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Bearden retrospective leaps over race's barriers

September 24, 2003|Stanley Meisler | Special to The Times

WASHINGTON — The grand and stirring exhibition of the works of Romare Bearden, which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington last week, is far more than a retrospective. It is a celebration -- a celebration of the art establishment's anointment of this African American painter and collagist into the highest ranks of American artists.

There has often been a tendency to lump African American artists into a special and lesser place -- as genre painters of black life. Bearden, who died in 1988 at the age of 76, always called on his African American colleagues not to limit themselves in this way. "The Negro artist," he said, "must come to think of himself not primarily as a Negro artist, but as an artist." Yet, as Bearden often complained, the American art establishment did not think the same way. For those with influence in the art world, he said, "the Negro artist is usually not ... on the scene."

There is no doubt that Bearden is now "on the scene." The current exhibition is only the sixth major retrospective that the National Gallery of Art has organized for an artist who worked in the second half of the 20th century. The others were Georgia O'Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko and Henry Moore. After leaving Washington, the Bearden exhibition goes on to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, and Atlanta's High Museum of Art.

Although he never achieved the popularity and name recognition of O'Keeffe or Calder, Bearden was not ignored during his lifetime. He received many accolades and several museum exhibitions. Critics and collectors were intrigued by his intricate collages that told no simple narrative story but often explored African American life in complex beauty.

Hilton Kramer, the former New York Times art critic and now executive editor of New Criterion, a monthly review of the arts, says, "I've long considered Bearden an important figure because he brought a very powerful account of black life into modernist painting and the application of cubist form. It was a brilliant synthesis of black folklore and modernist form.

"But," Kramer goes on, "in the world I dealt with, the people who ran the galleries and museums, no one spoke of him as a black artist. He was an important artist."

The tension between Bearden as an African American artist and Bearden as a universal artist infuses the mood of the exhibition. It is natural for African Americans to take pride in Bearden, and the District of Columbia, which has a majority black population, is touting the National Gallery show as the cornerstone of a 10-week cultural festival called "Blues & Dreams: Celebrating the African-American Experience in Washington."

But Ruth Fine, the curator of the exhibition, cautions against labeling Bearden as a paragon of black experience. "Yes. Black experience is embedded in his art," she said at an opening day seminar at the gallery. "But so is all experience.... I think we have to meet Bearden on his own ground. To do less is to cheat Bearden and cheat ourselves."

Bearden grew up in the Harlem Renaissance. He was born in Charlotte, N.C., in 1911, but his family moved to Harlem three years later. Both parents were middle class and had attended college. His father worked as an inspector for the department of health, his mother as the New York correspondent of the Chicago Defender, an influential African American newspaper. Their apartment was one of the gathering points of the Renaissance, and the young Bearden would meet visitors like writers Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, musicians Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, actor Paul Robeson and NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois.

It was many years before he could earn a living from art. After graduating from New York University in 1935, Bearden became a social case worker among Gypsies for the city's Department of Social Services. Except for breaks for military service during World War II and for some postwar travel in Europe, he would hold that post until he retired in 1969 at the age of 58. Until then, he painted and created collages only in the evenings and on weekends.

As an artist, Bearden always kept a foot in each of two camps: Harlem and downtown. He associated with African American artists like the renowned Jacob Lawrence uptown, for example, while studying with George Grosz, the bitter German satirical painter, and befriending Stuart Davis, the white American modernist painter, downtown. The dichotomy produced the essence of his art: He was a daring modern artist experimenting with materials and reaching for beauty while often mining the African American experience for subject matter.

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