With an artistic career that began with political cartoons in his college newspaper, Romare Bearden moved between mediums and styles throughout his life, although his artistic breakthroughs did not come without hard work. Over the course of a long career that spanned a tumultuous period in the fight for representation and civil rights for African Americans in the United States, Bearden became a deeply influential artist. Art historian Mary Schmidt Campbell delves into Bearden’s fascinating life and career in her new book An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden, which is the topic of this podcast episode.
Campbell is President of Spelman College and Dean Emerita of the Tisch School of the Arts. She served as the vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under former president Barack Obama.
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An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: Each one of his transitions was accompanied by a great deal of turmoil. Turmoil in his life, emotional turmoil, sometimes political turmoil. They weren’t changes that he arrived at easily.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with art historian Mary Schmidt Campbell about the artist Romare Bearden.
Romare Bearden, and yes, that is how his name is pronounced, was born in 1911 and died in 1988. A distinguished artist known principally for his photo-based collages, Bearden worked in New York and rose to national prominence in the 1960s.
Mary Schmidt Campbell, art historian and currently President of Spelman College, got to know Bearden when she organized an exhibition of his work for the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York in 1970. When the Studio Museum in Harlem was looking for a director seven years later, Bearden suggested Dr. Campbell apply. She did and was selected, and directed the museum from 1977 to 1987.
Dr. Campbell recently visited the Getty to speak about her new biography of Bearden, An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden. I took the opportunity to sit down with her to discuss the book for this podcast.
Okay, thank you, Mary. It’s great to have you with us at the Getty and on this podcast.
CAMPBELL: Thank you. It’s good to be here, Jim.
CUNO: You begin your book by pointing out the shift in Bearden’s art in 1964, to photographic collage and the relationship between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and the politics of representation and self-representation in black American culture at the time; and even much earlier, beginning with Frederick Douglass’ 1861 lectures, “Pictures and Progress.”
And you show Bearden working in the presence in the photograph of his great-grandparents, both of whom had been born slaves. Tell us about that picture and its importance to Bearden, and the whole importance of self-representation for black artists at the time.
CAMPBELL: Bearden grew up in the home of his great-grandparents, Henry Kennedy and Rosa Kennedy. And one of the facts of life during that period is that African Americans photographed themselves because they were so proud of their new status as citizens. And so there are some wonderful photographs of Bearden’s great-grandparents.
But it turns out, after Bearden’s great-grandparents died—sometime in the 1930s, I guess, is when his great-grandfather died—he never went back to visit Charlotte. And it wasn’t until many years later, when he had an exhibition there in the 1980s, that he went back and he discovered that photograph. And he had the photograph blown up and he had the photograph in his studio, right by the table where he worked. And it was almost as if they were sitting there watching over him as he was doing his collages.
CUNO: Well, it’s clear from the photographs—that one and another one you reproduce in the book—that he had very close relations to his grandparents and to his great-grandparents, too.
CAMPBELL: That’s right. It was a truly multigenerational family. So the great-grandparents acquired the property, built their houses, built a business. Their daughter, their only child, lived there with her husband, in one of the houses. Her husband then died, and then Bearden’s father, who was the son of his grandmother, married Bessie. He brought Bessie there.
So at one point, there were literally four generations of the family living there. And frankly, they probably thought that that’s the way that it was going to be for a very long time, until Bessie Bearden and Howard decided they couldn’t take the Jim Crow South anymore, and moved up north.
CUNO: So he was born in Charlotte in 1911.
CUNO: Tell us about the circumstances of Charlotte, as a Southern major city.
CAMPBELL: So Charlotte was an emerging city at that time. It was one of the areas where textile manufacturing was coming of age, and it was a place where the railroads were being built, because the cotton would be delivered to North Carolina, it would be converted into textiles, and then it would go up north. It was right at the heart of this burgeoning commerce in this country. It was also a place where there was a small but growing population of prosperous black people. They worked as brick layers, they worked as carpenters, they owned insurance companies, they worked in hospitals, they taught school.
So there was a growing community in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the feeling, quite frankly, that ah, we have arrived as people. We have transitioned out of slavery, we’ve been helped by Reconstruction, and now we’re building this community; we’re going to be part of this community as citizens. There was a great deal of hopefulness.
CUNO: So Henry Kennedy, we should make clear to our podcast listeners, and Catherine Gosprey were the great-grandparents [Campbell: Right] of Romare Bearden. They were born in— they were born in South Carolina, or at least lived in South Carolina?
CAMPBELL: Lived in South Carolina, yes.
CUNO: Whereas he was born in Charlotte, North Carolina.
CUNO: And then there was Cattie Kennedy and Richard Bearden, Romare’s grandparents…
CUNO: …who were married around 1881. And then Bessie and Howard, his parents, who will hear a lot about. Was Romare the only grandchild or great-grandchild? He’s the only child identified in photographs.
CAMPBELL: Yes. Right.
CUNO: So he was smothered with love.
CAMPBELL: He was smothered with love. He had generations of love.
CUNO: Mm-hm. As a child, he lived for a time in Pittsburgh.
