Painter, Art historian, Illustrator
New York, N.Y.
Sound recording: 2 sound cassettes
Transcript: 45 p.
Collection Summary: An interview of Romare Bearden conducted 1980 July 31 by Avis Berman in Berman's studio, Long Island City, N.Y.
Bearden discusses his mural commissions; his yourth; his time in Paris; working out of the blues tradition; the influence of the South; and changes in his work. He recalls Constantin Brancusi, Jacob Lawrence, Henri Matisse, Duke Ellington, Stuart Davis, and others.
Biographical/Historical Note: African-American painter; New York, N.Y.; b. 1911; d. 1988.
Donated 1981 by Avis Berman.
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Also in the Archives
- Oral history interview with Romare Bearden, 1968 June 29
- Romare Bearden papers, 1937-1982
- Image Gallery items from other collections related to Bearden, Romare
Interview with Romare Bearden
Conducted by Avis Berman
in Romare Bearden's studio, Long Island City, N.Y.
July 31, 1980
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Romare Bearden on July 31, 1980. The interview took place in Bearden's studio in Long Island City, NY and was conducted by Avis Berman.
Romare Bearden and Avis Berman have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
RB: Romare Bearden
AB: Avis Berman
Tape 1, side A
AB: How did you get your name? Romare - it's such a beautiful name.
RB: Well, this [gesturing to photographs] is my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother, and in answering your question, he had a friend from Joplin, Missouri, named Mr. Fred Romare, and so they named me after him. (he pronounces it ROAM-a-ree)
AB: It's very musical-sounding. It's so interesting. I just want to check on your schedule. Now when do you leave for the West Indies?
RB: On the sixth.
RB: .and I'll be back on the twenty-eighth. Twenty-seventh, that I guess I'll be back.
AB: Right. You go to St. Martin's?
RB: Yes, uh huh. It's the island that's half-Dutch, half-French, and I'm on the French side.
AB: Um hmm. Now how long have you had a house there? Did you build a place there?
RB: Yes. You see my wife's folks come from St. Martin, and she had land there. So a little while. In the early seventies, before everything got really, became to expensive on the island __________________.
AB: You were lucky again, in that respect.
RB: Yeah, a little studio above it.
AB: So you paint there?
RB: I've only done a little watercolors there. Not anything like this. [gesturing toward collages]
AB: Yeah, it looks like you'd have to transport so much down there to work, so much material, that.
RB: Yeah, um hmm. And then getting it back here, the big things [like]. Unless I was going to be there six months or something.
AB: Um hmm. Well, does the exotic color influence you or has that made a difference?
RB: Yes. And a little after, when you'd like to see them, I'll show you some of the things that I did there.
AB: Do you like to travel?
RB: I did, but now... I would, you know, more like to stick to work in the studio here.
AB: Um hmm. Have you been to Europe since that time you were in Paris?
RB: I haven't been to Europe since 1975 or '6.
AB: When you go, where do you like to go?
RB: Well, the. In the seventies, up till then, I went about every year. But I'd go to Basel first, to the art fair, and then go up to Paris.
AB: Um hmm. I was just wondering if you went to the Rijksmuseum since you.
AB: The Rijksmuseum in...
RB: Oh, Amsterdam?
RB: Not since the fifties, when I was over there as a student.
AB: Um hmm. How is Paris now that. What, how do you find the difference from you were there, say, in 1950?
RB: Well, when I was there, I had been showing at the Kootz Gallery. Talk to the waiter.
Waiter: I was going to suggest that you ____ out my coffee cup. Now I'm probably going to get a disease.
RB: [laughs] Ok. [pauses] Umm, I, let me see, It's _____ New York here. The difference between Paris. Well, when I was there, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Brancusi, Léger were all living. And, you know, I went to visit them. And many. There were a number of GIs there on the GI Bill. And it didn't cost much to live there. I think I got, geez, $105 a month or $75 a month, and the tuition at the Sorbonne was only about $48 a year. If you had extra money left over, that you were supposed to buy books with. And, you know, it was wonderful, and you know, it seemed alive with the activity. The artists were coming and finding themselves. I think what Paris was, and the thing that gave it its distinction, it's when people had no other home, it was Paris that gave them a home. A lot of the art people you know that did the great art of Paris were from other places - Lipschitz, Pascin, Modigliani, Picasso, Miró - to name the painters.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: . or sculptors. And it's been like that, I guess, through the ages. You know, _____ and the rest of them, and it seems now not to be that way anymore.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: There was an artist that I know that you know of named [Jean] Helion, and he told us once that when he was a young student, he had an uncle who was a famous chef. And he went in the evening back into the kitchen at this well-known restaurant, and he had a good meal. And in the summers, like now, you had people on the coast where you could go and live or do a little work in a hotel, and you were able to get along and make it. But now the $37.50 a month that I paid for the studio and my meals, you couldn't do in a day. So I think this is the same thing that has happened in Paris is what's happened to SoHo. The artists came, and they had these. They, you know, they fixed up the lofts. Now I see that people, you know, who are not connected with the arts at all have come down there. They're doing all these things, and now the same prices that people are paying - they should do a second place. And so when that happens, they drive away the very thing that had made Paris of SoHo. Do you. Do you, do you follow what I mean?
AB: Um hmm.
RB: So this is the big difference that, that I find in Paris now. And I think it has affected the art. What I've seen anymore, the art doesn't seem to interesting as it used to be.
AB: You knew Brancusi then?
RB: Very well, very well.
AB: Could you tell me about him? He's one of my. I just love Brancusi. I could never get enough of him. It's like Brancusi and Manet, well, I just.
