Progression of Art
Three musicians, one with a guitar in hand, dominate this scene painted in rich browns and blues; Bearden's lavish use of the color blue, in fact, suggests the blues, the singular African-American folk music. Bearden was influenced by the Social Realists of the Great Depression, along with the Mexican Muralists such as Diego Rivera, who was well-established in New York City. The Social Realists, influenced by the art and politics of Soviet Russia, took as their subjects the working class, the poor, the masses, and folk culture, rendered in legible forms and compositions, seeking to ignite progressive social change on behalf of the workers of the world and to rectify social ills. Comparable to artist Ben Shahn, who was one of the premiere Social Realists of the 1930s, and Rivera, who lavishly painted murals of his country's folk and indigenous cultures, Bearden has turned to the folk music and Southern folk culture that he knew from his youth. Bearden has flattened the pictorial space and rendered the figures with Cubist block-like forms that overlap and are compressed within the shallow space, enlarging the trio's hands to indicate their humble working origins. The brick wall behind the blues musicians serves to move them into our picture plane, so that we can more closely observe their faces and other details. Decades later, author Ralph Ellison, one of America's premier novelists would single out and praise these early works of Bearden's for their honesty and directness.
Gouache on paper - Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota
From the early to mid-1940s, Bearden alternated between social realist imagery, which he painted in a straightforward, documentary manner, and his more experimental, somewhat abstract biblical and religious subject matter, thus echoing the two strains of realism and abstraction, which competed for dominance during the mid-century. Here, factory workers gather (the factory is in the upper-right background) however, there is no evidence of their labor, nor are they seen in work clothes. These anomalies suggest that perhaps these men have either left work, or are seeking work during lean times. Fortune Magazine selected this painting to illustrate an article entitled The Negro's War.
Gouache and casein on Kraft paper - Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Minnesota
Soon after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Bearden began a series entitled The Passion of Christ (1945), inspired by the gospels of Matthew and Mark. By selecting the passion of Christ as a topic, Bearden was taking on one of the great subjects in Western art and culture, isolating the highly dramatic moment of the actual slaying of Jesus. In this important piece within the series, Bearden portrays the Crucifixion with Jesus's violently twisted and tortured body in the central position, which dramatically bisects the composition. To either side of Christ, Bearden places figures of onlookers, which he painted in washes of bright blues and purples. Sharp black calligraphic lines of India ink outline the figures as well as divide the watercolor background into prismatic planes of color, calling to mind stained glass found in churches. The brilliant colors and black outline are reminiscent of the work by French artist Georges Rouault, the subject of a retrospective at MoMA in 1945. Essayist and member of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten dubbed Bearden "The Negro Rouault." Furthermore, the Christian faith and its church remains central to African-American spiritual, communal, and political life; by turning to the Scriptures, Bearden is both returning to his origins as well as reaching out towards the greater Christian community inclusive of black America.
Watercolor, pen, India ink, and pencil on paper - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
After a hiatus of several years in which he concentrated on composing music, Bearden re-emerged in the mid-1950s, displaying a more abstracted style of painting influenced by the Abstract Expressionists; Bearden had friendships with many of the key artists within this group. This period of Bearden's artistic development has received less attention than his Social Realism and his collages, in part because Bearden's collages are path-finding works. Comparatively, Bearden operated on the margins of Abstract Expressionism since his style remained based in figuration.
Through the 1950s, Bearden's primary medium was paint: oil, acrylic, watercolor, or gouache. Here, Bearden paints a substantial female figure that is seated alone. The painter's brushwork creates a hazy atmosphere, blending the figure and the ground into one. In order to make the female figure stand out, Bearden creates flatter planes of blue color and applied multiple black outlines to solidify the form. The blues was an African-American musical creation, and there were many prominent female blues singers, such as Billie Holiday, during the postwar era. The year 1955 also saw the deaths of blues greats such as Ruth Brown and Sara Martin. Bearden never relinquishes the figure to give over to full abstraction, which shows his attachment to narrative and relative aesthetic conservatism. It is only within the recent past that attention has been brought to these abstract canvases of Bearden. This comes as part of the larger reinvestigation of African-American art, as well as the importance of female artists such as Lee Krasner and other black artists such as Norman Lewis to Abstract Expressionism.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
With collage, Bearden had a method that allowed him to integrate his life experiences more fully into his art. Summertime has been cited as an exposé on impoverished inner city communities where many African Americans resided within tenement-like conditions. In 1963, when Bearden was in his early 50s, the artist turned his attention to the medium of collage, and also photomontage, a technique in which an image is crafted by combining cutout parts of photographs.