CAMPBELL: Yes. So after a few years—I guess Bearden is about two or three years old—his mother and father made the decision to migrate north. And so they left behind the great-grandparents and grandmother, and they went to live in Harlem. When they got to Harlem— They actually spent some time in Canada for a year, because the father was looking for work, and the only place he could find work was a railroad job that took him up to Canada.
They came back from Canada, and Bessie and Howard made the decision that they needed to send Romare to go live with her parents in Pittsburg. And that was really interesting for Bearden because they ran a boardinghouse. So he got to see these blue-collar works come back and forth from work, working in the steel mills.
He got to sit at the table with them and listen to their stories and hear them talk. And for him, it was just fantastic, ’cause he was in the company of these adult men, and he felt kind of adult himself. But it’s very interesting to understand that he had two very different experiences living with his maternal grandparents in this boarding house, versus living with his mother and father in this very swank apartment that they lived in back in Harlem.
CUNO: Now, Bessie, Bearden’s mother, was an extraordinary woman.
CUNO: 1922, when he was just eleven, she was elected to the New York City School Board. She was the first woman and the first black woman to hold the position. In 1924, she was elected president of the National Colored Women’s Democratic League, intent on registering women to vote and getting the blacks to come out to vote.
CAMPBELL: [over Cuno] Right. That’s right.
CUNO: To switch from the Republican party to the Democratic party, to the New Deal party. Then three years later, she became the New York social correspondent to the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most influential black newspaper.
CUNO: You mention that W.E.B. DuBois was a patron and supporter of Bearden’s and a friend of the family’s. [Campbell: Absolutely] How did that happen?
CAMPBELL: So DuBois was a very cosmopolitan, very sociable intellect. And when he came to New York as editor of Crisis magazine—and Crisis was, of course, the formal publication for the NAACP—he became part of the circle of Bessie Bearden’s friends.
CUNO: Extraordinary woman. What do we know about their relationship and how she was helpful to him?
CAMPBELL: Bearden once referred to his mother as a drill sergeant. But he said that with great affection. And by that, he meant that she was a woman who was clearly ambitious, clearly very skillful. She was a skillful writer. You can read some of her speeches that she did give in her role as the head of the Democratic social clubs. You can read her columns for the Chicago Defender. And clearly, her career kept moving forward and moving upward.
So he was in the home of a woman who understood that she had real power and that she could exercise that power in the world of journalism, in the social sphere, and in the political sphere. And during his childhood, everybody recognized Bessie as being one of the real movers and shakers in Harlem.
CUNO: Now, he, Bearden, was a restless college student and an ambitious one. He first attended Lincoln University, a distinguished HBCU, entering the year Langston Hughes graduated.
CUNO: Then moving to Boston University; finally, to New York University.
CAMPBELL: Right. It’s so interesting, because it’s almost as if he were three different students at each of those colleges. And at Lincoln, he enters— You can read on his application, he says, “I’m here to be a doctor. I’m here to, you know, start my studies, and eventually, I’m gonna be a doctor.” And clearly, that didn’t work out, and so he left after a year.
And at Boston University, he’s there and he plays baseball. He makes the varsity team. And during the summers, they would very often play some of the Negro League teams for practice, because in those days, of course, baseball was segregated. There were, you know, professional baseball, and then there were the Negro Leagues.
One day, he was playing in the Negro Leagues and a scouter from a Philadelphia team came and watched him pitch, and tried to recruit him and said, “You know, you could have a career in professional baseball. But you’d have to pass for white.” And that was— All bets were off after that for Bearden. He wasn’t— That wasn’t acceptable.
It turns out he hurt his thumb while he was at Boston University, and so he had to put his baseball career aside. But while he was at BU, he did continue his cartooning. He had started that at Lincoln, and he did continue his cartooning. So when he gets to NYU, it’s clear that he’s putting much more time and attention into his cartooning.
CUNO: This question of passing. It’s clear that he could have passed, because he was so light-skinned. And his mother, I think, from the photograph, if I can remember, she also…
CUNO: …is very light-skinned.
CUNO: Did he ever talk about that?
CAMPBELL: He was very proud of the fact that his mother would make it very clear that she was black. If somebody tried to mistake her or tried to think that she was other than black, she would tell him in a minute. And in fact, there is a quote in the book where she talks about the fact that, “I’ve always been very proud that I’m a black woman, and I’ve never tried to hide it.”
So Bearden came from a family which took great pride in being black. And if you look at his family, they’re all different colors. So his mother is light, his father is brown, his great-grandfather is somewhat light, but his great-grandmother is brown. So there were many different colors of black in his family. But they were very clear that they were black Americans.
CUNO: Did the question of representation or the question of identity on those terms ever play a role in his art?
CAMPBELL: I don’t know that they ever played role in terms of the color. You know, color issue. But he certainly came to feel, at a certain point, that being labeled a black artist—or in those days, Negro artist—was a limitation; that it really confined him. It confined people to looking at his art as something less than the art of other artists.
And after World War II, he rebelled against the idea of being labeled as a black artist. He rebelled against the idea of participating in all-black exhibitions. And he stopped doing that, as well. And he rebelled against the idea of even having the representation of black people in his art.
CUNO: Mm-hm. That gets to the question of his writing an essay called “Negro Artists and Modern Art,” something he wrote after, I think, he graduated from NYU, or perhaps he was still a student at NYU.