AB: Oh, he's just such a favorite of mine. I just. When you, when I saw that up-close face, I immediately thought of Manet. Just because he was so great at doing that.
RB: Well, Brancusi I first went to see with a, because I'd been showing with Kootz, and he gave me a letter to all these people. So he picked up the letter and, you know, about the first sentence is too much for him to bother with. He assumed that I was there to look at his paintings - I mean, his sculpture. Well, he had everything beautifully covered. ____ ___ing cloths, he began to take it off, start tables turning - the birds in space. All this, you know, ______ ______. His studio was such. And he told me that he had bought some wood from a house of the eighteenth century, because of the check in it. It was this old wood that he'd _____. He [built] this house at ______. He had bought all this wood. And some of the things that had gone, drawn up; there was no way in the world you could get it out - I said, "Well, ye gods, you can't make this place any bigger without taking the roof off. And he. The second time I saw [Brancusi], I had a friend with me who was a photographer, and he asked if he could take some pictures. He said 'No,' you know." I asked him why? And he said, "A long time ago, about thirty years ago, I had this man who was a photographer, and he came, and I showed him the best places to stand to take my pictures, and he won a prize and he didn't give me any credit." [laughter] And he wouldn't have had anybody. So he took his own pictures with this little kind of a box camera, and even with his portrait, he looked like a ghost, you know, some of those that he showed me. But then I went shopping with him, and I don't know whether still they had places, you know, markets, and I believe they closed at noon or one o'clock. And there would be a bell ten minutes to twelve, a five o'clock bell and the prices would come down, and he would. The people, he used to infuriate the people because he felt everything.
AB: Um hmm. [laughs] Squeeze everything.
RB: And squeeze, you know. And then he would buy at the last minute. "Oh," they said, "Oh, here comes Brancusi." Then he cooked a meal for me once, and he - it was a roast or pot roast or something like that - and he cooked it in the forge, and he'd built up about three thousand or so of degrees of temperature. And he turned. It was marvelous. So I said, "I didn't know they gave ratings on that." I said, "How.?" He [said] ____ some place, you know, ____ _____. [laughing] He was both sophisticated in what he did and there was a certain naïve quality about him, too. Then there was an American couple who. He lived in a kind of quadrangle or a . There was a brick fence around everywhere. This was his house here, and then his here was his studio. [gesturing] This American couple had a [barbeque, party], he went to this party and he made the punch. And some of these people who got to drinking, and the people were dropping like you had turned a machine gun on. And I went back and I asked what they had done. It seemed Brancusi ____ had dried apricots which were soaked in Cognac. And then they mixed ice, white wine, and eau de ville with this.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: It was so refreshing but you didn't know the charge of what you were drnking. And Brancusi had made lanterns for the party, paper lanterns. Of course, it was just for the night, but they were magnificent as sculpture. But he didn't say anything. He'd just stand and looked around ___ hold hands [inaudible]. Everyone was having a good time. So I didn't talk, the times I was with him, too much - you know, about art or things like that. But, you know, he was very concerned with craft. You have to be a great sculptor. Maybe I just was too young to draw him out, but I liked him very much.
AB: Um hmm. Well, he was probably somewhat tired of people who were probably trying to squeeze him dry as far as that sort of thing goes, too.
RB: Well, he seemed to like me, and I _____ _____, so I.
We saw Matisse, and then on the last time I. I'll never forget the last time I saw him, I was sitting in a café, and some waiter hollered something. I'm trying to think of the phrase. It wouldn't be ne pas sant because that means somebody's dying. But it was something, was, "He's going by," and all the waiters ran to the front of the café, and Matisse was going by, and the man was ___ ____, a young lady walking behind him. I guess he'd been drawing, and it was a model. And all the waiters began to applaud. But he was oblivious to what was happening. [inaudible] "Oh," ad he smiled; he was so delighted. He walked over, and he shook hands with all of the waiters and the people were reaching out. And I sad, well, as a young artist, I thought, "Gee, this is wonderful. Because this isn't Brigitte Bardot or Maurice Chevalier, but they're applauding because here was a man who changed the quality of the way they saw life."
I heard a French expression. [inaudible French that translates as:] "The time between the dog and the wolf." This is the hour before it's twilight, ____ that expression, twilight, the twilight hour [inaudible].
AB: It must have been very moving, and must have reaffirmed your faith in people that they could appreciate someone who truly deserved.
RB: Yes, like that. You know, it made me feel very good. And I think that was the thing about Paris. Now, with people going to Paris, you were not to expect it. You can't apply to the New York State Council for the Arts for a grant, or to the government. Oh, there's nobody going to give you anything. But you're going to be left alone. And, you know, there's not. Are you going to sit on a park bench and think about Buddhism or something? You can do it. And you're surrounded by all that, a certain ambience that is Paris. And I think this is what brought people there through the ages. And now there is, skyscrapers are going up, big housing developments. It's something in the hamburger culture of American that can be that way.
AB: Um hmm. I was also wondering that when you went on the G.I. Bill, you had recently come back from fighting, and then it must have also been sort of a shock because just from reading, oh, let's say something like James Baldwin, you may have felt alienated. Did you feel as a black that here you fought for your country, and you came back and you weren't being treated well and in Paris there was that sense of.
RB: I think I was. I remember. What you were saying: Once there was a poet, black poet, named Sam Howard, and we were [going] both. He was in the Sorbonne too, and there was a lot of cafes around there called the duPont.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: And we were standing on the other side looking, you know, at the duPont, and there were so many people there. There were some Senegalese. I would talk to him about some French, very animated, everything. So he said, "Look," and said, "Now this, 'This is Paris,' and he said, 'I have this, this feeling of liberty here, of freedom of the spirit that I just didn't feel in the United States.' And I know Jimmy [Baldwin] was, who went over there, I think in about '48 or so, with hardly anything, moved in another kind of ambience at that time. But maybe things have changed now. But it was a whole different attitude there.
