2011 was Romare Bearden’s centennial year, and it saw a plethora of exhibitions of the artist’s work around New York, including shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
This week at the Armory’s Art Show, presented by the Art Dealers Association of America, another, less well known side of Bearden’s work will be on view at Romare Bearden: Abstracts 1958-1962.
Bearden is best known for his collage and montage work (recently featured on a U.S. postage stamp), but he did not begin working in those forms in earnest until after 1963, and while he is often categorized primarily as an African American artist, most people have no idea that he was an Abstract Expressionist, and almost a major one. The art he created later in life is rightly that for which he is renowned, yet his early, abstract output remains of great interest and is on the verge of rediscovery.He was present at the very creation and core of the movement, and art critic John Canaday has written that he “could have kept on in this vein to develop into a leading member of the Rothko-Motherwell clan.”
Though he started his career as a political cartoonist in the 1930s (for newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American), Bearden turned to literary, mythic, and religious themes in the 1940s, before embracing Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During this period Bearden was represented by Kootz Gallery, which also represented Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, and William Baziotes. (How is this for unlikely connections in American culture: Bearden credited Baziotes with taking him to meet Wallace Stevens.) He was friends with Ad Reinhardt, who asked him to contribute to a journal at the time, and he was markedly active in the ab-ex scene.
After earning some money by writing the lyrics to the hit song “Sea Breeze,” Bearden took a break from painting. He moved from Harlem to Canal Street, and after a period of personal upheaval, followed by marriage, he began to study Asian art and thought. A local calligrapher named Mr. Wu helped instruct him. This influence, absent in his later work except in certain technical aspects, is clearly present, especially in Eastern Gate and Green Torches Welcome New Ghosts (pictured at left). But this period wasn’t a rejection of African American culture or heritage. When Bearden was profiled by the New Yorker in 1977 he told Calvin Tomkins “I don’t think any critic has ever gone into it, but Abstract Expressionism is very close to the aesthetics of jazz. That’s the feeling you get from it—involvement, personality, improvisation, rhythm, color.”
Bearden’s abstracts are starkly different from the work for which he is best known, heavily pictorial collages laden with themes and scenes from African American life and history; often both stoic and celebratory, angry and joking, tragic and comic all at once. Usually his collages and montages employ rich and inviting colors, as do his later oil monotypes (begun in 1974) that most often feature hazy, slightly out of focus scenes of musicians playing. The colors employed in his abstracts can be as jarring and discomforting as his later work can be inviting and hypnotizing.
There is something almost outrageous in the garishness of his early abstractions. Heart of Autumn, in the Armory exhibition (and pictured at right), features an aggressive teal that hardly brings to mind the joys of autumn. But Bearden is clearly seeking to complicate, upend, and perhaps make esoteric statements about color. (His 1969 book The Painter’s Mind, co-written with his colleague Carl Holty, is as wonky and technical book about painting as was ever written.) Green Torches Welcome New Ghosts, by contrast, is nearly figurative, suggesting a man, possibly a ghost. In Eastern Gate (pictured below) the heavy black swaths suggest Bearden’s study of Asian calligraphy, while a figure seems to be forming or dissolving. A red sun, possibly a tattered or aging Japanese flag, hovers in the background. The textures are all rough, and the scales are all large. The smallest piece is 56 x 42 inches, while the largest is 67 x 70 inches. There is much terrain and physicality to observe in person.
Another abstract, not in this exhibition, Bearden’s The Silent Valley of the Sunrise was included in last year’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York (link includes audio from MoMA curator Anne Temkin and Bearden). Notably, from what I can discern, Bearden appears to have been the first and last African American artist to have a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1971.
To appreciate their large scale and complex textures, Bearden’s abstracts are best viewed in person. Art historian Ralph Sessions described them, in a brochure for the exhibition, as “all-over paintings of organic, atmospheric forms, merging and coalescing.” In a 1961 review in the New York Times, Brian O’Doherty described them as being “full of suggestions of stratified earth, subaqueous suspensions and clear auroras of atmosphere.” They offer a glimpse at a road not taken to the end; and hint at where Bearden’s career might have gone.
But aside from imagining Bearden’s what-if career, it’s important to note (as has been discussed) that they may have paved the way for his later work. Also, as National Gallery of Art curator Ruth Fine noted in her 2003 catalogue to the NGA Bearden retrospective of that year, Bearden re-used some of the canvases from his abstract period during his major phase. Oddly (or fittingly) enough, the March selection for the 2012 Romare Bearden wall calendar features a 1975 collage titled Carolina Sunrise that seems to be pasted over a piece from this fascinating an unknown period, a “strange land” in and of itself.
‘Romare Bearden: Abstracts 1958-1962,’ presented by D.C. Moore Gallery, will be on view at the Park Avenue Armory from March 7-11.