On April 21st, 1969, Romare Bearden’s The Stroll was purchased for $500 from Bearden by Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, which, along with Richard Wright’s 1940 Native Son and Toni Morrison’s 1987 Beloved, is one of the most important novels written by a black American during the last 60 years of the 20th century.
I confess I can’t help seeing in the more realistically depicted male figure a resemblance to a photo of Ellison of which I have a vague memory, and indeed it could possibly be true, given Bearden and Ellison’s decadeslong friendship, that the painter had Ellison in mind in creating the image.
In 1968, the same year as The Stroll, Ellison wrote “The Art of Romare Bearden” as an introduction to the catalog that accompanied an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Art Gallery of the State University of New York, Albany. In that essay, Ellison laid out a program for what he called “the Negro artist” who must face the challenge of acknowledging and yet overcoming, through the medium of painting itself, that which is merely social, merely sociological, or merely ethnographic in the experiences of blacks in America.
For all of the artists represented in my Objects and Voices micro-exhibition Times and Places that Become Us—Bearden, Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems, the challenge is to stage, on flat surfaces upon which images are arranged and collaged, the agonistic encounter of social predicament and artistic imperatives.
Times and Places that Become Us conveys the often overlooked historical and temporal parameters that have shaped discussions of African American identity over the 20th century—the idea that “we” are never who we were, but are still in some ways subject to the pull of past times and remembered places.
A version of this article was originally published in the gallery guide to Objects and Voices. Join Professor Warren on a tour of the micro-exhibition on April 18, 2015.
The mere fact that Bearden decides to depict just a moment, say, in the afternoon of a man walking his dog is in itself a kind of challenge to the history of the depiction of black Americans because it's such a casual, non-dramatic incident.”—Kenneth Warren