The Early Work Now: Romare Bearden and Robert Motherwell

Romare Bearden at The Neuberger Museum, Sept. 10- Dec. 22, 2017 Robert Motherwell, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Sept. 7-Oct. 28, 2017



Golden Day 1960

It was coincidence that I saw these two shows within days of each other: the following remarks are kind of coincidental as well.

That the early work leads to the later work is a given, but it’s also true that the late work leads to the early: We look at it in the light of what came after.

First how would you date them? They were born and died within three years of each other. Bearden: 1911-1988, Motherwell 1915-1991. Motherwell and the NY School does seem to have influenced Bearden, leading to the group of abstractions shown at the Neuberger. It does not appear that Bearden influenced Motherwell—too bad about that.

Vaguely I had placed Motherwell earlier because of his long series, Elegies to the Spanish Republic (1948-1967 not included in this show). I put him in the group of artists that sympathized or went to fight in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). I don’t see it as contradictory but definitely as food for thought that Motherwell’s romantic identification with the crushed hopes of the revolution and the metaphor of the bullring (Lorca’s poem “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”) coexisted with his pursuit of “an art stripped bare” and resulted in his best mature work.


Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 54

Though I am a woman, the Elegies… and the Lorca poem about the death in the ring of a toreador (There was no prince in Sevilla who could compare to him, nor sword like his sword nor heart so true) at five in the afternoon, “All the clocks said five!”, still make me feel the sorrow of my own crushed romantic idealism. Otherwise Motherwell hasn’t touched me for many years. So it was wonderful to come across the early work on a very, very dry September day in Chelsea. I didn’t realize that he could be so exploratory, inventive, and witty– and on a small human scale. An old friend surprised me!

(My companion and I had a similar experience to the one Paddy Johnson writes about in Hyperallergic, see below.)

This is the education of a painter, to explore the avenues that others have opened—here is Motherwell’s wonderful take on Picasso:

“La Belle Mexicaine (Maria”), 1941

–his Miro, not so successful, a little Mondrian, a little Klee and this work that suggests the vertical spaces of the elegies:

Untitled, c. 1950


“Untitled”, 1951

And Untitled, 1951, see above, surely a figurative painting, not an elegy, full of action and maybe even hope. It made me wish Motherwell hadn’t founded and joined a School with so many rules to follow.




The show of Romare Bearden’s early work at The Neuberger is much larger and reveals a very different struggle. Bearden did not follow a reductive or predominately intellectual path. The show didn’t make me wish that he had continued to work as a political cartoonist, an illustrator, or as an abstract painter. What is interesting here are the many threads that he gathered up to make the extraordinary range of his later work. 

The main focus of the show is the abstract paintings of the early 60s, see Golden Day above. They are pretty awful—a pointless mush. Here was a painter looking for a subject and the pressure to be an abstractionist—a New Man, stripped to those bare essentials—was intense.
There are still vestiges of that pressure today and they were very strong in the 70s when I began to paint. In the abstract works Bearden developed compositions and textures that he later used, but it was perhaps their pointlessness that propelled him into the vivid depiction of life.

“River Mist” (1962), mixed media, 54 x 40 inches


“Untitled Green”, undated

This undated painting inspired by Matisse I suppose, and not quite abstract, is the most exciting of the abstract works.

(Something else to consider is that these early works of Bearden and Motherwell, though they are not the work they are known for today, were shown and reviewed. Both artists were shown in the Samuel Kootz Gallery. These experiments and the dialogue they were engaged in with modern art (and in Bearden’s case, the Renaissance as well) were taken seriously as art, in contrast to today when it seems an artist must show a very specific “mature style” to be shown.)


“Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples” (1945)

The reason that Bearden was asked to leave the Kootz Gallery—not abstract enough! —was his work on “The Passion of Christ.” The subject had interested him in the 40s as well, above Christ Washing…
I find the series moving because he said that he was more interested in the actions and the emotions of the crowds than in the figure of Christ. A real humanist, and my heart goes out to that and to his  abstract Fra Angelico below:

“Fra Angelico”, 1956

Based on:


Fra Angelico, “Annunciation”, 1450

A small area of the show contains his earliest collages. They are immediately stunning; they use everything he has been working on, to portray the civil rights movement and his African-American heritage. He has found his subject; nothing is to be left out. Motherwell said, “Abstract art is the effort to close the void that modern men feel”.  Bearden found another way to close that void.


“The Burial” (1964)


“Sunday Morning Breakfast”, 1967

I don’t know how Bearden became such a loving observer of the life around him (I wish I could be). He was a soldier in WWII, he was a social worker in his day job, he must have seen enough to crush his romantic hopes. But there are all these works portraying the family, the streets, landscapes, continuous surprises and insight into how to be a human in the world. They aren’t sentimental or idealized! It must be a really hard thing to do; I can’t think of another late 20th or 21st century artist who has managed it.


“The Family” 1971

I first came to love Bearden’s work through his scenes of domestic family life. My identification with them is not impaired by the fact that it’s a black family. Why would it be?


The review by Paddy Johnson of Motherwell: