The work of these three African-American artists—Romare Bearden (1911–1988), Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), and Faith Ringgold (born 1930)—speaks to the enduring power of the narrative impulse, and to its endless possibilities for reinvention. Whether the subject is historical, political, religious, fantastical, or in celebration of the rituals of everyday life, these artists have significant messages to communicate—and aesthetic approaches that tend toward bold, clear, and exuberant formal expression. In 1951, Lawrence made a statement about his work that could hold true in reflecting on each of these modern storytellers: “For me, a painting should have three things: universality, clarity, and strength. Universality so that it may be understood by all men. Clarity and strength so that it may be aesthetically good.” In each case, the artists’ African American heritage and the expression of black identity are fundamental to their artistic expression. All three grew up or trained or lived at various points in their lives in Harlem, and participated in the community in important ways. And all three—whatever the subject of each individual work of art—convey an underlying social commentary about human identity seen through the prism of race and class. Again, Lawrence sums up a more global aspiration: “Most of my work depicts events from the many Harlems that exist throughout the United States. This is my genre. My surroundings. The people I know … the happiness, tragedies, and the sorrows of mankind … I am part of the Black community, so I am the Black community speaking.”
The subjects these artists explore have incredible range, from the heroic to the mundane. Early on, Lawrence created several sweeping historical narratives in the form of extensive series of paintings. As young men, both Lawrence and Bearden had participated in lectures and classes by Charles Seifert. This carpenter-turned-teacher immersed the artists in African and African American history and literature. He freely shared his own extensive library, and he encouraged young students to use the resources at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Lawrence steeped himself in historical research. In 1937, he painted a series of forty-one panels, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture (Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, Aaron Douglas Collection), depicting seminal moments in the life of this leader of the Haitian independence movement. Other series focused on a diverse array of major historical figures in the antislavery movement, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro (1940–41; jointly owned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) evokes the migration of more than a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North between 1910 and 1940. The work is conceived as an epic, and it unfolds over sixty panels. Even after he turned from history painting to the daily life of Harlem as his subject in 1942, Lawrence investigated the most significant social issues of his community: family values, the plight of the poor, and especially the role of the manual laborer. Pool Parlor (42.167), The Photographer (2001.205), and The Shoemaker (46.73.2) represent this compelling investigation.
Bearden also explored numerous subjects in his work, and his corpus is immense. He achieved early success through his series The Passion of Christ, based on the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Golgotha (54.143.9) is an excellent example from this period. His subsequent narratives were based on literature from a broad sweep of world history, including Homer, Rabelais, and García Lorca. But the core of his oeuvre investigates the often marvelous quality of the mundane, whether the narratives are set in urban environments (such as Harlem or Pittsburgh) or rural enclaves (such as Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, or the Caribbean Islands). Bearden believed that “an intense, eager devotion to present day life, to study it, to help relieve it” was “the calling of the Negro artist.” His technique is to show how an explicit, external world reveals as well an evocative internal world of the imagination. The documentary and the fantastic weave together. This is exploited with mastery in works like The Block (1978.61.1–.6). Whether Bearden shows us a street scene, an image of people in church or at play, a family at home (such as The Woodshed, 1970.19) or in a lush tropical landscape, the message is in the dignity of the black community and the poignancy of opportunities—both gained and lost.
Sharing an equally acute social conscience, Ringgold explores feminism, race relations (both in the United States and in Europe), and family in her narratives. Work from the late 1960s and ’70s is grounded in political commentary. Die and U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power (both 1967; collection of the artist) are stinging commentaries on the marginalization of blacks in America. Other works celebrate black historical and cultural figures, such as Martin Luther King and Adam Clayton Powell. In the late 1970s, Ringgold turned to celebrating the lives of ordinary people from her neighborhood in Harlem. Through performance art and lecturing, Ringgold developed stories and narratives about the role of a black feminist in modern society. She started making painted quilts in 1983. These investigate race and feminism through detailed fictional storylines, some of which are derived from her own experience. Street Story Quilt (1990.237a–c) is a sweeping tale of trauma and redemption, with characters that function as folk heroes in a parable of urban life in America.
Background and Training
Lawrence, Bearden, and Ringgold were well trained in art history and technique, and each assimilated historical art, modernism (European, American, and also the modernism of the Mexican muralists), African art, and craft or folk traditions in developing their own personal expressions. Both Lawrence and Bearden came of age just after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Bearden’s family was prominent in the community, and many of the stellar figures of the movement (including Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Paul Robeson) were regular visitors to their home. These encounters would later resonate in his work. Lawrence’s family moved to Harlem in 1930, and as a boy he participated in workshops at the Utopia Children’s House. As young students, both Bearden and Lawrence took part in various community-based art projects, schools, and workshops, including the Harlem Art Workshop at the New York Public Library’s 135th Street Branch and the Harlem Artists Guild at the 137th Street YMCA. Lawrence, who was technically trained and educated in Harlem, studied with Charles Henry Alston. Both Lawrence and Bearden were inspired by Alston’s mentor, the philosopher/educator Alain Locke, who advocated African art as the most significant source for inspiration and for the creation of a new “local and racially representative tradition.” In 1925, he stressed: “the Negro is not a cultural foundling without an inheritance.” In this milieu, the young artists gained a comprehensive knowledge of African art, analyzing its form and content with an eye to enriching their own creativity.
Bearden studied outside of Harlem as well, first at Lincoln College near Philadelphia, then Boston University, and finally New York University. After college, he attended New York’s Art Students League and studied rigorously with George Grosz. Grosz’s pedagogy was based on careful analysis of old masters, and this would prove deeply influential to Bearden. Throughout his life, he spent long interludes in close study of the old masters and made work based on compositional structures from such artists as Duccio, Bruegel, Giotto, and Dürer. His tastes and his drive for inclusiveness were global, and the lessons of Chinese landscape and calligraphy, European modernism, and African sculpture are embedded in his work.
Ringgold studied with Robert Gwathmey and Yasuo Kuniyoshi at City College in New York, and coupled her training in the techniques of Western art with immersion in the art of Africa. But early family experiences resonate, too, in her development as an artist. Her father, who had been a minister, was a gifted storyteller. She has vivid memories of listening in on his spirited anecdotes, with their wealth of detail, richness of incident, and variations on a theme. She also remembers the pleasure of then hearing her mother recount the same stories, with another layer of variation. Seminal, too, were family traditions in needlework and cloth. Her mother, Willi Posey, was a well-known dress designer, and would later become a collaborator on Ringgold’s art. She learned quilting from her grandmother, who had learned from her own mother, a former slave.
For Bearden, Lawrence, and Ringgold, the formal structure carries the story: it is never secondary. These modern storytellers have realized their signature styles through nontraditional media, and all three artists use imagery that is deliberately naive in style.
Lawrence distills his subjects into their formal essence. Elemental, flattened shapes, opaque and highly saturated color, and distinctive patterning create a kind of storyboard for the artist. Repeating patterns often have rhythms and breaks and reflect the syncopations of jazz. He associated gouache and tempera with what he referred to as the “hard, bright, and brittle” aspect of Harlem during the Depression. His materials—tempera, poster paints, and other mostly opaque water-based paints, applied to paper, illustration board, and hardboard supports—are the same materials that he was introduced to as a young boy in Harlem. He maintained this allegiance to a relatively unusual medium for an advanced artist of his time with great consistency throughout his long career. Perhaps his commitment to “unsophisticated” materials relates in some way to his equally serious commitment to making an art that could be understood by every viewer, regardless of background. In 1968, he said, “my work almost grew out of the way an unsophisticated person would work in a flat kind of pattern, color, but not academically.”
Bearden’s collages and his experiments in the medium of photostat break with fine art traditions. The collage technique allowed him to densely layer his many references in ways that evoke nuanced, overlapping meanings and metaphors. Illustrations from magazines and advertisements are coupled with images drawn from African art and other inspirational sources, and these are blended together with painted papers. The various motifs coexist on a plane that conjoins real and fantastic, large and small scale, interior and exterior world. Like Lawrence, Bearden was fascinated by jazz, and the formal structure of his work bears parallels to the rhythms, intervals, variations, and improvisational devices of music.
Ringgold pushes the boundaries of traditional fine art in her use of cloth as a medium. Activism informs the choice. Ringgold associates the use of cloth with women’s work, and the medium of quilting resonates with the history of slavery. She expresses her profound feminism and her concerns of identity as an African-American woman in this choice of material. There are economic issues, too. Ringgold first started making cloth works because the objects could be stored and transported easily. She developed “trunk” shows of her work to be exhibited at universities and other spaces, bypassing traditional middlemen such as art dealers. Ringgold not only paints, but also writes elaborate text on the fabric ground as well. Interestingly, Lawrence, too, often used text with his stylized images to help in communicating his narratives.
These three modern storytellers—Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold—share affinities in their communication strategies and their narrative drive. They are figurative artists who also share formal concerns: a use of nontraditional media, and a focus on legible style—often deliberately folksy—and exuberant expression. The artists also have in common a spirit of inclusiveness about sources of inspiration, from modern masters to old masters, from African art to Asian art to folk traditions in the United States. The fundamental commonality is in the story that each communicates through his or her art. As Lawrence said, “The Human subject is the most important thing. My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed, but it is not abstract in the sense of having no human content … I want to communicate. I want the idea to strike right away.”