kind of figure Douglass had in mind. How this came to be, but almost didn’t, and how his family prepared him for the ordeal and triumph of it all, is laid out fully in An American Odyssey.

To many in the field, Bearden is as important as Picasso; others still need an introduction. I could not teach many of my art history courses without discussing Bearden, but I can never assume that students will know his work. Campbell does not concern herself with the fact that his is not, as she says, the “household name” that some argue it should be. Derek Walcott, writing about his friend, did not mince words:

When people talk of the great American artists I am irritated that they hardly mention Bearden. His name should be called along with people like Jackson Pollock—as he was clearly one of the greatest American artists of the twentieth century. And of course, he is left out because he was Black. We know that.

While Campbell does not dwell on the obstacles that Bearden faced, she does offer one example. In 1961 president-elect John F. Kennedy worked from the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. On the wall of his suite hung Bearden’s abstract painting Golden Dawn, a placement that Bearden’s then gallerist and dealer, Arne Ekstrom, had worked hard to secure. Campbell notes that Bearden’s name was left off the official list of those represented by the Samuel Kootz gallery two decades before. “Kootz, when interviewed years later for the Archives of American Art, lists all of the artists who exhibited in his gallery during the 1940s—except Romare Bearden,” Campbell writes. What could seem like a small omission is a signal of a larger pattern.

“To tell Romare Bearden’s story,” Campbell writes, “his personal odyssey, is to recount as well the story of how that world came to be.” Campbell crafts this story as a multigenerational tale. She begins by describing how Bearden’s great-grandfather Henry Kennedy, or “H.B.” as he was known, began working as a servant for Woodrow Wilson’s father. He became a successful businessman, landowner, and with Bearden’s great-grandmother Rosa, a homeowner, when they moved to the virtually all-black third ward of Charlotte, North Carolina, where “Romie” was born in 1911. Bearden’s parents, Howard and Bessye—who grew up around the turn of the twentieth century with racial segregation and the violence of the Black Codes of the South—soon became part of the Great Migration that changed the hue and tone of American cities. Yet we know from the influential work of Sherrilyn Ifill, Bryan Stevenson, and others that the northward migratory movement was fueled not only by opportunity, but also by fear of lynchings and other forms of extrajudicial violence—retribution for resistance to Jim Crow rule.

Campbell points out that Bearden came of age at a time when the political efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans used the arts and the printing press as weapons. “Visual narratives were etching themselves into national consciousness,” Campbell writes. Widely disseminated prints, engravings, and cartoons spread narratives that had reduced African-American families to “allegories of sloth, or worse, a threat to the moral order.” Bearden and his parents left Charlotte for New York City, eventually settling permanently in Harlem in 1915.

Bessye Bearden, far more social than her husband, was a civic leader and fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, and Romare grew up in the vibrant heart of the movement; artists and writers including Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes came to salons hosted by his mother in their home. The young Beardens lived near the Lafayette Theater, and were friendly with their neighbors Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher.

Campbell chronicles Bearden’s childhood in Harlem, and the earlier shorter stays in Pittsburgh (where he also briefly lived, with his maternal grandparents) and Charlotte. He was a careful and curious observer of the different ways of life in each place, and the varying experiences of these three homes would later figure in his art. After studying at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University and Boston University, Bearden transferred to New York University as an art education major and began drawing cartoons for magazines like W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Crisis, for which he also wrote, and entered debates about the stakes of black representation. He was part of the Harlem Artist’s Guild, worked with Augusta Savage at her Studio of Arts and Crafts, and in 1936 joined the informal but critically influential 306 studio on West 141st Street. At the Art Students League he studied with George Grosz, who had recently fled Germany after the Nazis withdrew his citizenship because of his political caricatures. Grosz exposed Bearden to the work of painters like Goya and Brueghel, and to the potential of politically subversive art.

