“Where is Bearden’s room at a major art institution? Is there any better artist who speaks so eloquently and with such originality about America?” asked Russell Goings, poet, art collector, Bearden caretaker and chief organizer of a month-long tribute to Romare Bearden at the 92nd Street Y.
“The art of Romare Bearden was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of Black American life, but also its conscience. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since,” said playwright August Wilson. Poet Kwame Dawes quoted the playwright’s words in a preface to his three-movement poem.
Wilson’s play, “The Piano Lesson,” was deeply influenced by Bearden’s work of the same name. So was Dawes’s poetry. The famous painting was featured prominently on the giant screen display as Dawes opened with these lines: ”Bernice…I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits. They never be walking around this house.” Each movement was a collage of feeling, color and action: “Avoiding the Spirits,” “To Tame the Savage Beast,” and “The Lesson.”
Dawes is currently editing an anthology of poems with poet Matthew Shenoda about Bearden’s “Odyssey Series,” some of which were on display at the 92Y art gallery during the tribute.
Ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ speech “Pictures and Progress,” was referenced by curator, author, and Yale professor Sarah Lewis in her presentation. As she spoke, several collage paintings were displayed on the stage’s screen. Bearden’s primary medium was collage— a fusing of old magazine and newspaper photographic clippings, painting and fabric. She discussed the 19th century emergence of photography that had changed the social landscape. Photographs could counter but not always, the caricatured and exaggerated negative Negro images. She mentioned Douglass’ observation that “the sudden abundance of visual sources created a paradox in the new culture of visual awareness.”
“The picture and ballad are alike, if not equally social forces — the one reaching and swaying the heart by the eye, and the other by the ear’…In our country, the picture plays an important part in our politics’…In the making of our presidents, the political gatherings begins the operation, and the picture gallery ends it. The winner, in order to outvote, must out laugh his adversary,” Douglass said in his speech.
Lewis also referenced Bearden’s association with and study of artists, jazz musicians and writers and specially mentioned novelist Ralph Ellison’s friendship with the artist. Displaying Bearden’s “Card Players” next to Cezanne’s “Card Players” series on the stage screen showed Bearden’s magnificent jazzy variation on a theme. The pairing also demonstrated an artist who was always inspired and processing information.
Poet, scholar, teacher, Elizabeth Alexander, who composed and delivered “Praise Song for a Day” for the 2008 President Barack Obama inauguration, spoke of art-making in the Diaspora. She emphasized: “Bearden is America’s preeminent artist—not its best Black artist! And anyone who disagrees, I’m ready to fight them.” To her, art is poetry. She also shared her family connection to Bearden that “goes back for decades.” She described a Christmas gift of a crucifix painting that a young 8-year-old Romare presented to her mother. Her grandfather was the famous artist Charles Alston. Alexander said that they all visited with each other through the years.
John Edgar Wideman, author of several novels and winner of numerous awards including PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award, described Bearden’s work “Farewell to Eugene,” a funeral for his childhood friend. “The genius comes from how and why Bearden worked with what looked like too many pieces to fit into one painting,” Wideman said. Considered his most dense collage, Wideman explained that “Farewell” was Bearden’s way to pay homage, though 50 years later, to his childhood friend who was part of his formative art experience. The crippled White boy lived with his mother above a brothel. The boys used to peek through a hole in the floor and draw “nasty” pictures of what they witnessed below on butcher paper. Bearden’s grandmother discovered them and brought the boy home to live with them. The boy became Bearden’s best friend. Sadly, the boy died a year later. A study of the art shows a dense portrait that brings the whole town of Pittsburgh together to pay their respects at Eugene’s funeral.
Stanley Crouch, author of several books and writings especially about jazz said that “all visual art is about freeing the line.” He discussed influences of Picasso and Flaubert and saw in Bearden’s work “the creation of emotional epics by re-imagining the vitality of his people through the influences of music from Louis Armstrong to other jazz greats.”
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor and author, spoke of his mission as Black history caretaker in his role as executive director of Harlem’s famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Center. He promised to stay true to his cause by celebrating African American art. He shared a personal story about his first Bearden art purchase, a poster of “The Lamp.” It shined brightly on the stage screen. He chronicled purchasing it with his then partner, who later became his wife. He said that “together we hung the painting in our children’s bedroom and we only moved it once — when I took office at the Schomburg.”
Ton Morrison sent a note: “Romare Bearden was among the first African American visual artists to move painting away from the nostalgic and sentimental work that preceded him. His use of high modern technique and sensibility in order to re-imagine Black history produced amazing work still unsurpassed. Two of his paintings hang on my walls: one, a large watercolor of jazz musicians; the second, a dedicated print of a character in Song of Solomon. Each is profoundly different from the other; both reveal the depth of his talent and intelligence. All of which was vividly on display the last time I visited him in his studio. His body of work is for the ages.”
Co-sponsors were the Romare Bearden Foundation, the Schomburg Center and the West Chester Poetry Center—and in particular to Johanne Bryant-Reid and especially to Russell Goings.
Photos below by Nancy Crampton.