CAMPBELL: Just— he was still a student, yes.
CUNO: Because he came from BU to NYU.
CAMPBELL: That’s right.
CUNO: And while at NYU, in 1934, he meets the German artist, the collage artist, George Grosz. And during that time, after meeting Grosz, he writes this essay, “Negro Artists and Modern Art.” Tell us about that essay.
CAMPBELL: So that essay became extremely famous. After Bearden wrote it, it appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier, it was heralded in the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American. It was regarded as a very important statement, because in it, Bearden criticizes the foundation, the Harmon Foundation, which had been the major patron for African American artists. He criticizes them for encouraging black artists to be tepid and to be timid in their approach to the arts.
And what he says in the essay is that black artists have to be like the Mexican Muralists. They have to be bold, they have to own the vocabulary of Modern art; but they also have to own their own heritage and their own history, like the Mexican Muralists did. He counsels artists to take up the subject matter of being a black person as part of their art, and to do it boldly.
He also criticizes Alain Locke, who was advising artists to look at African art and take their cue from African art. And Bearden’s saying, we’re not Africans; we’re African Americans, and we have to look at our life, our everyday life, and we have to draw our energy and our source from that.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Well, this was all during the Depression.
CUNO: So how did the collapse of the economy affect his family and his artistic development?
CAMPBELL: You know, I think that Bearden was very fortunate. He was a very privileged young man, because his mother had a job during the Depression; his father worked for the Department of Health. He was an inspector during the Depression. They were able to send him to college. He went to three different colleges, between 1929 and 1935.
CUNO: And all three of them private colleges.
CAMPBELL: That’s three private colleges, that’s right. So he was really quite privileged, at a time when most Americans were really suffering. And particularly African Americans were suffering.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Now, just at the same time as he’s coming out of NYU—that is, Romare Bearden coming out of NYU—and practicing as an artist and writing this essay, he also becomes a social worker.
CAMPBELL: He does. You know, the reality is, it’s still a depression. He comes out of NYU, it’s the Depression. Because his parents both work, he doesn’t qualify for the WPA.
CUNO: Oh, that’s right.
CAMPBELL: Their income’s too high.
CUNO: That’s why he was— I see. He didn’t get the commissions.
CAMPBELL: Right. So he took a job as a caseworker. And now he certainly doesn’t qualify, because both his parents work and he works. So he had to support himself by going to work every day. Jacob Lawrence, on the other hand, came from an extremely poor family. His mother was a domestic worker; I think his father had passed away. And Lawrence was able to get on the WPA, with support as an easel painter. And was supported by the WPA that he was able to do some of these incredible series of paintings that he produced as a young painter. So there was a little bit of irony in that.
CUNO: Yeah. Did Bearden ever feel slightly resentful that he couldn’t qualify for the WPA?
CAMPBELL: I won’t say that he felt resentful; but he certainly admired the fact that Lawrence seemed to know exactly what he wanted to paint. And Bearden would tell the story of how he would go up and visit Lawrence in his studio. The whole time he was there, Lawrence would just paint. Paint. It’s like he couldn’t get the paint out fast enough.
And what Bearden really struggled with was actually putting paint to paper. I mean, he really— it really took him a long time to get enough paintings for that first show of his in 1940. In the meantime, Lawrence had several series of paintings. So the real tension between them was that Lawrence was very fluent and fluid in his ability to paint and produce.
CUNO: Was Romare Bearden identifying with these other African American artists at the time? And was it complicated by— in that relationship he had with them, that he was going off and working, and they were painting all day, and painting as a job?
CAMPBELL: You know, he never once said anything that betrayed any resentment or envy; but he would make the observation that in fact, there were any number of artists who were supported by the WPA. Norman Lewis; Jake Lawrence; his cousin, Charles Alston; Hale Woodruff, whom they visited in the South—they were all supported by the WPA.
And I don’t think he is that type of person to be envious; but he certainly observed that they did have the freedom to be able to produce that work.
CUNO: Did he have time to get together with them and paint in sort of a common studio at any time, or have conversations about the art they were making?
CAMPBELL: He started out— His first studio was in the same building as Jacob Lawrence; but it didn’t have heat, so his mother convinced him to change to the studio that was over the Apollo. And in the Apollo, other artists had studios. So Claude McKay had a studio there; the photographers Marvin and Morgan Smith had a studio there; for a while, Norman Lewis had a studio there.
So it really was a space where, you know, you went up into the studio spaces above the Apollo, and you could walk around and you can go hang out with, you know, your friends that were in one studio or another. And so what he could look forward to was a community of artists who were there.
CUNO: Now, it was around this time, in 1936, that Meyer Schapiro wrote an essay for the journal Art Front. The essay was called “Race, Nationality, and Art.” What was Schapiro’s point in that essay? And how did his essay relate to or differ from Bearden’s earlier essay, “Negro Artists and Modern Art”?
CAMPBELL: So Schapiro was rather pointedly directing his criticism at Alain Locke. Locke had written that he believed that Negro artists should be looking at African art, and they should be drawing from African art because it was part of their heritage and their history. And Schapiro really resented that approach to art. He thought that it reeked a little bit of a kind of nationalism or tribalism, and he thought that that was dangerous, to try to—again, I use the word—to confine an artist to a certain set of traits or a certain set of influences.
