"The Art of Romare Bearden" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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"The Art of Romare Bearden" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. October 14, 2004-January 9, 2005

The Romare Bearden retrospective that Ruth Fine organized for the National Gallery of Art has now arrived at the Whitney Museum of American Art where it is playing to large, boisterous crowds--not surprisingly, for even in its rare dark moments, Bearden's is an art of powerful sensuality and considerable emotional uplift.

Although the show has traveled to two other cities since opening in Washington last fall and has still one stop remaining (the High Museum, beginning in January) there is something particularly appropriate about the Whitney as a venue. This isn't simply because Bearden (who was born in 1911 and died in 1988) spent his entire career in New York, where he made collages depicting contemporary black life in Harlem and the rural south, as well as more exotic subjects such as mysticism and witchcraft. It's became Bearden's art answers the question implicit in the museum's name, "What's 'American' about 'American art'?" Like many American artists and writers before him, he steeped himself in the culture of Europe--in his case the pictorial culture-internalizing it and refashioning it into a language capable of giving voice to a uniquely American experience, in his case, that of a black living through the sociopolitical conflicts and transformations of his time. (There is an excellent essay in the catalogue by the National Gallery curator Sarah Kennel on Bearden's sources.)

Bearden's language was collage, though it was one he didn't come to until well into his maturity in the mid-1960s. He began as a painter, and a selection of his early work opens the exhibition. It's more revealing than most such "formative years" sections, which one normally hurries through in order to savor the artist's mature work. To be sure there are some respectable but unmemorable Abstract Expressionist pastiches. But what catches the eye are works like The Ascension of Christ in Glory (c. 1945/1946) and Madonna and Child (1945), painted in a manner that alludes both to the cloisonne style of Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror (1932) or church stained-glass windows and Byzantine mosaics. What's striking is the sheer number of these religious works and their complete lack of irony or its opposite, cloying sentimentality. Whatever use these devotional subjects served as a foil for stylistic experimentation and discovery, they strike one as bona fide statements of religious faith, and remarkable for being such. It's not the first thing one expects to find in a modern artist. Though it would be two decades before Bearden was to discover his signature idiom (when he would again take on a religious subject in the superb Expulsion from Paradise of 1964), these works demonstrate that two critical building blocks of his art are already well in evidence: the centrality of subject and narrative, and pitch-perfect emotional tone.

Bearden's collages, which he began making in earnest around 1963, effectively abandoning painting as his primary artistic medium, are sui generis. Rather than using broad planes of torn paper to create an abstract or quasi-abstract image in the manner of a Picasso or Motherwell, he uses his cut papers representationally, stitching a multiplicity of eclectic, carefully scissored fragments of magazine and newspaper illustrations into a narrative tapestry. Each individual image fragment has something of the character of a single brushstroke or brushed-in area of canvas, and each has its own distinct visual character resulting in abrupt (and deliberate) shifts in type, scale, and point of view from one part of the image to the next. Bearden's art has often been likened to jazz in its discontinuous visual rhythms, a comparison that is entirely apt.

It may seem retrograde for Bearden to have used a canonically modernist artistic form for representational ends, but in fact it was anything but. …