at the Museum of Contemporary Art

By 1964, at the age of 52, the African American painter Romare Bearden was a success. He’d earned a BS in mathematics from New York University and had studied art with George Grosz at the Art Students League in New York and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. He’d worked as an editorial cartoonist and had helped form the Harlem Artists Guild. In addition to being a painter, he had a career as a social worker. Bearden’s large-scale abstract expressionist canvases of the late 50s and early 60s, as well as his earlier social realist and cubist works, had been frequently exhibited. His solo exhibitions at the Kootz gallery in New York (which also showed Baziotes, Gottlieb, and Motherwell) had been praised by critics; his work had been purchased by major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art. Bearden was at a point where he didn’t need to take artistic risks but could enjoy the reputation he’d earned. He could have simply continued to produce stunning abstract expressionist paintings.

But in the early 60s Bearden and other African American artists, composers, and writers in New York began discussing what forms African American art ought to take and how it could contribute to the civil rights movement. By 1964 he’d made a firm decision–to tell the story, in visual terms, of the lives of his fellow black Americans. This decision led to the startling, innovative collage paintings he made until his death in 1988.

Despite Bearden’s success during his lifetime, he is no longer well-known. His mainstream contemporaries of the 60s–pop artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein or abstract painters such as Stella and Olitski–have been written into histories of recent American art, while he is often omitted. Yet he transformed the medium of collage and can hardly be termed an obscure artist. Concerned that Bearden might be excluded from art-history texts, the Studio Museum in Harlem has organized a comprehensive retrospective of more than 100 of his watercolors, oil paintings, and collages. “Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987” will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art through November 10; then it will travel to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.

Bearden’s use of collage differed in significant ways from earlier uses. Picasso and Braque introduced fragments of newspapers or wallpaper into their cubist still lifes, inventing a new kind of representation in which these fragments signified reality rather than mimicking it, as the drawn portions did. In contrast, the surrealists used collage to create impossible illusions. Bearden did not use collage to create an abstract visual discourse, nor did he bring disparate found images together to create unsettling or nightmarish effects. Nor are Bearden’s collages particularly close in spirit to the humorous yet deadly serious collages of the dadaists, who melded words and photographs to form biting political commentaries.

Bearden relied on images drawn from a wide variety of sources–photographs of people, plants, animals, and buildings, African masks and sculptures, as well as colored papers–to create distinct worlds. His vision was broad and inclusive: each of his collages presents a lovingly constructed environment populated by people of all ages, in the city and in the country, greeting one another, working, playing music, mourning, or simply watching a rainstorm. Whether depicting good circumstances or bad, Bearden displayed a nonjudgmental acceptance of humanity–and it’s this generosity that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries.

Bearden’s first small-scale collages were made mostly of bits and pieces of photographs, cut apart, shifted, and rejoined to form a new image, which was then photographed and enlarged. Several of these large black-and-white “projections,” as they were called, are shown in the exhibit not far from his previous lyrical abstractions made of splattered and poured paint. The difference in style is striking.

Jazz (Chicago) Grand Terrace Ballroom–1930s (1964) shows saxophonists, a piano player, a drummer, and trumpeters nearly bursting out of the picture plane. When reassembling his cut-apart photographs, Bearden played tricks with scale–the piano player’s right hand, being enormous in relation to his own arm and the hands of the other musicians, looms forward, while his much smaller left hand sails backward. This great slide through space is dizzying, a visual parallel to a rapid arpeggio. A visual “beat” is established by the repetition of circular shapes (snare drums, bells of the saxes and trumpets, even a row of buttons on a player’s sleeve), and the effect of constant movement is increased by a predominance of active diagonal edges and the rapid alternation of light and dark tones. Yet the overall design–like the music it celebrates–is not chaotic. Large, weighty shapes (the musicians’ heads or bodies) control the movement, serving as stable contrasts to the many smaller shapes.

This work is linked in one important respect to many of Bearden’s collages: a main character (here the piano player) looks straight out at the viewer, so that as we look, we are regarded in turn. The gaze pulls us into the scene and prevents us from assuming the position of a distanced outsider. Bearden used this device in another impressive “projection” from 1964 titled Conjur Woman, in which a centrally placed woman with the eyes of an animal looks out at the viewer with a steady, direct gaze. Nearly blending here and there with the surrounding photographs of trees, grasses, and birds, she looks not at all surprised to see us. We’re the ones who are startled.

During the late 60s and early 70s Bearden expanded his collage techniques, introducing more color in the form of painted paper, watercolor, and color photographs. He also introduced more conventional spatial arrangements–backgrounds indicated by distant horizon lines and areas of sky, interior floors and walls denoted by rectangles–but at the same time emphasized a picture’s two-dimensionality with flattened areas or unusual treatments of scale. Many painters might have difficulty reconciling modeled and flat shapes in a single composition, but Bearden pulled it off. A number of his interior scenes, such as Blue Monday or Patchwork Quilt (both 1969) feature large and small blocks of cool colors, especially blues and grays, from which three-dimensional figures project. These figures are not at odds with their surroundings but are integrated with them by a simple device: they too are composed of flat colors and three-dimensional photo images. The collages from this period have a calm order recalling that of the Dutch painters, from Vermeer to Mondrian, Bearden had studied and admired.

During the 70s Bearden’s colors became increasingly vibrant and intense. The Street (1975), for example, derives part of its restless, busy feel from the clashing of highly saturated greens, reds, and oranges. This densely populated scene–filled with musicians, pedestrians, and people just hanging out, as well as secondary scenes in the windows of an apartment building–features no less than three individuals who gaze at the viewer. They compel us to feel part of the street, just as it is shown to be part of the larger city by the inclusion of a bridge and the Manhattan skyline in the distance.

Very few of Bearden’s collages present solitary figures. Being a visual storyteller, he placed the essence of his stories in the interactions of people with each other and with their surroundings. And as a skilled storyteller, he had an eye for telling details: Many scenes include distant trains that suggest the existence of other worlds, arrivals to and departures from the community, or simply longing for the unknown. Many others include a blood red sun, sometimes as a symbol of hope (as in the 1975 collage Morning of Red Bird, in which a woman greets a bird), and sometimes as a symbol of loss (as in Farewell Eugene of 1978, which depicts a funeral). Some of Bearden’s details, like laundry blowing on a clothesline or the many cats wandering through his streets, are simply celebrations of the ordinary.

During the 80s Bearden stepped up the intensity of his colors even more, adding large areas of bright watercolor or using watercolor alone. These late works, executed with ease and assurance, speak of a joy and love of life that recall Matisse. Bearden’s consistently humanistic vision doesn’t quite fit in with more prevalent views of man as alienated, ugly, or spiritually crippled (as expressed in the figurative work of Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, and Eric Fischl), and that’s no doubt one reason art historians have sometimes overlooked him. But mainstream or not, Bearden’s work is well worth getting acquainted with, and this show provides a thorough introduction.