AB: They're very international.
RB: .because, of course, you know, America has changed too. There is a famous painter, [Henry O.] Tanner, you know, the black painter, who lived in Paris. This dealer telling about Tanner's being over here. And he wanted to take him to lunch, and he came and he said, "Where could I take you?" [chuckles] This was the 1920s. You know, I can't. I used to go here, and I can't go in with you. And they ended up in the Automat. So, I mean, this thing over there was a little yoke that was [inaudible].
AB: I wanted to ask you, since we also mentioned it before. What exactly are the Hartford murals going to be like for the Civic Center?
RB: Gee, it was yesterday or the day before, I gave them to the assistant - the fella that's going to start making the back, the back for them. One is going to be kind of. cultural. Once they're. I took sports and the cultural aspect of Hartford. I think one I had, for the sports, a figure, something like this. [showing study] Split, so this. part was dark, this white. And it was a circle and numbers.
AB: Um hmm. Oh, is that, is that it up there? That sketch?
RB: Oh, yes. There it is. I forgot. [walks away from mike, and then shows painting] And this was a black hole in the back, and this white, of a hockey exhibition.
RB: So you see. So it's the same figures, but one side is hockey and one. [inaudible] I guess that's it. Then the other ____ and the cultural activity that ____ [inaudible] and up here, of course, I didn't ____ ____ [isn't, this is] very abstract _____ ______ ______.
AB: And now, is this, is your work at all. I can't imagine. Is it going to be coordinated with Sol Lewitt's at all?
RB: No, because his. You see, this is the entrance, and then he is over here. This is way some distance.
AB: Oh, I see.
RB: You know, it's a huge. It would be like Lincoln Center on Seventh Avenue, and on Eighth Avenue another one. So it's no coordination at all.
AB: Right, there's not, no.
RB: At all.
AB: I imagine your work was more acceptable to them than his. They probably didn't.
RB: I think he is a. It wasn't. The trouble there with. I don't think we should. [sounds reluctant to discuss subject on tape-Trans.] I'll put, it wasn't, I think, in what he had done. It was one lady in particular, and the maquettes or the sketches that he did were very small, you see. And his work I think was going to be about thirty feet. So the question was, "Well, how would it look when it was blown up that big?" And I had to get up and. I remember in '48, Miró came over, and I watched him. He did a mural - I told the people - for Cincinnati. And he had this little sketch he could hold in his hand. And the darn thing was twice as big as this room - and high. But this was all that he had. I said, "Some artists work that way. Some fill it out, and you know exactly what they're doing." It would give him, and he, his stripes of color going up, _____ _____. I said. They had a group there, and I said this is a very fine, capable artist, and he'll be able to pad it out, and I think that impressed the group, the cultural committee there. And then, I think June Kelly went up and she saw Lewitt's work and sought the lady's advice.
AB: June could probably persuade anybody. She's very efficient.
RB: Yes, she's very efficient. And so then it was. But I think the. He was a Hartford person. Everybody had chosen him, and they liked it. It was just they wanted to know how, when it, what it might look like. And they wanted him maybe to do something to be the best of what they'd seen. So June said, "You know, he'd be making a painting, and unless you want to pay him something." So anyway, it was all resolved.
AB: How about Baltimore? You're doing a.
RB: That would be a mosaic that I'm doing for Baltimore, because it's in a station, where people in it. The one in Hartford isn't high up - it's some distance - but this would be, and then you're subject maybe to dampness, in this instance. So I think in that case, and you have to have a guarantee it will last a hundred years. And I think mosaic will last, more or less. And you could wash it, you know, hose it or something like that.
AB: Oh, that seems to be exactly the right sort of medium. Think of the beautiful old tile work in the New York subways. It's so beautiful.
RB: Oh, yes. You see the things in Rome, Santa Marina _____, and the great mosaics in Ravenna.
AB: Does this give you an opportunity to do almost, if you wished, a Byzantine sort of thing?
AB: What is this going to look like, though?
RB: Well, it's, the station is Laurent's Station, Laurent's Station, not spelled with a W-L-a-u-r-e-n-t, I think. But it was a place that was like our Fifty-second Street used to be, with all the jazz, and Billie Holiday came from Baltimore.
AB: Oh, was this maybe, is this in East Baltimore, this station? That's where I think she was from.
RB: Yeah, you see, and this is Laurent's, and so mine would be of jazz. It has, I'll have her singing, really very abstract, and then the band and people playing around.
AB: Um hmm. So it's definitely going to be of Billie Holiday singing?
RB: Well, I mean.
AB: Or a black woman singing.
RB: Yes, that's, yes. But the band is a mixed band.
AB: Um hmm. So a big band, I guess?
RB: It's a big band.
AB: A forties sort of band. Did you ever know Billie Holiday?
RB: I. It was that time when I came back from Paris. I found that it hit me a little later than some of the other people. You'd asked me before about adjusting and about ____ ____ ____. It wasn't so bad. I was right in the Kootz Gallery. And then, not so long after, in Paris under the G. I. Bill. But when I came back, I liked Paris so much that I had applied for a Fulbright. And when I. Well, they said, "You've got to come back to the United States, you'd be accepted." When I came here, they said, "You're too old." You know, all of 28 or 29. I said, "There's four years in the army you're taken out of my life, and now you want these kids." I said, "I was young then." And I said, "How can I get back to Paris?" So I was writing songs. I had known Billie Holiday because where I had the studio, there were two brothers, photographers, the Smith brothers and she worked on.
