New York's Centennial Celebration of Romare Bearden (1911 - 1988)

When I came home after spending the summer in Santa Fe, news that New York was celebrating Romare Bearden was music to my ears. September 2nd marked the centennial of Bearden's birth, and throughout the city galleries and museums were doing their part in honoring one of the greatest African American artists of the 20th century. I had missed an apparently glowing and small show at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, but there were Bearden's still to see in New York -- at The Met, The Studio Museum, MoMA and The Schomburg Center. Even the post office had issued five commemorative stamps featuring Bearden's work; I quickly bought a set to frame.

Born in North Carolina and raised in New York during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, today Romare Bearden is most famous for his collage and print work. Bearden began making his now classic collages in the early 1960's -- the Studio Museum's recent "Spiral" show showcases two of them (both wonderful) -- and he went on to devote much of the rest of his career to the form. Upon seeing the first collages, his friend and peer, Ernest Circhlow, told Bearden sweetly, "Romie, it looks like you've come home." And Bearden did, producing a body of work that constantly revisits his southern roots and urban coming of age. Tender, grand, a story-teller like few others, Bearden's work from the 1960's until his passing in 1988 has emerged as a touchstone, if a neglected one, of 20th century American art.

MoMA's recent reshuffling of their collection, particularly their two-floor painting and sculpture department, has paid some much-needed attention to Bearden and his African American peers. The "Abstract Expressionist New York" show included two works by Norman Lewis and even an early Bearden -- both surprises and great ones; around that same time, roughly half of painter Jacob Lawrence's exquisite sixty-piece history series, "The Great Migration," took up residence in the last room of the fifth floor. And a rare Bob Thompson painting, "St. Matthew's Description of the End of the World," was hung on the fourth landing.

When I asked the information desk where I could find the Romare Bearden pieces -- I spelled his last name and was told, "We know who he is, dear" - they informed me that he wasn't listed anywhere. Eventually, I found the Bearden's myself, practically hidden before the entrance to MoMA's annual Young Architects show. Just about the only nice thing about where they are is how quiet the space is; you can't call it prime real estate when it's essentially in the lobby of another show, but it negotiates its seclusion gracefully, overlooking the Carlito Carvalhosa installation tossing like a sea anemone.

Of the ten Bearden pieces in MoMA's collection, the three they have up now are relatively tame. For me, the great standout on view is Bearden's "Come Sunday" from 1975. In "Come Sunday" a mother holds her infant daughter in a doorway, while a grandmother and grandson recede into the distance of a setting or rising sun. In keeping with the rest of Bearden's southern work, the scene is quiet without being genteel -- in a modern tradition that has seemed to leave behind the mother as subject, Bearden clings to her. Standing in the immediate foreground of "Come Sunday" the mother figure is as arresting and noble as any.

To MoMA's defense, the museum is not calling its Bearden prints a grand celebration of the artist's legacy (though a celebration of that kind would be wonderful). The three prints -- the others are a jazz scene and an interior -- are a small gesture toward the centennial and the two placards introducing the work make mention of the importance of Bearden and the importance of this commemorative year. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other hand, has optimistically called its exhibition, "Romare Bearden (1911 - 1988): A Centennial Celebration."

You can find the "Centennial Celebration" in Gallery 399, which actually isn't a gallery -- it's a hallway, leading to the 19th and 20th century art wing. And the adjacent wing doesn't actually include American artists; American artists are on the floor above, which, of course, is where the Bearden show should be. As with MoMA, the only nice thing about where it is, is the fact that you can be pretty much on your own there.

The Met's celebration consists of one large, six-panel collage entitled "The Block" (1971) accompanied by a small series of preliminary drawings. "The Block" is Bearden's bright rendering of Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd street. In it, Bearden alternates between the commotion of Harlem -- street cars and barbershops, friends congregating on the corner -- and our quietest possible moments on earth -- through one of the building's windows, a couple makes love; through another, a man sits by himself on the backstairs. The back and forth is incredibly graceful.

"The Block" is one of Bearden's classic city collages, and the Met would have been an ideal place for a major exhibition centered around their mural-sized piece. As it is, the place to see the most Bearden is at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The works on view in "Romare Bearden: The Soul of Blackness" have been culled from the collections of the library and of Russel Goings, one of Bearden's longtime collectors. The show is uneven and features mostly his work re-envisioning classic literary and historical scenes, to use Bearden's own words, "in the Afro-American idiom." I don't think they're his most vital work, but, as with almost anything Bearden produced, they are nice to look at and maybe more vital than I think. The Latimer/Edison Gallery is the nicest place to see Bearden's work in New York right now, and while there, make sure to see one of the city's most enduring pieces - Aaron Douglas' four-panel "Aspects of Negro Life," chronicling the history of the African American people, hanging above the storied reading rooms.

New York's tribute to Romare Bearden is not done yet. On November 10th the Studio Museum in Harlem will open the "Bearden Project." The museum has commissioned works by forty-five artists to respond to Bearden's legacy; throughout the year, as new works are delivered, the show will evolve, as will, from what it sounds like, the Bearden pieces on view. Among the contributors are: Glenn Ligon, who recently had a retrospective at the Whitney, Lorna Simpson, Alison Saar, Faith Ringgold and, the artist I'm most excited for, Wangechi Mutu.

One thing is certain: "The Bearden Project" won't be putting Romare Bearden in a hallway. And that's a start in making the kind of tribute Bearden and the public deserve.