After graduating, Bearden continued to pursue art at night while working as a social worker in Harlem with black migrants from the South who were dealing with impossibly cramped living conditions and abysmal medical care. He began painting images of the black working class, and managed to continue to paint during his stateside service in World War II. After the war he moved away from depicting the struggles of black Americans, a shift that Campbell attributes to the disenchantment he felt after the segregation and racism of the army, as well as to what he experienced as a rejection by some in his community back home, who found his portrayals harsh and questioned the authenticity of his representing these struggles from the vantage point of a middle-class life. He turned to painting abstract works that attended to “universal themes of death, rebirth, and war,” Campbell writes.

During and after his military service, Bearden often worked out of a studio right above the Apollo Theater on West 125th Street in Harlem, which he kept for twenty years. Ralph Ellison would go to Bearden’s studio in the 1940s to watch him paint, just as he was writing Invisible Man (1952). Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava created their monumental collaboration, Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), with funding from a Guggenheim fellowship for which Bearden served as a recommender.

In 1950 he spent a formative five months in Paris, where he studied with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard at L’Institut d’art et d’archéologie at the Sorbonne. After hours, he visited the studio of the late painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, met the writers Richard Wright and Albert Murray, and had dinner with James Baldwin (who read from what would become Go Tell It on the Mountain after cooking potatoes in a pan that was, in Bearden’s memory, big enough to accommodate a person). Back in New York, Bearden returned to his job as a social worker and married Nanette Rohan, a model with an agency devoted to addressing the media’s reductive and disparaging images of black women, and who would “change the course of his life,” as Campbell writes, and help him through a breakdown. He continued to paint large, abstract canvases and began working with Ekstrom, who hoped that Bearden would pursue another direction.

The path was not straight. While Bearden spent his childhood at the heart of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, Campbell writes, “it would take Bearden nearly thirty years for him to discover what his past had given him.” It was during the civil rights movement that he would return to directly engaging with narratives of myth, rituals, race, and rights in his art.

What should art by an African-American artist be? It was a question that resulted in public debate by leading intellectuals and artists such as Hughes, Alain Locke, and Du Bois, and that still echoes today. What precipitated the debate is what made Lewis march—the absence of civil rights meant protests of all kinds, including through culture. Artistic expression increasingly became a way to claim civic belonging during a period of segregation. As early as 1934, Bearden had entered directly into this fray with his essay “The Negro Artist and Modern Art” for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. In it, he argued that the “calling of the Negro artist” was to be genuinely, deeply connected to the everyday lives of people and devoted to addressing whatever the social or racial questions of the day might be. The artist

must not be content with merely recording a scene as a machine. He must enter wholeheartedly into the situation which he wishes to convey…. I don’t mean by this that the Negro artist should confine himself only to such scenes as lynchings, or policemen clubbing workers…. If it is the race question, the social struggle, or whatever else that needs expression, it is to that the artist must surrender himself.

Bearden had no interest in his work functioning as propaganda. For him, the impact of a work of art was bound to an artist’s discovery of his own idiom and vision of the world.

In 1963, inspired by the March on Washington, Bearden hosted a gathering of black artists in his fifth-floor loft on Canal Street (where he’d moved in the Fifties) in New York. The group, which became known as Spiral, included Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, and Emma Amos (the only woman), and was founded with the understanding that abstraction could still contribute to a discourse of race and rights. (At the time, black audiences generally felt that overt symbols of protest and political engagement were more meaningful than abstract art.) Spiral provided a space for its members to discuss inequality in the art world and to debate ideas about aesthetics. It also served as a forum for “discussing the commitment of the negro artist in the present struggle for civil liberties,” as Bearden recorded in his minutes for a meeting.

To one of Spiral’s meetings, Bearden brought a bagful of cutouts from magazines and journals—faces, figures, and objects from magazines like Life and Ebony, as well as images from an African art journal—hoping to encourage a collective project. The idea didn’t take hold. Nevertheless, as art historians Kobena Mercer and Rachael DeLue have shown, this moment was formative for Bearden. His experimentation with these scraps would lead to his first collages. In The Evening Meal of Prophet Peterson (1964), one of his earliest works in this style, which he contributed to the Congress on Racial Equality for an auction, we see his new form of visual release—a cacophony of influences all coexisting on the same flat, Cubist-inspired plane. A male figure sits to eat with his torso facing the food while his face, made from another piece of collage, faces the viewer. A female figure serves food; she has three faces spliced—two black and one white—her hair garlanded with flowers. This new form of collage so distorted black bodies that Ellison found them “disturbing.” Yet through this distortion, Bearden found means of pictorial declamation. He ultimately enlarged the scale of these collages and rendered them as black-and-white photographic works. Ekstrom noticed one of them rolled up in the corner of Bearden’s studio and suggested they be called Projections for his upcoming Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery show. Bearden exhibited twenty-one of them to widespread critical acclaim in the fall of 1964.

Projections are large, billboard-scaled collage works that convey public turmoil and uplift within American life, set in cotton fields, the South, Pittsburgh, and Harlem. Bearden created them by photographing source material with photo-sensitive paper, collaging various elements, and enlarging the images. This new practice of manipulation to create alternate visual narratives signaled a shift from earlier forays into wholesale abstraction and figurative painting. This pictorial language, built from a response to the political moment, defined the works for which he became best known.

Campbell emphasizes that the civil rights movement “attempted to forge a new way of being American, to open up the single narrative to multiple stories”; finding a form for this idea was Bearden’s conceptual gift. His work took contrasts—between cultures, between people—and eradicated these lines of division. Consider his Mother and Child (1971). Natural perspective is distorted—a head and torso of an Afro-diasporic figure is next to half of a white female face, while hands that seem to be cut out from a Renaissance painting are placed alongside part of a white child’s face apparently from a modern photograph. He was gathering photographs, prints, slashes of texture and color, with a modernist technique guided by improvisation, to let cultures coexist visually as they actually do in life. “Bearden’s meaning is identical with his method,” Ellison famously wrote. He pulled, juxtaposed, and layered a range of images from, for example, African diasporic art, the Dutch Golden Age, and the Harlem Renaissance to communicate the idea of multiplicity, that what many consider discrete cultures are not as distinct as is often thought.

Mother and Child by Romare Bearden, 1971
Private Collection/Bill Hodges Gallery, New York
Romare Bearden: Mother and Child, 24 x 18 1/2 inches, 1971

The series encompassed a whole visual world—“unearthed and reconstructed,” Campbell writes. It was “as if he was telling a story in terms of scale,” as Walcott put it, presenting our layered, myriad selves to the viewer all at once. For Projections, Bearden didn’t choose between representation and abstraction; instead, he “made the representational profoundly abstract,” Campbell says. “Images that could easily be trapped in the provincial precincts of race spiral outward, explosively, dislocated by the clash of multiple heritages.”

Campbell is forthright in addressing what became a central part of Bearden’s body of work during these years: his often explicit representation of black female figures. After coming into his distinctive style, Bearden continually returned to sacred and sensual female forms—including the recurring “conjur woman,” a black vernacular archetype with the power to conjure, to transform, and to transport—and made a number of works depicting regal black women, such as She-Ba (1970) and Palm Sunday Procession (circa 1967). In these Bearden achieved, as Campbell sees it, a classicization of black female bodies. Campbell, who organized her first museum show in 1975 of Bearden’s works depicting women, salutes the scholars and curators, from art historian Judith Wilson to curator Lowery Stokes Sims, who have given this topic comprehensive treatment. Sims astutely set Bearden in the company of Degas, arguing that he “makes us complicit in his voyeurism,” showing us women “in intimate settings or in private moments,” and in positions of power in heroic myths. Campbell notes that Wilson directly addressed what many had missed: that “Bearden managed to transcend the widespread stigmatization of Black sexuality,” as Wilson wrote, and purposefully contrasted the exalted and the “low-down.”

By the 1970s, Bearden was at the height of recognition during his lifetime—he received awards, commissions, and a first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1971, the second-ever retrospective for an African-American artist at the museum. (The first had been in 1937 for the folk sculptor William Edmundson.) Calvin Tomkins, in a 1977 New Yorker profile, wrote that “Bearden is generally referred to as America’s leading black painter.” But Tomkins also rightly pointed out that much of his work questioned what, precisely, that term might mean. “He confounds the taxonomies of conventional art,” Campbell writes, “and it is tempting to see him as an artistic Everyman. His beginnings were rooted in a sharply divided American culture, and reconciling these divisions was one source of his artistic restlessness.”