AB: This is your, on 125th Street.
RB: . on [25th, 125th] Street. And she was the. What would you call the person who sat at the desk?
AB: Oh, the receptionist?
RB: The receptionist, yeah. And I knew her.
AB: She was a receptionist?
RB: Yeah, for the Smith Brothers.
AB: Oh, amazing.
RB: Well, I mean, and then she went on into singing as a young. But all the stories that they told about her runnin' on the street. They were true. So I knew her from that time, and then I wrote a couple of songs for her. And I think the record was never released, because she was a _____... They wouldn't give her license to work because of her dope conviction or something like that. But I knew of her, yeah.
AB: So you had that studio you shared with Jacob Lawrence and, or.
RB: I had. In the building. Like I was here and he would be right underneath.
AB: Um hmm. How did you two affect each other's work, if at all?
RB: Well, at that time, I think maybe Jake was more, had more of an effect on me, on me than I on him because he could work so easily, and I was trying to, at that time, find myself. You know, I had wanted to go into medicine. I quit school and there at the medical school. And, you know, but he worked so easily from the. He'd just ____ _____ _____. And so I don't think it had any, because I really wasn't into myself at that time. I was too young, but I had done cartoons ____ _____, and I'd studied ______ and wanted to do something else. And so the problem was what to do. I know Baziots told me that he had the same problem. He said he asked himself, "What do I like?" And he said, "Tumblers." You know, drinking glasses. So he said he drew one and drew in another over it so that when he had this kind of a style when things going off, and this is how it emerged, from just drawing tumblers. And so a lot of people don't know kind of what to do, you know what I mean? And that was what I was faced with at that time.
AB: What was your equivalent of tumblers?
RB: Well, I, umm. I had the studio, because Jake had found it for me, and said, you know, there was a place open. Wants eight dollars a month rent, you pay electricity. And I was coming down - because it was on the top floor where the famous poet, Claude McKay, was there now - and there was a woman there. Outside, because this was, remember, the days of the thirties, the Depression. And these women used to have old keys, you know, shake keys. So we came back, and this woman shook these keys. She was so homely, Claude McKay said she looked like a locomotive coming around the bend. But, she said, "Two dollars. Dollar. Fifty cents. Forty," she said. "Please take me." So I went to see my mother, who had an influence in the community in those days, and she got a job for her. You know, or something I think she was more qualified to do. And she came and cleaned my studio every Saturday, because she felt she owed it to me. [inaudible] So since I couldn't afford canvas and things, I could buy these big sheets of brown paper. So I bought this sheet, and I stuck it up on a board. And every Saturday she'd come. It was the same piece of paper cause I couldn't paint anything. So she asked me, she said, "Come on, you're supposed to be an artist, I don't see any painting.' She says, "Same brown piece of paper. Is that the same one that was here last Saturday and the Saturday before and all the Saturdays before that?" [laughing] I said, "Yes, I'm trying to get my mind together." She said, "You know, you told me that I was in the wrong profession, you remember?" And I said, "Yes." And she said, "I'm going to tell you something. I think that you're in the same boat that I was." So she said, "Why don't you paint me?" And I looked at her. She didn't look like Miss America or something that I would want to paint. So she said, "I know I'm homely but when you can look in me and find out what is beautiful there, then you'll be able to put something on that brown paper of yours." And when she left, I thought. You know, it started me thinking. You know, I said, "For instance, everyone says how beautiful the Mona Lisa is. Maybe other people have done paintings of the Mona Lisa, and everyone said what a wonderful portrait Velásquez did of Philip of Spain. Sure, there were hundreds of portrait paintings, but Leonardo's conception and Velásquezs conception, its artistic _____ convinces us. And also the beauty of Leonardo's soul was - had to be - our focus in that painting. So the woman, this lady, Ida was right. Then I said, you know, "Well, what do I like? What do I know?" And this is when I began to do those things that, in the Museum of Modern Art show retrospective of '71 were in the front room on the brown paper. And that's. It was just that basic thing that really got me started thinking.
AB: Do you think you could speak a little bit loudly just because between the train and the fan, you've got competition.
AB: Yeah, I wanted to go back for a second or two, when you were talking about these big public commissions you're getting, I mean. What are the differences that you found with working in something really big and also for the public as opposed to the independence of something like this. How you adjust for.
RB: The, the adjustment is, of that, something, say a small thing, when it's carried out to a very large scale, such as a sixteen feet, there's sometimes that you'll have to put something in or make something, some little compensation because an area like this, once expanded, it becomes many feet. It, uh. That was all I found different.
AB: I mean, did you find all of a sudden you had big holes in the space, or something?
RB: Well, I mean you have to, then, think about compensating for that. And since I try to paint flat anyway, I try to compensate always for holes.
AB: Um hmm. How did you come to like flat painting so much?
RB: Well, I, I liked the kind of painting of Cubism. And since that I was doing so many of the paintings in the South, interiors, I studied the Dutch, you know like Vermeer and De Hooch and Mondrian, and I sacrificed in using the rectangle. Now, what Rubens and the rest have in the Baroque period is a kind of an El Greco movement for plasticity and a classic stance towards the painting. And I think that it avoids illusions because most of the, so many of the painters who are, they said, are abstract are not really, because. For instance, one of the most abstract artists is Ingres, you know, in the drawings. Very much, if you turn them upside down, they're extremely abstract. But let us say that if you paint something, and it's orange and you put down a blue, and that's all you have, even, you've made sunlight. And these, this is what I mean _____ ____ you try to compensate. I don't know if I made that very clear.
