The Bearden Project

by Michael Pepi, Fall 2011

Romare Bearden was born in North Carolina on September 2, 1911, and one hundred years later the Bearden Foundation has organized a centennial celebration of his birth. The yearlong celebration will be spread across multiple entities and will take several forms. Major institutions with Bearden in their collections—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Queens Museum of Art, among others—will highlight Bearden’s work. Galleries and smaller institutions around the United States are likewise paying homage with special tributes, and the U.S. Post Office has even issued a series of commemorative stamps bearing reproductions of Bearden’s iconic paintings and collages. Yet beyond his status as a recognized master by the mainstream—in itself triumph for a black artist in the twentieth century—Bearden’s life remains such a paragon that the historicizing produced by the centennial cannot go unexamined without considering the influence such a process has on the contemporary politics of blackness and the black artist’s representational duties.

Recently a general question has emerged concerning the future of “black art” as a sustainable category and the way in which “racial objects” are created under this ideological formation. The careful reconsideration of the tenets of “black art” has for its chief advocate Darby English, who, in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, charges that it has been “exposed as one among those many residual identity frameworks painstakingly constructed for use in a time whose urgencies are simply not those of our own.” For English, the audience for so-called “black art” is now perpetually “tripped up” into performing the pre-defined “acts of recognition.” The “problem in need of reconsideration” is the category’s tendency to “articulate the black artist’s project before she, and it, have the chance to speak for themselves.” Lastly, English pointedly identifies certain historical constraints on artistic freedom imposed by an “idea of black culture developed in the shadow of Jim Crow.”

As much as Bearden is arguably the most significant African-American artist, throughout his life the notion of this role has been equivocal: an issue constantly re-engaged most precisely due to the subjective nature of identity politics, racialized viewing and competing notions of the black artist’s responsibility to address forms of oppression. In light of this discourse, the most instructive installment in the centennial celebration comes from the Studio Museum in Harlem, an institution that Bearden helped to found. For the Bearden Project, the Studio Museum has invited one hundred artists to create new works of art inspired, influenced or informed by Bearden’s life, work and legacy. For Bearden, an individual who so troubled the notion of the black artist, the Studio Museum responds by further diversifying the perspectives upon which the artist’s legacy is constructed, granting the artists license to practice other types of identification with the life and art of the preeminent black artist. This project becomes, in a sense, a laboratory in which the continuation of tenets of racial viewing, black art production and the responsibilities of the black subject are opened up to new inquiry. Do the Studio Museum and the larger project of the Bearden Centennial revise or support the imperative of “black art”? Or do they further institutionalize the very foundations that English implores us to re-think?

English’s framework for problematizing black art as a category in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness provides a critical context for the work produced in response to Bearden’s legacy. English’s counter-readings of canonical black artists’ work in his study suggest that further counter-readings are possible when contemporary artists likewise consider the fraught social and formal legacy of Bearden, one so inextricably linked with the aforementioned issues associated with the twentieth-century aesthetic category. Second, English mounts a negative theory of “black art” that challenges the resilience of blackness and its attendant signifiers to continually constitute a sense of purpose for the participant artists, all of whom are of African descent. For English, this latter issue is the “problem that history [of the construction of black art] poses for the present.”

The first element that might be counter-read out of the Bearden legacy would be the duty for the black artist to perform a type of “script” in which they “institutionalize [racial] difference.” Bearden himself brings forth two positions on this: his work with Spiral, the African-American artist collective, attempted to provide an answer to how the black artist should relate to the contemporary issues regarding civil rights and black political identity. Other critics and historians have interpreted Bearden’s work to have developed one of the master tropes of African-American expression (by way of ornately abstracted collage), and stress his depiction of black vernacular scenes as a singular part of his identification and practice as an artist. However, it is also important to consider Bearden’s purely formal explications that were devoid, on the surface, of cultural identification. His fascination with old masters and his abstract period seemed to diminish his allegiance to a racialized practice. Nonetheless, divergent approaches by Bearden, in both content and style, have been used to institutionalize difference. At last, the very founding of the Studio Museum has underwritten and perpetuated the “policing of black representational space” that English so scrutinizes throughout his text.

Bearden’s Conjur Woman (1964), like many of his photo collages, straddles the integrationist ethic with an eye to the Black Aesthetics’—which focused not on appeasing white art audiences but rather on improving black self-perception—obligation to champion African identity through natural forms; as Bearden himself stated, he strove to create “a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live.” The Bearden Project artists comment on both perspectives. Lorna Simpson, in Ebony Heads (2011), channels Bearden’s photo collage by superimposing colored ink drawing to emphasize features of her black subjects, at once locating the work within what may be conceived as the uplift narrative of the once formidable Black Aesthetic, while simultaneously acting as a critical gesture towards identity formation. Simpson’s position is perhaps a proxy for a consensus, if any, for the Project’s relationship to the dual nature of Bearden’s practice.

English also notes that black culture, in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, has often been couched in historicist terms, with each artist tested against his or her achievements in repairing the damage wrought through slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggle. Sanford Biggers’ Martyrs of the Race Course (2011), though formally inspired by Bearden’s mastery of rhythm and color, uses various textiles to resemble the American flag; the date “May 1st 1865” is scrawled on the lower right hand corner and represents the date of an early memorial procession for fallen Union soldiers organized by recently freed Kentucky slaves. Here Biggers responds through both formal apprehension and documentary significance, each a reference to the black Southern experience.

Elsewhere, aesthetic functions are performed in order to secure the racial identification of the artist subject. Several works at the Bearden Project comment on the use of such black signifiers, a term English uses in partial reference to the isolationist tenets of the Black Aesthetic Movement. More noteworthy, however, is the manner in which the relatively measured use of the Black Aesthetics iconography is overwhelmed by the strong presence of Bearden’s distinctive collage technique. Works by Hank Willis Thomas, John Outterbridge, Kerry James Marshall and Glenn Ligon are almost one-for-one odes to Bearden’s most iconic late career depictions of life in the South, as in Early Carolina Morning (1978) and Harlem, as in The Block (1978). Artists such as Edgar Arceneaux, Leonardo Drew, Dominque Moody and Kamau Amu Patton use the collage technique to more formalist ends. Ligon is significant here due to the particular content of his submission Pittsburg Memories, a reference not only to Bearden’s biography (his time spent in Pittsburgh) but also the reminiscent function of the later half Bearden’s oeuvre. Bearden’s post-abstraction, post-projection period is often cited as reflecting a more literal, robust sense of African-American iconography and identification.

The latter group of overtly Bearden-inspired collages moves towards English’s dream of “other types of identification” in which the artist is permitted to stand on the shoulders of the giants of black art without their content being subsumed into a racialized mode of perception. One also thinks of Hale Woodruff and Norman Lewis’s use of the abstract expressionist idiom at mid-century, though the work of the Bearden Project participants lends itself more directly to English’s “strategic formalism” as these are, by virtue of their inclusion in the centennial, inherently part of historical process. In line with English and perhaps other postmodern theorists, what lies before the audience at the Bearden Project is a less restricted, essentializing discourse, unencumbered by dogmatic identity representation, and instead a variegated collection of expressions, easily at home with the open directives of a diasporic sphere. The Bearden Project updates the contingent elements of racial viewing and thus further cultivates, if also complicates, the challenge to the black artist’s representational duties. By providing the individual works the power to speak specifically to the legacy of Bearden, and by extension to the fundamental tenets of black representation, the artists who have inaugurated the Bearden Project give merit to English’s enterprise.