Bearden also worked as a researcher, chronicler, author, editor, and curator. In 1967 he co-organized, with Carroll Greene, a wide-ranging exhibition of fifty-five black artists called “The Evolution of Afro-American Artists: 1800–1950,” at Harlem’s City College, for which he and Greene located works that hadn’t been exhibited for years, and mounted a monumental research effort to write the catalog (difficult because many of the artists they were exhibiting did not have extensive archives).

“Black culture is involved far more into the whole cultural fabric of American life than we realize,” said Bearden, leading the 1969 roundtable “The Black Artist in America” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which featured Sam Gilliam Jr., Richard Hunt, Jacob Lawrence, Tom Lloyd, William Williams, and Hale Woodruff. “But it is up to us to find out the contribution that we have made to the whole cultural fabric of American life. No one else is going to do it.”

Bearden’s work has inspired the anthology The Romare Bearden Reader, in which the artist’s own groundbreaking essays sit alongside those by scholars and writers including Elizabeth Alexander, Ralph Ellison, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Toni Morrison, Kobena Mercer, Albert Murray, Richard Powell, and August Wilson—making the volume “unmistakably literary,” as editor Robert O’Meally writes in his introduction. The collection underscores the rich exchange—influences and translations, across media and generations—that has blossomed between Bearden and the artists who have followed him.

Two essays in The Romare Bearden Reader, by Morrison and by Alexander, complicate an interpretation of Bearden’s use of collage as a metaphor for social and racial fragmentation, arguing instead that it indicates a mode of understanding race as part of a layering and a “refusal ever to be only one thing.” Alexander argues that Bearden is a significant “theorist” about the “complexities of African American identity” as well as an artist without whom it is “difficult to imagine twentieth-century American Art.” Morrison confesses that her own writing process is “responsive to the work that Romare Bearden does,” and considers the “layered exercise” of her work as one that “has more elements in common with painting than with literature.”

O’Meally sees Bearden as caught up in the eternal broader search for what it means to know oneself: “What does it mean to be ‘modern’? ‘Black’? Or ‘American’? What does it mean to be an ‘artist’?… These were Bearden’s touchstone questions.” Campbell sees such questions as inextricably linked to Bearden’s role as a leader in the civil rights movement, and to his ability to find a unique visual idiom that could also communicate and be part of politics.

Scholars from Campbell to Alexander make clear how many artists, writers, scholars, and educators—of all kinds—are in Bearden’s lineage. In Campbell’s biography, Bearden’s handwritten letters to her are included as an appendix (they began a correspondence when she was in graduate school), and show that he graciously and methodically disseminated information to many young artists in a kind of pollination. Likewise, Alexander, in Poetry and Possibility (2007), tells of cold-calling Bearden in college with questions about his work, and says he responded with generosity and wisdom.

Congressman Lewis has made many other pilgrimages: he saw nearly every version of Bearden’s first museum retrospective when it traveled from Atlanta to Memphis, with many stops between. When I asked Lewis about him, stories began to pour out, and he confessed that he was asked once to part with a work by Bearden for a fundraiser. Generous as he is, he politely refused.

Bearden’s work as an artist and leader shows how the multiplicity of the black experience is central to understanding America. In 1964 Bearden told the critic Dore Ashton, “As a Negro, I do not need to go looking for ‘happenings,’ the absurd, or the surreal, because I have seen things that neither Dalí, Beckett, nor Ionesco, nor any of the others could have thought possible.” If Walt Whitman could collapse the world with words, Bearden could collapse it with form. Campbell’s biography masterfully illuminates how Bearden’s life and work was put in the service of the mission of our age, how grasping the method behind his practice allows us to understand the promise of America—a collage approach with an ecumenical embrace of coexisting difference that honors all of human life.