In this collage Bearden assembles images from newspapers and magazines, along with cut paper passages of flat color as seen in blue, pink, and brown. This work expresses a strong duality: sentimental memories of sitting on stoops and enjoying scoops of ice cream on a hot summer's day are contrasted with the heightened racial moods and tensions of 1967. While the exterior world seems pleasant enough, the inside world of furtive glances out of windows and half-covered faces imply a sense of caution and surveillance, as cities became racial battlegrounds such as the Newark, New Jersey, Riots that year which left 26 people dead.
Collage on board - St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
Three Folk Musicians
In later works such as this, Bearden begins to integrate snippets of his own earlier work into his collages. As well, here he returns to folk music, or the blues, which is celebrated as a unique black contribution to American culture. The banjo, held by the musician at the right, is an African-American instrument based upon African instruments brought over during the Middle Passage. By incorporating scraps of his prior work, Bearden creates both an autobiographical as well as a historical narrative about African-American life. This collage stands in contrast to his earlier Folk Musicians (1941-42), which is more aligned with the mood of Social Realism. Whereas in the earlier canvas the musicians stare wide-eyed and directly out at the viewers, here, the trio's eyes are downturned to suggest thought and introspection.
Collage on board - Private Collection
In his collages of the late 1960s and 1970s, Bearden's colors became richer and his patterns more vibrant and decorative, introducing patterns from patchwork cloth and actual pieces of cloth into his works. In this work, Bearden demonstrates his belief that when some things are taken out of their usual context, reworked and refigured, and then inserted into a new context, they are given a new look and meaning. A patchwork quilt is one such object, rich in pattern, that is made up of rags and fragments of other materials considered secondary. Bearden creates a patchwork on composition board. The use of patterned cloth and recycling cloth has deep roots in African and Southern black history and art. Here, the vivid patterning of the cloth contrasts and highlights the reclining nude figure whose form and color draw upon black Egyptian statuary; the Africanness of Egyptian art and history was a pronounced interest during the Civil Rights era. By turning to antiquity, Bearden is incorporating ancient art relevant to modern-day African Americans, while delineating the vast contributions of Africans to world culture.
Cut-and-paste cloth and paper with synthetic polymer paint on composition - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
In this horizontally expansive work, Bearden pays tribute to Harlem, which was where he lived as a young teen as well as where he established his first studio in 1940 on 125th Street, the heart of Harlem. Bearden resided within the same building as the artist Jacob Lawrence and the novelist Claude McKay, who became tight friends with Bearden and showed a similar commitment to the arts and residents of Harlem in their art. During the 1930s, Bearden was active in the artists' organization 306 Group and the Harlem Artists Guild. Even when he relocated downtown to Canal Street on the Lower East Side, Bearden continued to socialize, organize, and exhibit in Harlem, the nation's black capital. Bearden broke the long horizontal format into six equal parts, each exploring a distinct Harlem mainstay: brick tenement apartments, an evangelical church, stoops, a barbershop, a liquor store, and a funeral parlor. The push-pull to the composition, or the variation between the interior and exterior worlds, reveal in the cutouts private moments of worship, lovemaking, and children at play, or as Bearden expressed, "the lives [the buildings] contained within their walls." This rhythm of call and response, through positive and negative space, are elements of church services and jazz improvisations. When originally exhibited, a soundtrack of city noises accompanied and activated the work.
Cut and pasted print, colored and metallic papers, Photostats, graphite, ink marker, gouache, watercolor, and ink on Masoniterials - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Across the frontal plane, Bearden has cut and pasted photographs of women and of African sculpture, which he reworks into black faces. Wide-eyed, as a single unit, they peer out at the viewers. But it isn't clear if they are observers of a train moving through or cutting through their town, or if they are the travelers themselves. Bearden introduces patches of color (green, red, light blue) to break up the work's dominant blackness, bringing vibrancy and light into the composition. At the upper-left corner, a small train stands for greater themes on migration and segregation within the African-American experience. As Bearden remarked, trains "could take you away and also bring you to where you were." Furthermore, symbolic trains such as the train of the Underground Railroad were central to the history of African-American slaves, who traveled to the northern states for freedom.
Photogravure and aquatint - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Piano Lesson
In this collage, Bearden's use of patterns versus flat areas of color and his explorations of interior space call to mind the art of Henri Matisse, whose interior spaces resplendent with bright color and bold pattern were attractive to the younger artist. This particular work was inspired by the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams (1910-81), and was originally a poster for a dance and musical collaboration between Bearden's wife Nanette and Williams. Award-winning playwright August Wilson was inspired by this work. And, when writing his own Piano Lesson (1990), for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize, he likewise set the play in Pittsburgh, Bearden's childhood and teenage hometown. Wilson also found inspiration for other plays within the collages of Bearden, especially in the four-part Pittsburgh Cycle.
Collage of various papers with paint, ink, and graphite on fiberboard - The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC