Romare Bearden's Color Lessons

December 06, 1990|By Garland L. Thompson

IJUST READ a gorgeous book. Fascinating to read, but also gorgeous. ''Romare Bearden: His Life and Art,'' by Myron Scwartzman. The fascinating part has to do with the stories Bearden told Mr. Schwartzman, a Baruch College English professor and jazz pianist, over a six-year period. The gorgeous part is obvious when you stop to look at the pictures -- 250 in all, 120 in glorious, living color.

And color is what the work of Romare Bearden is all about.

Bearden, great-grandson of slaves, was a son of the South who spent his boyhood watching it re-impose harsh racial mores after the progress at the turn of the century. His great-grandfather, an entrepreneur who married an educated woman, worked his way up from zero status to local prominence in Charlotte, North Carolina. His college-educated father and mother refused to back down before the ugly face of racial prejudice, moving on to New York, Canada and Pittsburgh in search of a better future.

The impressions that left on young Romare stayed with him always, finding expression in the art that so captivated poet and playwright August Wilson that he began emulating it in his own work. Shown a Bearden book in 1977, Mr. Wilson later wrote:

''What I saw was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence. It was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience . . .''

Looking through Mr. Schwartzman's eyes, the rest of us get to see just why Bearden's canvas was so broad. Bearden was raised in a way that encouraged breadth of vision.

He grew up moving: Charlotte in the summer; Canada for a year; New York; Pittsburgh; Baltimore. His family was active in the church, and his grandmother and his mother were involved in community service. His mother held important posts in education and government and became New York editor for the then-national Chicago Defender. At a time American blacks were expected to bow and scrape before whites, Bearden's father would not accept demeaning treatment and moved his family hundreds of miles to find work that met his standards of self-respect.

It's easy to miss the significance of such ferment once an artist like Bearden graduates to ''major'' mainstream status. Emphasis so often on the artistic antecedents: Bearden studied with the famous George Grosz, then moved on to Paris like other American artists. He grew up during the Harlem Renaissance, and often had people like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes at his dinner table, where the currents of intellectual discovery were a part of the staple fodder. His works were exhibited in New York galleries alongside work by Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes and Carl Holty, names which mean much in the art world but are obscure to people more attuned to the cadences of struggle in the idiom of the common man.

Bearden himself was more attuned to those cadences than even the common man might think, however. It's often the artists who rail the loudest against injustice, a point underscored in Mr. Schwartzman's unembellished descriptions of the lives of Bearden and the people he met as he grew. This book makes it clear that Bearden's art cannot be understood without reference to the racial as well as cultural background against which he matured.

That's a deep draught for a student of any age and background, and it is remarkable that Mr. Schwartzman captured it so well. His own career as a jazz pianist seems to have opened doors within his mind as well as opening a way to meet and connect with Bearden, the famous admirer of jazz and blues.

What he has provided, two years after Bearden's death, is an up-close and personal portrait of one of America's greatest artists, annotated with snapshots of the most powerful influences on his esthetic sensibilities. On the way, the good Professor Schwartzman has provided a host of lessons for the rest of us, illustrated by the artist himself.

It's an expensive book -- $60 a pop -- but the Harry N. Abrams Co. has produced a tome that just ought not to sit on library shelves. Too much history is told here; this volume cries out to be seen and felt, discussed over and over, by older folk as well as youngsters seeking to understand just how black Americans got to be where they are, and where they need to go. Many thanks to the good professor.

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