And I think that he was particularly sensitive to the fact that at that time, in Germany, with German nationalism on the rise, that there was a push to try to find something that was specifically Aryan. So he just was very suspicious of anything that moved in that direction.
CUNO: So then Bearden and Schapiro would’ve been on the same side, as it were…
CAMPBELL: They would.
CUNO: …in opposition to Locke.
CUNO: So in 1940, Bearden had his first one-man show, at a converted stable called 306. And among his artist friends who attended were Charles White and Norman Lewis. And the Chicago Defender, for whom his mother wrote, described his paintings as, “distinctive, because he is among the very few Negro artists who have been interested in showing the transition of the colored workers from the agricultural to the urban industrialized community.”
CUNO: How is that?
CAMPBELL: I actually think I would take issue with that writer a bit. I think that was a favorite theme for painters and for writers, this idea that a massive change was underway; this movement from the South. Earlier in the twentieth century, most African Americans lived in the South, because they had been slaves or they had a heritage of slavery, and that’s where most African Americans resided. In the twenties and thirties, the movement began, and it just continued right up through World War II.
And literally millions of African Americans and their families moved from the South to the urban North. That is a movement that appears in paintings; it certainly appeared in Jacob Lawrence’s…
CUNO: Right, Migration series.
CAMPBELL: …Migration series. The themes of the South versus the North are evident in works by Charles White, by Charles Alston, as well as Bearden; and it’s certainly evident in literature, in the work of James Baldwin or the work of Ralph Ellison. I think— It’s a theme that you hear over and over and over again, in the works of African American artists and writers.
CAMPBELL: And I must say, musicians, as well.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. So how was his first one-man show, one-person show received?
CAMPBELL: It was received very well, if you consider the Amsterdam News as a place for judgment. But it was with some sense of excitement; that here was a young man who had managed to assemble a body of work. There were paintings, there were some drawings that were in the show. It wasn’t a very big show, but it really demonstrated that Bearden was serious about being an artist. Not just a cartoonist, but being a serious artist.
CUNO: Yeah. How did his parents feel?
CAMPBELL: His parents were very proud. And it was actually the only show that his mother…
CUNO: Ah, yeah.
CAMPBELL: …got to see of his, the only solo show. His father did live long enough to see some of his other shows.
CUNO: Yeah. So a few weeks later, after the show, he and a friend go south, to Atlanta. And there, he met the artist Hale Woodruff. Tell us about Woodruff.
CAMPBELL: So Woodruff is a very interesting artist. He was trained in Indiana. He won an award that allowed him to study in Paris for a few years. He had to come back and take care of a sick parent. But eventually, he made his way down to Atlanta University, and he started the first art department at an historically black college. And that department served the college of not only Atlanta University, but Clark University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College.
And Woodruff was pretty audacious. In those days, museums were segregated. And he felt that it was really important, if he was going to be training serious artists, that they see serious artwork. So he took a group of students to the High Museum, and demanded that they go in through the front door. And there must’ve been something in the way he demanded it, because lo and behold, they allowed him to go through the front door.
And over time, he established a relationship with them that allowed for him to take his students there, so they could study art and consider themselves serious artists. He also was commissioned during the WPA to do a series of murals for Talladega College’s new library. And he produced something called the Amistad Murals.
CAMPBELL: And it was the story of the mutiny on the Amistad; its defense by John Adams; and the return of the chief mutineer, Cinqué, to Africa. And it was quite a story, and he tells it brilliantly in these absolutely gorgeous murals. And that’s what he was working on when Charles Alston and Romare visited him.
CUNO: Was there much age difference between them?
CAMPBELL: He was an older painter. When I finally met him, he had, you know, absolutely snow-white hair. But I would say he was probably about ten years older than Bearden.
CUNO: Now, it’s so impressive that this young man, Bearden, would have this network of relationships with artists of different ages and different parts of the eastern part of the United States, in any case, Jacob Lawrence being among them. We talked briefly about Jacob Lawrence, but how did they meet?
CAMPBELL: So Jacob Lawrence was part of a community of artists, writers, poets, intellectuals in Harlem. In the book, I refer to Harlem being like an open university. There were many opportunities for artists to get together: at what became the Schomburg; it was then the New York Public Library—the YMCA, Utopia House, 306 was a gathering place. There were lots of places—like Augusta Savage’s studio—where artists could get together. At night, they could hang out together. So I can’t say exactly when the two of them met, but there were certainly many opportunities for their paths to cross because the community of artists was small enough for them to all kind of know each other.
Moreover, in the 1930s, they actually formally organized into something called the Harlem Artists Guild. And they organized so that they could qualify as a group, for federal funds to build an art center, which they ultimately did, on 125th Street.
There was theater in Harlem, and in the 1920s, there were actually musicals that would start at the Lafayette and actually go to Broadway. Shuffle Along is one of those musicals. There were organizations that people belonged to, like the Elks or the Masons, that also had at their heart maybe reading circles.
There were gatherings for poets when they published their poems. There were just an incredible number of opportunities for people to come together and socialize around the arts and culture.
CUNO: Yeah. And one such place was his house.
CAMPBELL: His house, that’s right.
CUNO: You know, when Bessie, his mother, gathered these people.
CUNO: Tell us about that.
CAMPBELL: Well, you know, at one point, they had an apartment that looked out at the Lafayette Theater. And the artists would actually come out of the theater, cross the street, and go right up into Bessie’s apartment. But she also had salons. She would invite people, you know, to come over and celebrate the publication of a new book of poems by Countee Cullen. Or she would have Fats Waller and Andy Razaf would come over and do a riff on piano, you know, and Bearden would listen to them.
And you know, these are these great songwriters and musicians. Or Langston Hughes would bring by Garcia Lorca. It was just that kinda place.
CUNO: She dies in 1943. What—
CAMPBELL: Very suddenly.
CUNO: What effect did that have on Bearden and [inaudible]?
CAMPBELL: It’s devastating. She had not been sick. Of course, she had this sort of whirlwind life. She was socializing, she was writing, she had this job, that job, she was giving speeches all over the place. And she became very ill very quickly, and she declined and died quite unexpectedly. At this point, Bearden was in the army, he had enlisted in 1942. He got out to attend her funeral, but had to go back in. But it was clear that her death had impacted him, because he radically changed his artwork at about that time.
And he simply stopped representing African American life in his work. And the first series that he did was a religious series. It was the Passion of Christ. And I think that that had something to do with his emotion and his grief at that time.
CUNO: Yeah. It’s about that time, too, maybe a couple years later, in 1945, that he began to be represented by the Sam Kootz Gallery in New York. How did that change his career?
CAMPBELL: So it was interesting because while he was in the army, the gallery owner Caresse Crosby, learned about his work. Her friend William H. Johnson was taking her around to see some artists, and he took her to see Bearden. And she saw his work on the Passion of Christ and she decided to exhibit it at her gallery in Washington, D.C. When she learned that Sam Kootz was opening a new gallery in New York, she said, “I’ve got just the artist for you.”
And she took the work to him and Kootz decided, you know what, if he can produce this work—it was the Passion of Christ series—he said, “If he can produce this work in oils, he’s got a show in the fall.” And so that’s how he got his first show at the Sam Kootz Gallery.
CUNO: And how was it received?
CAMPBELL: It was very well received. Critically, it was well received. Bearden sold most of the work that was in the show. And most importantly, Kootz invited him to stay as a part of the gallery. So in 1945, ’46, and ’47, in each of those years, he had solo shows at the Kootz Gallery. But then Kootz also included him in group shows that he would organize, in an effort to sell more paintings. So Bearden was very actively involved in those group shows, as well.
CUNO: In 1946, just at this time that we’re talking about, he publishes another essay—or you call it a manifesto, in fact—“The Negro Artist’s Dilemma.” I want to think of him as being compelled to write, to put his ideas down on paper, because of his mother’s influence on him and because she was such a dynamic writer. But tell us about that.
CAMPBELL: So it’s interesting. The person who is, I think, very influential on him in terms of writing that essay is Ad Reinhardt. And Ad Reinhardt was a, you know, very abstract artist, right? But when Ad Reinhardt was in the army, he actually developed a series of cartoons that were extremely critical of race relations in the United States. So Reinhardt and Bearden were— I won’t say they were friends, but they were certainly colleagues. And Reinhardt encouraged him to write what he felt about visual images in the United States.
And it was Reinhardt who helped get that essay published in the journal that published it. And the essay basically is Bearden’s explanation for why he decided to no longer deal with representational art, and why he felt that he should no longer be considered a Negro artist, but just an artist. And that’s because he felt that American culture was too consumed with these derogatory images of African Americans, and that artists couldn’t really see because of those derogatory images; that they got in the way of their being able to actually see with any integrity. And so he decided, I’m just not gonna deal with these images at all.
CUNO: Being a stable artist—that is, working for an art dealer, Sam Kootz, who had other artists—so now all of a sudden he was seeing himself in relationship to these other artists. Was that in any way kind of influential on him?
CAMPBELL: So this was a period just prior to the sort of explosion of Abstract Expressionism. And so most of these artists were overwhelmingly abstract. Many of them were moving away from the figure completely, like Motherwell and Gottlieb. Bearden still stayed with the figure. He still stayed with a sense of—
CUNO: Like Picasso.
CAMPBELL: Like Picasso.
CAMPBELL: Right. And he still used a form of abstraction that was very reminiscent of Cubism. And Kootz and others began to feel that a group of American artists were actually moving very far away from Picasso. That is, they were not constrained by the figure at all. They were opening their canvas up to focus more on the interaction between the artist and the canvas; and that it was a movement that was liberating those artists from the influence of Picasso.
But Samuel Kootz decided that the future of American art was a future that was resistant to the direction that Picasso was leading, in terms of Cubism. And he felt also that there were a group of artists in his stable who were still too dependent on Picasso. Bearden was one of them; Carl Holty was another artist; and Byron Browne was another one. So when he closed his gallery in 1948 and reopened it in ’49, those three artists were left out.
So it wasn’t just Bearden, but it was those three artists. And the artists that he did keep—Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb; I believe he added Hans Hofmann— And he opened with a big show in 1949, and I think he also included Jackson Pollock. And he believed that these were the artists who were going to be the artists for the future of American art. And in fact, they would soon be heralded as Abstract Expressionists.
CUNO: Yeah. And it’s about that time that he goes to Paris. That is, Bearden goes to Paris.
CAMPBELL: Yes, he’s really kind of upset. And that’s when Bearden goes off to Paris on the GI Bill…
CAMPBELL: …and enrolls in the Sorbonne.
CUNO: Yeah. What did he wanna study in the Sorbonne?
CAMPBELL: He had a very complicated dissertation title. He wanted to study art. And it was some very complicated theoretical investigation that he proposed to make. He actually sat in on the class of Gaston Bachelard.
CUNO: Oh, yes, right.
CAMPBELL: And so he did go— We know he went to some classes.
CUNO: [over Campbell] The Poetics of Space.
CAMPBELL: Poetics of Space. Beautiful, beautiful piece. Absolutely beautiful piece. But we also know that he spent much more of his time in the cafés and on the streets.
CUNO: Yeah. There’s a wonderful picture you have in the book, of the—
CAMPBELL: And in the clubs.
CUNO: Of the cafés. But it was there, while he was in Paris, that he met Picasso, Léger, Jean Ellion[sp?] and Brancusi. And he traveled throughout France and Italy. Must’ve—
CUNO: Must’ve been able to stimulate him, relax him in a certain kind of way, introduce him to the world that he was seeing for the first time.
CAMPBELL: Absolutely. He just reveled in it. He had a such a glorious time, and he loved his time there. I just was too short.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, it was good that he returned home, ’cause when he returned home, he met a woman he married.
CAMPBELL: Yes, that’s right.
CUNO: Nanette Rohan.
CAMPBELL: That’s right.
CUNO: Tell us about here.
CAMPBELL: So he comes home and, you know, it’s the middle of the Cold War now. It’s— So not only is Harlem different; the country is very different. And we sometimes forget that there was a House Unamerican Activities Committee, and that artists were very often the target of that committee. Civil rights activity was often the target of that committee.
So it was a time of considerable suspicion and paranoia. And people like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois fell way out of favor with the American government. Both of them had their passports seized at one time or another. So being too radical or too unconventional could really bring you some dire consequences, particularly for black intellectuals. And I say that because I think that era, along with the fact that he came back to a New York where he had no gallery; there wasn’t very much of an arts community in Harlem; he was still working full-time— I think that was a very difficult environment for him to be in.
He took up songwriting, but songwriting really wasn’t his passion. And he suffered a nervous breakdown. And he met Nanette somewhere around, we think, around the time that he was recuperating. He met her in 1953; by 1954, they were married. And it was she who convinced him to move out of his father’s apartment, and they did, to a loft on Canal Street.
And she really convinced him to go back to painting in a full-time, serious way. That is, coming home from work and getting right to the work of doing his painting.
CUNO: What was that like, to leave Harlem, to go to Canal Street? Would it be a loss of community there or—? Or was there no community, as you were saying, in Harlem?
CAMPBELL: The community had really dispersed by the 1950s. Jacob Lawrence was no longer there; Aaron Douglas was teaching at Fisk University; Norman Lewis had moved downtown. I mean, there really— there really was— Most of the clubs were closed. The Cotton Club was closed, the Savoy was closed. All the— all the nightlife was gone. It was a very different— it was a very different Harlem from the one that he grew up in. So while there were still artists there and while he still opened up his studio, it didn’t have the same vibrancy that it had had when he was growing up.
But I think mostly, Nanette’s decision to have them move into a place of their own was for him to kind of regain a sense of himself. You know, he was recuperating from his breakdown, and she wanted him to focus and get back to the thing that she knew he loved, which was painting.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, in 19— early sixties, about that— just shortly thereafter, he began experimenting with collage. And in 1961, MoMA opened an exhibition called The Art of Assemblage. What was that exhibition like? And what did that mean for his art?
CAMPBELL: So we now know that Bearden was experimenting with collage her and there as early as the 1950s, maybe 1955, ’56. Certainly, we know by 1957, he makes a little collage for a friend of his who’s a theater artist, and he gives it to him as a gift. But this show comes out, this big show comes out, and it’s really the whole history. It’s photomontage, it’s collage, it’s assemblage. And for him to see the depth of what can be accomplished with collage and assemblage and photomontage must’ve had a bracing impact on him.
Because it’s after that show that the experimentation kind of accelerates. You begin to see more pieces, bits and pieces in his abstract paintings. And we know he used to come to the Spiral meetings with a bag full of clippings. So we know he had been at home clipping…
CUNO: Right, right, right.
CAMPBELL: …magazines and cutting out photographs. So we know that his interest is starting to accelerate in collage.
CUNO: And it was about that time, too, the Civil Rights movement was taking off and the role of photography in documenting the Civil Rights movement, like, Danny Lyon for the…
CUNO: …for SNCC, the—
CAMPBELL: But also television…
CUNO: And television, yeah.
CAMPBELL: …has images of the Civil Rights movement. And I’m old enough to remember those images. And it was pretty thrilling to see young people sitting at a lunch counter, to see in a newspaper, young people sitting at a lunch counter. Or to see the shock of the hoses on children…
CUNO: And the dogs.
CAMPBELL: …and Bull Co— and the dogs.
