THE ART of Romare Bearden -- things being what they are in America today -- tends to wear a label. He is ususally referred to as one of America's best black artists. One of America's best artists is closer to the mark.
Harlem, it is true, is Romare Bearden's home, and frequently his subject. The odalisques, the witches, the farmhands and musicians he so masterfully portrays are almost always black, and the blues may be heard singing in his sweet-yet-rough collages. But to screen his work for blackness does it a disservice. For Romare Bearden's art is an art of integration. So layered are its messages, so numerous its sources, that his 10-year retrospective -- which goes on view today at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- in the end affirms the irrelevance of race.
The finest of his pictures -- most of them are small, and the best of them are masterful -- easily acknowledge a dozen art traditions. One of these is that of the African woodcarver, for Bearden draws with knives. He cuts and pastes his pictures, and the haunting and majestic faces of his figures often look like masks.
Black music is another theme of this exhibition. The artist oftens listens to records while he draws, putting lines on paper, as "a kind of shorthand to pick up the rhythms and the intervals." In fact, he once wrote songs (a tune of his called "Seabreeze" was recorded in the '50s by singer Billy Eckstine). The images recurring here, the trains and birds and sailing moons -- "journeying things," he calls them -- are things blues singers sing of. Jazz is senses well here, for that instrumental music -- in which each performer, while improvising freely, contributes to the whole -- is, after all, a kind of audio collage.Bearden understands that. The eye that scans his pictures sees each bit of cloth or paper step out before it fellows to play its own small solo.
Harlem's spirit, Africa's, and that of black music, haunt this exhibition. But Bearden's work, in many ways, is mainstream Western art.
It owes as much to Picasso, the inventor of collage, as it does to Charlie Parker, and no less to Matisse than to Fatha Hines. Bearden, in this show, conjures Troy as well as Harlem. When his most admiring fans, perhaps out of pride, exaggerate his blackness -- and slight his debt to Europe -- they seriously mislead.
"Bearden's background," writes Albert Murray, "is hardly distinguishable from that of the great majority of the outstanding blues-idiom musicians of his generation." But that is not really true.
Bearden's family, for one thing, was relatively privileged and relatively wealthy. If Harlem had a ruling class, the Beardens were of it. The painter's mother Bessye J. Calvin Tompkins tells us, was "New York editor of the Chicago Defender, the widely read Negro weekly; chairman of her local school board (after having been the first woman appointed to a school board in New York City); national treasurer of the Council of Negro Women; a member of the executive board of the New York Urban League. She had dealt in real estate, and in 1935 she was appointed Deputy Collector for the Third New York Internal Revenue District. She was a political force in Harlem . . . and the founder and first president of the Negro Women's Democratic Association -- someone you came to when you wanted to cut through red tape and get action. Everyone in Harlem knew Bessye J., and Bessye J. knew everyone: Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Bethune, councilmen and judges, editors and mayors, not to mention all the musicians . . . Duke Ellington was a friend of the family . . . Fats Waller used to drop in regularly."
Bearden in his long life -- he is now 66 -- would come to know as many stars in the world of art.
Bearden might have played baseball in the major leagues -- his pitching was exceptional, and his skin was light enough so that he might have "passed." He might have been a scientist -- he graduated from New York University with a degree in mathematics. But Bearden had another goal. He preferred to draw.
In 1936, he began to study with the German expatriate George Groez, that master of the acid line, who, Bearden would say later, "made me realize the artistic possibilities of American Negro subject matter."
Bearden, in the next few years, would be taught much the same lesson by the painter Stuart Davis. "I had gone to him to find more about the avant-garde, and he kept trying to make me appreciate the fact that as far as he was concerned, the esthetic conventions of Harlem musicians, to which so many of my habitual responses were geared, were just as avant-garde as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Mondrian and the rest. By the way, jazz, especially boggie-woogie, was the main thing Mondrian wanted to talk to Davis about during the several times they met."
The world of modern art, although ruled by whites, was never closed to Bearden. In 1945, he had a one-man show in Washington at Caresse Crosby's G. Street Gallery. In the next three years, Bearden had three shows at Samuel Kootz's in Manhattan, a gallery that also showed the work of Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell. And when, in 1950, Bearden went to Paris, he did so armed with letters of introduction to Braque, Picasso and Brancusi. He did not seek out Picasso -- he said it would be like "shaking hands with the Eiffel Tower" -- but he did meet Braque, and Brancusi became a friend. Soon after he returned to the United States, Bearden spent three years freely copying Old Masters. "I did that with Giotto, Duccio, Veronesse, Rembrandt, -- right on up to Monet." What one might well call "whiteness" coexists with blackness in this untroubled art.
"In the '20s, Benny Goodman used to come up to Harlem a lot. He was teaching himself about jazz the only way he could, and he had to become a little black to learn it," Bearden said to Calvin Tomkins. "By the same token, when I started copying and learning from those pictures by Vermeer and Delacroix and the rest, in a sense I was joining the white world. It's all a little more complicated than some people try to make out."
Bearden, after all, is not a sculptor, but a painter, and painting is an art more of Europe than of Africa. Many were his guides. It was Bearden's long immersion in European painting that led him to collage, and through collage to the wellsprings of his own black-accented art.
One sees that in this show. Behind the barbershops and churches, fireplugs and funerals, liquor stores and lovers, and dozen rhyming golden moons of the largest picture here -- "The Block" of 1971 -- one reads an organizing grid as rigorous as those that govern the interiors of Vermeer. Bearden is much taken by the works of the Dutch Masters. Picasso moves him, too. One sees that in the light bulb, an image out of "guernica," that appears more than once in this exhibition. The animals that Bearden cuts -- the cat of "The Grey Cat" (1979), the cock of "The Morning of the Rooster" (1980) -- also are related to the paintings of that master. Matisse is present, too, most obviously perhaps in the graceful cutout nudes that langorously recline in Bearden's "Hidden Valley" and in his "Dream Images" (both 1976). Yet the citing of such masters -- like the citing of the blues, the Madonna or Odysseus -- never seems to undermine the originality of Romare Bearden's art.
Bearden at his weakest might drift too close to Peter Max, but his finest pictures here -- say, "Electric Evening" (1976), a picture moist with summer heat and bedroom sensuality, or "Miss Bertha & Mr. Seth" (1978), in which the two big-handed figures pose in regal grandeur -- look like no one else's.
Bearden's art does not protest, it does not raise a fist. Lovingly and lucidly it celebrates its subjects. It hymns, it does not scream. "Romare Bearden: 1970-1980," a traveling exhibit organized by the Mint Museum of Charlotte, will remain on view in the newly restored galleries of the Baltimore Museum of Art through June 14.