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The Bearden Project: A Family Affair

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Njideka Akunyili, "Efulefu: The Lost One" (2011)

New York's centennial celebration of Romare Bearden has found its heart at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Last month, I wrote about the city's celebrations leading up to the November 10th opening of "The Bearden Project," The Studio Museum's long-anticipated homage to Bearden. Walking into "The Bearden Project," you won't find what you might be expecting -- it isn't a straightforward retrospective, or even a close look at Bearden's breakthrough years, when he began making collages in the 1960s. "The Bearden Project" is lean on pieces by Bearden himself -- there are two at the very beginning of the show -- and heavy on work by more than forty other artists. And despite how unconventional it is, the show is a real treat, especially for fans of Bearden.

Since its inception in 1968, The Studio Museum's mission has always been to support and show artists of African descent; Bearden, who is arguably the greatest African American artist of the 20th century and who was instrumental in the museum's founding, is an icon at the museum. To honor Bearden in the centennial year, The Studio Museum enlisted an impressive range of artists (all of African descent) to celebrate him, asking each to contribute a work inspired by his legacy. Such a show would be inconceivable at almost any other museum in New York -- it's hard to imagine a show of painters coming together to commemorate Jackson Pollock for his upcoming centennial, in 2012, without also imagining most of them ditching the task altogether -- but "The Bearden Project" is a family affair, featuring some of the most prominent African American artists working today (Glenn Ligon, Alison Saar, Faith Ringgold) alongside equally exhilarating efforts by younger artists (Kamau Amu Patton, Wangechi Mutu and Njideka Akunyili, among them). At its frequent best, "The Bearden Project" is heartfelt without being affected and meticulous about the celebration.

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Glenn Ligon, "Pittsburgh Memories Redux" (2011)

Bearden is remembered in many ways at "The Bearden Project," sometimes directly and sometimes subtly and quietly. The collages of Kerry James Marhsall, Derrick Adams and John Outterbridge could easily be mistaken for Bearden's from afar. Others are content to evoke Bearden by their use of color, or by visiting the places that he had loved, as in Stacy Lynn Waddell's Caribbean painting, "No Place Like." One of the show's most anticipated contributions, Glenn Ligon's collage, "Pittsburgh Memories Redux," begins almost too subtly -- it actually just looks like a jumble of American imagery -- until you realize that out of the apparent disorder, a perfect silhouette emerges of the two figures in Bearden's "Pittsburgh Memory," from 1964. A move by Ligon that is as athletic as it is poignant, and rivaled only by those in Njideka Akunyili's collage, "Efulefu: The Lost One," which announces the 2011-2012 Studio Museum Artist in Residence as a tremendous talent.

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Alison Saar, "Bain Froid (Cold Bath)" (2011)

Alison Saar and Mickalene Thomas' images surprisingly apply pressure to the role of women in Bearden's work -- women do appear often and are sometimes curiously naked in situations where clothing would be the norm (in the living room, for example). Whether or not Bearden had some of the prototypical-male-artist in him is a question that is answered here as much as it can be, with Saar and Thomas adding some fuel to the fire but hesitating to add too much (after all, both artists have produced female nudes of their own for the show).

The Bearden that is remembered most vividly at "The Bearden Project" is the collagist. Roughly half of the pieces on view are collages and they borrow frequently from Bearden's own, referencing specific pieces (as in Ligon's) or appearing as formal studies (as in Kamau Amu Patton's "Untitled"). As for the Bearden with an eye toward classic literature and history, or the Bearden that went through many artistic transformations before he started making collages, there's only minimal mention here. It is not all that unexpected, given the profound influence that his collages have had, but it could have been interesting to see an artist take on something from earlier in Bearden's career.

There is some work in the show that is noticeably more independent of Bearden than most, and some, fewer still, that do not seem to have too much to do with him (Edgar Arceneaux's "Number of Intersections Exercise #49" tells you as much in the title). But those are the few exceptions. From start to finish, the artists of "The Bearden Project" have thought of Bearden deeply, be it in the flowers that begin the show (Simone Leigh's "Blush (after Romare Bearden)") or the magnificent coda in the museum's "Project Space" (Kirra Lynn Harris' "The Block").

Visitors might wish for more examples of Romare Bearden's work at "The Bearden Project"; on my first visit, I did feel the absence of his work and imagined that some of the show's more specific references would be lost to viewers new to Bearden. But that has more to do with the job that the rest of New York has, or hasn't, done, in honoring the centennial. A concurrent exhibit at another major museum would have been a great compliment to "The Bearden Project," instead of the polite nods that he has been given at The Met and The MoMA. Those Bearden has been getting for years, and while the Studio Museum can't do everything, it has done what the others haven't -- truly honor Bearden.