AB: Yeah, well, I was interested when you said the word "classic" because you, especially. I love that Odysseus series; I think it's so beautiful. Was that sort of the first time you wanted to sort of combine. Well, this, in that case it was black figures with classical themes. But it seems to me that you really wanted to make a black experience that's really connected to the classical ones. And I was wondering how that came about.
RB: I feel that what struck me about the Odyssey is that all of us, from the time we begin to think, are on an odyssey. In this case, home, looking for the values that are kind of ever-lasting, you know, when you're home, or Telemachus, the son, the search for the father. And this is applicable to everyone. So why not? If I was trying to explain it to a kid in Alabama, because he might see it the way that I did. Or it would be perfectly appropriate. Talking to Noguchi one time, I said this is perfectly appropriate that you did it this way. Because obviously they, every, all of us are on a kind of an odyssey. And I think this is what makes the story so lasting, so classic, and applicable to everyone.
AB: You just mentioned Noguchi. Is he a neighbor? Is he close by?
RB: I know he's out on Long Island someplace, but I haven't ever been there.
AB: It's somewhere in Long Island City.
RB: Yes, I'm not quite sure.
AB: I was just curious. Another one of your activities recently was doing costumes and sets for Alvin Ailey. Is that right?
RB: Yeah. It was on NBC last night.
AB: You're kidding. I can't believe it, because I was sitting there making up my questions last night. I wish I'd watched it.
RB: Yeah, because they're doing this documentary, and they borrowed the costumes and the set, and they put it up in Central Park, the place that's fenced in. And they, they filmed it, the fountains and the. And Diane McIntyre, who I, you know, choreographed the dance that I did the sets and costumes for.
AB: Were you satisfied with how that came out?
RB: The costumes?
AB: The set, uh huh.
RB: Yeah, I think it looked. I didn't, wasn't there. You mean yesterday, or when _____ Alvin..
AB: Well, just in general when you were.
RB: Yeah, it looked, it looked very good. I think I would like to do more of that sometime, you know. It's very challenging. Because the ballet or the dance is the one art that combines them all. You know, the music, the dance, you know, the choreography, the artists. All of them are found in the ballet.
AB: Do you think that. I want to ask you about this idea of childhood and memory because it is so important. Do you think it's easier as you've grown older to make use of the past?
AB: Why is that?
RB: Because. You know, in Eliot's poem, "The Four Quartets," he talks about time, and you're going back to where you started from, but maybe you're bringing another insight, another experience to it. And things that may be nonessential have been stripped away, and you can see that the things that still stick in your mind must be of some importance to you. Like the people I remember, the pepper jelly lady, a little girl kind of plaed with me, Liza. All of these things that now came back to me.
AB: Some of the, the meaning of them becomes clearer, I guess, too.
RB: The meaning of it becomes clearer.
AB: it's interesting to me, even though you've spent probably more of your time in New York and Pittsburgh, but this seemed to be the most intense experiences for you, the Southern.?
RB: Very intense, yes. And I go back and. Well, I guess, where you are, the people you know at that time have left a kind of an impression on you. I remember my great-grandmother's there, and see the porch. In front of the porch they had a garden that kind of worked, went around the house, and I guess I must have been four or five years old, maybe six, and there was a tiger lily, and it's just fascinating. And I'd go and look every day just because of its color, and the size of it is, just look at the flowers. And this Sunday it was gone. And my grandfather came and looked at me, and I was looking at it and the stem was just undulating like a snake. And he said, "Well, your grandma cut it, to put on her dress to wear to church." He said, "But don't worry. When you come back, you'll see it. The tiger lily will be there again." And so it's the same thing, you know; it's this kind of _____ _____.
AB: Were your grandparents slaves?
RB: Now, let's see. Now she was considered a Cherokee Indian. Whether she was or not, I don't know. But he was not at that time. Now, it's been. So far back. I know he recountd the Civil War. I know once that. When I was a little boy he took me to the depot and it was in the evening, and he put me on his shoulder, and there was a boxcar backed on to a siding. Doors were open, filled with flowers, a casket, soldiers, two soldiers on either side. And he said, "This is Mrs. Stonewall Jackson," and she was born in Charlotte and I guess had died in Virginia. They brought her back - either for burial or something. I don't know what year that was. And so, so many people at that time had memories of the Civil War, or men who had fought in it, and so he had a lot to tell me. But I don't think in North Carolina there were a lot of. Maybe his father or hers were slaves. But it's too. I never. I was too young to get into the discussion of that, and everyone who might know is dead.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: You know, so I can't really answer.
AB: But do you feel that you had a sort of happy, protected childhood?
AB: You were an only child. Did you feel lonely or were there.?
RB: Well, then I had cousins, and there were always some people in my house, you know, in and out, cousins and things. So I never felt. I would like to have had a sister or brother, but I just didn't.
AB: I guess that's not something you can arrange. [chuckles]
RB: I didn't feel selfish, you know, about being alone. Never have been.
AB: Why did your parents leave Charlotte?
RB: Well, they left Charlotte, I guess when lots of people [were]. The migration of the twenties, when Negroes began to leave the South and come up for better work.
AB: When did you realize that you had to reconnect with your Southern roots?
RB: When I. I just told you.
AB: Oh, from the experience with the woman, with Ida, right?
AB: Um hmm. Yeah, I was just wondering because since you did go through that period of abstraction that.
RB: Yes. Well, then was after and really nonrepresentational.
