- An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden by Mary Schmidt Campbell
Perhaps one way to approach Mary Schmidt Campbell's biography of the remarkable twentieth-century artist Romare Bearden is bearing in mind the brilliant line Ralph Ellison gives us in Invisible Man (1952): "The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead." This approach offers us much, not only because Campbell titles her book An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden and refers to him as "a modern Odysseus" (12). This title suggests that the "odyssey" Bearden undergoes offers the best framework to understand his rich, polyvalent, and striking work. Campbell offers us Bearden's biography as a means to grasp his work and its ongoing influence.
Her biography will undoubtedly enrich the "return to Bearden" or, as she calls it, "the Bearden legacy" that we have witnessed forming in the past two decades. She has given us a clear, concise biography that originates in her own encounters with Bearden and extends to her key role in asserting the importance of Bearden's work into the discourse of contemporary art while executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Her knowledge of Bearden's life is first rate, even if it gained much from Myron Schwartzman's earlier, more exhaustive biography, Romare Bearden: His Life and Art (1990). The biography Campbell has written is astute, wide-ranging, and at times moving. She takes as her centerpiece how and why Bearden's "odyssey" is inscribed in the Projections series, most notably in those collages bearing the mysterious title "The Prevalence of Ritual," which was first exhibited at the Cordier & [End Page 313] Ekstrom gallery on the Upper East Side of New York City in October 1964. Campbell narrates Bearden's life before and after the Projections series: his move north, his exposure to European modernism while in the military, his participation in artist groups like Spiral, and the afterlife of his work. But it is the Projections series of black-and-white photomontages from 1964 far more than Bearden's watercolors or his other artworks that have assured his "legacy" within the history of American art. Campbell claims that they "came out of nowhere." How to account for their formal, conceptual, and lasting effects on viewers is precisely what Campbell believes her biography can accomplish. Such an art historical reading, however, is reductive and it leaves us, as it usually does, knowing plenty about Bearden's life, but with few useful insights and concepts to encounter the artworks themselves. In fact, tying the worth of an African American artist's work to his or her biography is a longstanding losing game. The alternative is certainly not some anemic "art for art's sake" argument either. Instead, as some of the recent work that has comprised this "return to Bearden" attests, we need work that soundly argues for the singular affects that this work generates in its best form, which Campbell correctly identifies as the famous Projections series.
The most valuable and comprehensive work in the biography is Campbell's explanation of Bearden's shift from nonfigurative, abstract painting to photomontage. She frames this shift through a nuanced discussion of the artist collective Spiral, which Bearden formed with fifteen other artists including Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, and Emma Amos in July 1963. The group formed in direct response to the Civil Rights Movement, notably the March on Washington in August 1963, the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Spiral group itself neither articulated a unifying set of principles nor did they agree on any form of collaborative work. As Campbell explains, Bearden proposed a collaborative project that would respond artistically to the sociopolitical moment. His idea was a group montage, but it never came to fruition. His Projections series is the result of these challenging discussions about political commitment, artistic freedom, and new representational strategies. Whereas the others disregarded the photomontage idea, Bearden persisted, producing...