CAMPBELL: Bull Connor. Or just the thrill of listening to Martin Luther King. Sitting in your living room and listening to that speech. It was as if the country was being called to action. And in fact, A. Philip Randolph actually called him and said, “I want you to bring black artists down to the March on Washington. And it was at that time, in assembling those artists, that Bearden and some of his artist friends got the idea, well, we should just make a group together.
And they called themselves Spiral. And it was in the context of Spiral that he felt comfortable to bring that bag of clippings and try to get them to make a collage, thinking that they could make some kind of collective statement. And they all ignored him, basically. But obviously, he felt very compelled by the medium. Very compelled by the medium.
CUNO: That was 1963. 1964—
CAMPBELL: ’63, to nineteen-six— By 1964, he is exhibiting. In May of ’64, he publicly exhibits the first of those collages, which is the Evening Meal of Prophet Peterson.
CUNO: Yeah. That’s before he exhibitions the Projections?
CAMPBELL: That’s right.
CUNO: Well, describe the Projections for us and how they relate to the collage.
CAMPBELL: So he’s made clear he’s making these small collages. And they’re intense and they’re jammed full of actions and people. And one of the Spiral artists comes to his studio and he looks at it and he says, “You know what? You ought to photograph that and blow it up.” He said, “Yeah, sure. Why not?” And he photographs it and he blow it up. He blows the Projections up to billboard size. And they have an absolutely phenomenally dramatic impact.
And one of the things that becomes very apparent, if you get into a room filled with the Projections, is that what Bearden has done is he’s made all the people in the Projections look straight out at the viewers. So if I’m looking at that painting, it is as if the person in it is staring back at me. And he gives them these incredibly defiant looks, like what are you looking at?
And so you’re in a room full of these Projections, and what you see is that he has reversed the natural convention of us looking on at somebody doing something, as if we’re voyeurs. He’s actually made us the object of their judgment.
CAMPBELL: And it has just a riveting effect. He gets into just about every major publication, with rave reviews. And nothing he’s ever done has ever generated that kind of excitement and attention.
CUNO: That was really a turning point for him, yeah.
CAMPBELL: It was an absolute turning point.
CUNO: Did he ever write about it, since he wrote so much so early in his career?
CAMPBELL: He wrote a magnificent essay a couple of years after the Projections were exhibited, called “Rectangular Structure in my Montage Paintings.” So it was like— He wrote it as if he were discussing something that had no subject matter in it whatsoever. And he makes the argument, in this essay, that this is not about sociology or propaganda or politics; this is about art.
And it’s a beautiful essay. And it describes really quite beautifully, what he’s trying to accomplish, from a formal point of view. But I think in terms of subject matter, he’s absolutely pulling the wool over our eyes.
CUNO: Now, he continues from that point on, doing collage. And in 1971, he has an important exhibition, the exhibition at MoMA. There’s one exhibition contemporaneously at MoMA, by an African American artist…
CUNO: …Richard Hunt’s sculpture.
CUNO: But Bearden has an exhibition, a full retrospective, with some fifty-six paintings, collages, and Projections. And it’s called The Prevalence of Ritual.
CUNO: Did he ever explain what he meant by that?
CAMPBELL: Yes, he does. And what he means by that is that when he looks at a ceremony or a ritual that is a part of African American culture, like a baptism, what he says is, “I see in that ceremony, echoes of similar ceremonies in other times and other places and other cultures.” And he calls that the continuity of ritual or the prevalence of ritual.
And he represents that continuity by also quoting works of art from the past. So for example, a black woman holding her child will be represented in a composition that echoes a Madonna and Child by Ducio or Giotto. And so he’s saying that the black woman holding her child, that’s a ritual that gets repeated on and on and on back through time, and is represented in art through time. And I’m gonna show you that continuity by quoting a painting from the past in the painting that I’m doing now.
So he, in almost all of his paintings, if you look at the composition, you can see echoes of paintings from the past, where he has taken everyday, ordinary African American life and he has represented it in a compositional structure that evokes paintings from another period, another era.
CUNO: This is in keeping with his earlier essays, where he’s drawing upon other cultures and the works that create a kinda context within which to place African American, American art.
CUNO: There’s a sense that he’s looking for universals, do you think, at the time?
CAMPBELL: He certainly is. What he’s saying is that in the most pedestrian, day-to-day habits, rituals, gestures, you can find echoes of the universal. And it’s not just in European art. He will quote something from Persian miniatures; he will look at African antiquities; he will look at Mexican mural paintings. What you begin to see in his art are echoes of a kind of almost global understanding of the arts.
And he has written about André Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire. And that is he notion that with reproductions of artwork, artists have access to art from virtually every culture and every era; and that artists can claim all of that art as part of their heritage. They don’t have to simply stick to their own personal heritage or what they’ve learned in school; they can actually sort of take from world culture as they need it, for their art.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, you were disappointed in the exhibition’s catalog.
CUNO: And the contributions of the— in the catalog by the curator.
CAMPBELL: Yes, I was.
CUNO: Tell us about that.