AB: Right. Okay. I was just wondering if you thought it was sort of an irony of if it amused you, as now as I've been reading these press releases, that, that what everyone. They're saying that "Charlotte's." This is quote, you know, Charlotte's - quote - "most distinguished native artist" is (1) an expatriate and (2) a black who grew up in a segregated state." Does that.?
RB: Well, I never had read that. Is that what they're saying?
RB: Umm, well, when you said. I imagine if you went to another country, you might be, or living in Paris or something, you might say that. But I never left Charlotte, except physically.
AB: [chuckles] I guess, yes, the way Joyce never left Dublin.
RB: Right. Sometimes you need to get away for something. Like if you're a painter, you have to back away from a picture, so you can try to see the whole thing a little bit more clearly.
AB: Do you ever write poetry, by the way?
RB: Poetry? Do you know, I tried once, and I took a little bit of it to Herb Leibowitz. I don't know if you know him. He is the editor of the magazine, Parnassus.
AB: No, I don't know him. I know Parnassus, of course.
RB: And he said, "Well, why don't you continue in doing this." Because I was writing something about St. Martin's and. It was a whole thing about a voyage and maybe. And I was. Since I couldn't do it or write or do it in any way, that I was doing this voyage of a man that was very, kind of a writer, and I would go back to the voyage that these other men made to pick up two men who'd escaped from Devil's Island.
Tape 1 of 2, Side B
AB: Um hmm.
RB: And he [Leibowitz] said, "Well, gee, it's a nice thing. Just finish it." But I have never gotten around. Why would you find this interesting?
AB: I asked for two reasons: Is that you have a very colorful way of expressing yourself.
RB: Oh, really?
AB: In images - many artists do. But also because you have written, because you have been a historian and you wrote The Painter's Mind and you know how to write, so that's.
RB: Well, I, that was. In The Painter's Mind, I must tell you the truth. [chuckles] I wrote it with Carl Holty, and Carl had a brilliant mind, but he wrote a long, heavy sentence, and I wrote something or other, and we put it together, and I took it to a man who was a friend of mine who was an agent named James Brown, and he said, "You know, you've spread. You can't get anywhere with this. You've spread the commas like salt and pepper."
AB: Uh huh.
RB: And I. There was an artist that I knew whose wife was an editor, and she said she would take it, and she cleaned it up and made it presentable and my wife typed it, and then Crown Publishers took it.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: Then I had a wonderful editor named Nick Lyons. And so that was learning to write with Nick. Taking a sentence from here, moving it up to the top, and. But a lot of that is editors helping. I mean, I can write a letter, but I don't really consider myself, as you say, a writer. But writing is a, is a very difficult type of a, type of a craft. I guess you'd learn, because to me, even if you make a mistake [when you're painting] you see some pretty colors going. But with writing the sentences, or the rhythm of sentences, although I like when I read it, but for me I think it's very difficult.
AB: Well, I usually like to read what artists say because they don't.. They've been told usually they're not verbal, and so when they sit down to do it, even though it's difficult, it's a different thing that comes out, and they don't obey the rules. They just start differently. It's more interesting because it's.
RB: Really? Well, that's how I would do it.
AB: So I was wondering. I mean, I know that in all of this, this painting and collage and all that you've done, there's an autobiography, but I was wondering if you ever felt like ever writing.
RB: Well, I mean, other people have asked me to write the different stories that I've told you about. Each of these things, says, "Why don't you.?" Nick Lyons, the same thing, you know, he just wrote me a letter and said, "You know.." In the first one, I had this thing about Eugene and the funeral. Friend of mine said, "Gee, why don't you write this whole story, one day. I'll help you." And maybe if I would if I had time but.
AB: Another thing that was sort of interesting is that I read a review - it was a couple of years ago - that Hilton Kramer did. To me, he sort of issued you a challenge, and he said he challenged you to go on with these narrative collages, and he sort of said, "Well, you're doing it now, your childhood and early life. Why don't you try doing some more of your mature life?"
RB: Well, you.
AB: How do you see, you know, do you.?
RB: You see. Umm. [pause] Although it's my early life, I'm doing it as a mature man. [train goes by]
AB: Um hmm. Well, I.
RB: Do you understand what I'm.?
AB: Oh, certainly. You're not looking at, you know looking at it with the eyes of a child. But I was just wondering if you felt that eventually you would go on to document later stages in your life.
RB: Well, you know, I've had a letter today from the New York Public Library. Asked me to be one something for the opening at the Schomburg in September, and their theme is the future.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: And I thought. They said, "We want you to talk twenty to thirty minutes. And artists can't talk about the future, because art is a kind of an invention, and it would be like a hunter going out and saying, 'I'm going to shoot a stag and two, two rabbits and a pheasant.'" You have to take what you find. And so, you know, how can I, you know, say what I'm going to do. You exist. You know, what inspires you for the moment. I mean, for a time, I would say.
AB: When you mentioned the future, I was just wondering if you had any general predictions in what you think are going to be sort of promising avenues in art coming up.
RB: I have no idea. You know, just what I was saying, that I have no idea. I mean, because different times and different. call for different kind of solutions. Because, you see, art. Each particular epoch has a vision. For instance, they talk about Iran. It used to be Persia. And if you look at the Persian painting of that time, it is always of the oasis. And especially then, ninety, ninety-five percent of the land was sand. But they didn't paint that. It was a vision of the oasis. And. Which is very difficult for even what they call a master portrait [painter[. Somebody on the order of a Titian or an El Greco - or Rembrandt or whatever. But we always put something of our time in it. And we can't take it out because we don't know what it is. And this is why it's so difficult to predict what is going to happen in life.
AB: When you mentioned portraits, I was going to bring that up a little bit later, and I was wondering, because of the collage and the complexities, have you run across any Bearden forgeries?
RB: Yes. A lady came from the Midwest, and she bought these. She had. A doctor, a woman physician, had bought these three or four works from a man by Karl Appel, among others. And this man had a gallery and he was just doing these paintings. I think. I remember I had broken my ankle, so the year was '74, that winter. And I had to write on it, "This is a forgery." And I felt so bad that it wasn't a work of mine that I also sent something on to this lady that was the physician. So I told her, "Well, this isn't much, but at least it's mine."
AB: Uh huh.
RB: And then this man had done the forgeries and moved to Washington, and I think there's nothing that they could do.
AB: I was just wondering. It would seem to me it would be very difficult to forge your work. I mean, but this is.
RB: I think to anybody's.
AB: I mean, well.
RB: .because of... I think that you could usually tell, you know. If someone says, "Gee, maybe you could do a Mondrian and do this." But even if you have all the things if you're really a painter, you could know; you could feel something was wrong.
AB: Um hmm. Yeah, that's where the phrase, "It's not right."
RB: And if you were that good to do that, why would you need to do it?
AB: Um hmm.
RB: Now, I used to know a painter in Paris, Ferdinand Leichel - you know, L-e-i-c-h-e-l. I think that the lady. What was her name.? She has a gallery on Seventy-second Street there, and Madison Avenue - Marion Willard. And I believe she showed Leichel here for a couple of shows. But even then he was fairly well known, but fairly well known in Paris. But his work was very much like Paul Klee, and he was a friend of Klee. But here's two men that were, just happened to be born with the same vision. And I think that's possible, you know, but.
AB: But that's a different issue.
RB: That's a different issue, yes. But I said that, bus as, it has to do with forgery, you see. If you're that good, you don't need to do it.
AB: I noticed. I was just wondering if there was any reason why many times you put your signature on the side, on the top, sort of sideways, backwards, broken up. Any reason for that?
RB: Well, I just look for a place that's less obtrusive where it might fit in. [both chuckle] Sometimes it's the bottom. Sometimes it's the side.
AB: Um hmm. What. Even though you've done so many people - to me, that is - it doesn't seem that you do recognizable portraits. You decided not to or what is.? Now what's the.?
RB: Just not my thing, you know.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: I'd rather do an archetype.
AB: Um hmm. Have you ever looked - not now, with the collages - but did you ever use models when you worked?
RB: I never have. No, never have. At least I. When I studied drawing with Grosz, he was using a model in the class, you know.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: But I never _____ [did].
AB: It wasn't. Did Grosz pay any special attention to you, did he recognize.?
RB: No more than anyone else. Because he was very methodical, and he gave everyone the time.
AB: Who else was in your class at the Art Students League that I might know of?
RB: I think there was an artist I see still doing a great deal of commercial work - I don't know what else he might do - named Joseph Lowe.
AB: I don't know him.
RB: I saw a cover of his recently on The New Yorker, and there was a very well known commercial artist later that came, but I've forgotten his name now. And the other people may have done some, but they've just come and gone, you know.
AB: I was just wondering. Sometimes every once in a while there's this legendary class at the League and you get five or six people all together, and.
RB: Yes, uh huh. I forgot this man's name, but he was very popular in the forties and fifties.
AB: It seems to me that your coloring has really gotten very much purer over the years - almost like the climate, you know, like the West Indies where you get that kind of color, and I was wondering how you had evolved your color schemes.
RB: Well, I think the big thing about. I was a great friend of Stuart Davis, and he used to listen to Earl Hines's music, all the time. And the main. And he used to say, "You know, listen to what he isn't playing, what they call the interval, and, it's what you don't need." You know it, but you throw it out, you don't need too much. You know, you just have to find the things now that you need, because. The artist's problem isn't, say, the problem of the Renaissance, because if you look at a painting of scenes of. of photographs of Matisse of this day, the other day, about twenty days, until the whole thing is achieved. And each painting is different, until he finally gets to the one and changes this and the other. And so in the modern, in the modern art, seems bent on destruction and new beginnings, destruction and new beginning. And in the past, say the Renaissance, say Tintoretto, or someone, Titian, do a sketch, and they carried it out pretty much. Because so much of the art was built on skill. And we don't need a lot of the things that ehy had to put in. And this is a round-about way of telling you ____ ____ ____.
AB: Well, it's interesting that you mentioned Matisse; I thought you might have gotten a lesson or two from him.
RB: Yes. A rather good lesson.
AB: When the Museum of Modern Art had your big show, ten years ago, when you saw, all of a sudden, your work hanging up around you, how did that affect you when you saw that?
RB: Yeah, you wondered, seeing. I think as everyone would say, "Gee, I did all this?" you know.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: This is about, this is about the first effect it had on me. Wow.
AB: Was it, was it frightening or sort of unsettling to see all that before you? Or, I mean, did you subject yourself to self-criticism or.?
RB: Always. But, but that was the fear, you know, that I [had, have] [where] I.
AB: Of course, it was a joyous occasion, and I was just wondering that.
RB: Yes. Right.
AB: .that for someone to be confronted with it might be sort of difficult, too.
RB: Yes. That's true.
AB: I'd like to know what you think has happened to your art since '71. In other words, what this new show [the retrospective at the Mint Museum] is going to tell about you and just what you think some of the sort of new strengths and improvements are?
