Unsentimental Journey

The Studio Museum in Harlem kicks off a retrospective of the collagist Romare Bearden

When Romare Bearden (191288) abruptly abandoned abstract painting in the early 1960s, he found not only a perfect match of subject (urban life in Harlem and memories of its rural Southern roots) and medium (collage). He also discovered a working method with which he could distill sentiment into real beauty. In Bearden's best work, the color sense is every bit as fine-tuned as Josef Albers's (and a lot less lablike) and the composition is as tight as that of Stuart Davis, whom Bearden admired. With his ingeniously incongruous figure fragments, his blazing reds and subtle grays, his surgeon's scissor cuts, Bearden could hold together a bigger straight collage Oust paper and paint, no junk) better than just about anyone else, with the probable exception of late Matisse. Moreover, with his chromatic shards, Bearden constructed a visual narrative of the black American experience that is finally the equal of the same epic tale told in music and literature.

But Bearden never quite made it into the same art pantheon (and its big, expensive history books) as such contemporaries as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Sharon Patton, curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, says its Bearden retrospective (at over 140 works, the largest ever) aims to rescue the artist from a reputation as "a collagist who made pretty pictures." (The exhibition runs through Aug. 11, then travels to Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.) The show's catalog also argues that one reason for the neglect is that Bearden was black.

Yes, Bearden has been underrated, and race was likely a factor. But the main reason was his style: Bearden was simply out of step during the heyday of gargantuan abstract painting (the largest picture he ever made was a parlor-size 60 by 56 inches). It's unfortunate, then, that the two catalog essays (by Patton and Mary Schmidt Campbell) make so many asides about a predominantly white art world; such frequent interruptions of an account of Bearden's genius comes off more as defensive posturing than art-historical insight.

Bearden, who spent his childhood summers in Mecklenburg County, N.C., and his adolescence in Pittsburgh, graduated from New York University with a degree in math. (His mother, Bessye, was the New York editor of The Chicago Defender and played host to the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes.) An accomplished jazz musician (his tune, "Sea Breeze," was recorded by Billy Eckstine), Bearden enjoyed his only formal art training under George Grosz at the Art Students League. Nevertheless he became a passable if not impassioned social-realist painter, and his subsequent style--a stained-glass-pretty brand of cubism-earned him a place in the stable of the estimable Samuel Kootz Gallery in 1945. But three years later Kootz veered toward abstract expressionism and dumped the artists who didn't go with the flow. So Bearden took off for Paris.

Back in Harlem in the early 1950s, he took a studio above the Apollo Theatre and belatedly found his way into abstract painting. Not the grandiose, muscular action painting getting most of the art world's attention, but a mild, Zen-ified version of it. But even this gave him a severe case of the doubts: "When I look at Stamos, Baziotes and the rest," he wrote at the time, "I wonder what point their work has, and to what end does it drive." Bearden was wakened from his esthetic torpor by the civilrights movement of the early 1960s. He founded a black artists' group called Spiral and began to make small, jumbly collages of black city life from newspaper and magazine photographs. One Spiral member thought the works a little precious (the tiny pieces of paper were all feathered exactly into place), so Bearden turned some of them into large photo-blowups. When a dealer, Arne Ekstrom, saw them sitting in a corner he exclaimed, "There's your next show!"

The first batch he showed, in 1964, was all black and white; they seemed trapped and angry, though not necessarily more so than any of Picasso's broken-faced people. Then the artist began to add color (mostly colored paper) and increase the size of his work, and the collages blossomed and matured into a major statement in American art. The work was critically praised, and a line of public and private collectors quickly formed. Bearden, who was hardly an art-world martyr, is revealed here as an artist big enough to do some negligible work and still end up great. He requires a celebration, not a corrective. And, a few quibbles aside, this show is it.