CAMPBELL: So I thought there were too big distortions in the catalog. One is that it didn’t really cover all of his art. It’s called a retrospective. There were no cartoons. And I thought that actually, his years as a cartoonist were really very important. They’re seminal works. And I think that’s where he became, frankly, a very accomplished draftsman. But I think that’s also where he anchored himself in a political perspective, as an artist. And that was not referenced. Nor were his abstract works. Neither his figurative abstract works or his large nonfigurative abstract works. So you went right from the paintings to the Projections. And it’s like we skipped about twenty years here. So that didn’t seem quite like a retrospective.
The other thing is that in the essay, the curator makes the observation that Bearden kind of went from one way of doing art to another, in this kind of very lovely, graceful way, where he’s— And in reality, each one of his transitions was accompanied by a great deal of turmoil. Turmoil in his life, emotional turmoil, sometimes political turmoil. They weren’t changes that he arrived at easily. He kind of had to either work himself towards those transitions or he had to struggle his way through those transitions.
CUNO: Yeah. So in 1967, he had a solo exhibition at his gallery. And he partnered with curator and writer Carroll Greene on the exhibition, The Evolution of Afro-American Artists:1800-1950. So he still felt like he had a responsibility to tell that story.
CAMPBELL: Absolutely. After he debuted his collages, his responsibility towards telling the story of other artists, black artists, grew. And it just seemed to grow and grow and grow. And the show was one of the first things that he did. And it was an incredible show. You know, in many cases, he and Carroll Greene had to get things out of storage, things had to be restored, they had to find pieces. So it was one of those early attempts to really kind of make visible the fact that there was an extraordinary history in painting and sculpture on the part of African Americans.
There would go on to be many more shows, bigger shows, and that continued. But this was a truly groundbreaking effort on his part.
CUNO: Yeah. And in the middle of all this, the Studio Museum in Harlem opened. And you, of course, became its director in 1977. What were the issues that you faced as a director? And how did you get to face those issues with the help of Romare Bearden?
CAMPBELL: So I was at home with my second child, who was a baby at the time, and I got a call, in February of 1977, and it was Mr. Bearden on the line. And he said, “You know, the Studio Museum is looking for a new director. And I think that that’s— You would be perfect for that job. You ought to put your hat in the ring.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll apply for the job.”
CUNO: Tell us how he knew you.
CAMPBELL: So I had come to New York to see his show. The show that was at Museum of Modern Art had toured the country, and it ended up at the Studio Museum in 1972. So my husband and I came to see the show. Saw it. That was my first time looking at his work. I was blown away completely. I’d never seen work like that in my life. And so we left that show and went to every museum we could find in the city of New York, and could not find another piece of work by Romare Bearden.
So my husband said, “Why don’t you just call him on the phone?” So this is the days when they had pay phones on the curb. And the telephone book was hanging by a chain, on the side of the phone.
CUNO: And his name was in the book?
CAMPBELL: His name was in the book. And so I called him.
CAMPBELL: And he said, “Well, you know, I only have twenty minutes, but you know, you can come and visit.” So my husband and I went down to Canal Street. And when we got there, we stayed there for about an hour and a half. And that’s how I met him.
A few years later, ’75, I’d actually curated my first exhibition of his at the Everson Museum, in Syracuse, New York. And he came to visit the show, he and his wife Nanette, and a friend of his, Barrie Stavis, and his wife. And he loved it. You know, he came, he stayed, he looked around, we had dinner together, and then he went back to New York. And it was two years after that, that he called me at home and said, “They’re looking for a director at the Studio Museum, so I think you ought to throw your hat in the ring.”
So I threw my hat in the ring. And I stayed at the Studio Museum for ten years, from ’77 to ’87. So it was fortunate for me, because in those years, he just kept making more and more beautiful collages, so I saw every single show that he opened in New York during that period. I went to visit him in Saint Martin, when he and his wife began to live there. And a year after I left the Studio Museum, that’s when he passed away.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. Now, he had a great late flourish…
CUNO: …in his life, in his career. In 1987, he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Reagan.
CUNO: A year later, as you’ve just said, he died. How has his legacy since then changed?
CAMPBELL: So I think Bearden’s legacy has grown. In 2011, there was a widespread celebration on the centennial of the birth. 2011 was the centennial of his birth. So it was a time to kind of take stock of what his legacy was. And at that time, the Studio Museum decided to do a show over a period of two years. And they invited artists and said to them, “If you’ve been influenced by Romie Bearden, please lend us a piece of work that we can do for a show, and just give us some sense of what impact he had on you.”
And the response was overwhelming. Artists like Wangechie Mutu, Kerry James Marshall—all of these incredible young artists who—Hank Willis Thomas—who talked about Bearden’s courage, his audaciousness, the quality of his work, his determination, the honesty of his— All of these were things that apparently were extremely important. And many of the artists spoke about how he personally had championed them or been their advocates.
So he leaves a legacy of an artist who decided that he is going to work and find his way to what his true calling as an artist is. And I mean, that, to me, was a thing that I discovered about doing the book, that he just kinda stayed with his art until he got to collage, and he found this medium that allowed him to be completely the artist that he needed to be.
CUNO: Well, the warmth of your friendship with him is apparent in the book. It comes across on every page in the book. And it’s great to be in your company, and we recommend the book to everyone.
CAMPBELL: Thank you. Good to be here.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: Each one of his transitions was accompanied by a great deal of turmoil. Turm...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824
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