RB: Well, I think that. A lot of it is what I told you, that, the elimination of a lot of the things that I don't need. The fact that some of the earlier work that I had - you know, the photographs, or the collage, or you might say montage - I don't do anymore, while I use collage. Most of the things that I, you know, I've cut out are color. It seems to be less of distortion in my work that I did for a kind of effect at one time. And on, the reliance more, as you said, on a pure color, because it carries and it has, it gives the work more sonority.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: Amplitude and sonority. So I would like, if I could, to carry on that way.
AB: Um hmm. It certainly.
RB: And because as you get older, I. There is a painting that I was looking at in a book a couple of months ago of a Titian and it's called The Scourging of Christ. And an earlier version, you know, is painted pretty realistically, and then he did the whole thing, I guess, when he was in his nineties. And it looked like a Manet or an Impressionist painting. You know, it was all, you know, he had thrown off the, just like the. Do you remember dirigibles?
AB: Um hmm.
RB: Sort of sinking, you know, he had to jettison to get back up. So I think you just throw off a little thing, like, you know, what you don't need.
AB: It [seems] that many painters, as they grow older and mature, they, they become more joyous if they can. As they start getting toward an older age and they see they're not going to die young and they've got their life settled down.
RB: Well, an artist does when his work is complete. Some - van Gogh in his thirties, or Raphael. Like Titian, he still, if it wasn't for the plague, he'd still be painting.
RB: But when your life is complete. So therefore, a painter has, a real painter has no fear of death; like for a lot of people, death comes as an intruder. But the thing is. What were we talking about there now?
AB: Oh, well.
RB: You asked me?
AB: Oh, just, joy. The quality of joyousness.
RB: Oh yeah. Well, art has always defined itself as the picture, and the picture's always [joyous] ____ ____. And, you know, you take a Goya, Disasters of War. You don't go out feeling terrible against the French. And also in my taste, getting down to things now, I paint out of the tradition, now. The blues, the tradition of the blues. And I'll call and recall. You know, you start a theme, and you call and recall. And as a young boy, say living near the Lafayette Theater, Duke Ellington, say, would come, and then. Or another orchestra. And a blues singer would come out, Bessie Smith, say. And let us say she would start singing the song, "You know, I woke up this morning, and my man had left me a note, and he said he was leaving. I'm feeling so blue and so broke down that I'm going down by the river. And if I feel as bad as I feel now, I'm going to jump in." Well, here she's talking about rather poignant, existential things. You know, life, or a loved one, or husband, or whoever it was, is gone. But behind her, they are doing what they would call in the band riffing You know, [too-oo-ooo] over her.AB: Um hmm.
RB: So it was changing something that is very tragic into a farcical quality.
AB: Yeah, they're having fun behind her.
RB: They're having fun behind her. Now, let's connect that further, and I will try to show you some of the extensions of why the artist. Here comes a - n Greece and back of the time of Sophocles - a tragic, a sacred procession of the vestal virgins. They're coming out of, you know, in a pageant. But here come some satyrs, and they snatch, you know, one of the virgins, snatch one and run it out to the woods with her. So what is sacred has become farcical or profane. So this is a. There's a complete analogy. Do you understand?
RB: Now this is the tradition. Why I go back to the South, why come back, and that is the solid tradition of ____, that even though that I'm talking about these things that it still comes out feeling good.
AB: Um hmm, that's the people that prevail.
RB: That's the prevail. Let life prevail. And that is the great tradition of the blues. And then the other things, the interval. All of the analogies and the things of which, that I find in painting, have come to me out of the blues.
AB: That's what, I was going to ask you, eventually, that. Because that's what Al Murray, in his writings about you, stresses. And I was wondering if you felt that his emphasis, if he had overstressed it, or that it was really the right amount?
RB: That's precise, yes.
AB: I know he's known you a long time.
RB: Yes, that's the blues. And I think he writes out of that.
AB: Um hmm. Very much. You can, I'm sure if you read, if you read it aloud, you would get that feeling. I mean.
RB: The blues. Yes.
AB: Let's see. Oh, speaking of people writing about you, you've had a lot written about you, and I was wondering if there were any misconceptions that have gotten into print that you'd like to clear up.
RB: Well, I would. I can't think.
AB: Oh, well, you're a very lucky man if you've.
RB: Well, I, maybe they were, but I mean I can't think, because. And I wouldn't. I think that a person, each person would write, unless they were saying, "Well, he was born in 1900," and I was born in 1914 [now believed to be 1912], or something, you know. But other words, you know, that person could be right.
AB: It's very subjective. The other thing that interested me, because of the idea of the blues and, of course, there are structures but there's also improvisation, is that since you were, you have this background in math, I was wondering if you ever drew on your background in math, and how that might enter into your composition.
RB: Well, like in here, you see, that ____. You know, the set up is mathematical, and when Earl Hines plays his progressions, it's a very mathematical and precise content. And the blues, while they are improvised, or so much of it is built on improvisation, it is improvisation within a certain structure. And the great say Kansas City, Orleans, the 2/4 [time signature-]. Kansas City, 4/4, with a striding or moving 4/4, [do] all the different things you can find that he's making a sonata out of all of these things. So this is all, you know, mathematical. They're doing that - they didn't go to school, take a Ph.D. in mathematics. But it's the feeling.
AB: Yeah, you have to, definitely have to plot it out. Oh, you. Duke Ellington had some of your work, right?
AB: Did you ever speak with him about your painting or these ____?
RB: Very little. A long time ago in the fifties or so, he used to invite some of us up to his apartment, and it had a kind of a name. I think in Leonard Feather's or Barry Ulinoff's book on him, he mentions that. And he would talk about various things. But he. I was talking to the choreographer, Tally Bates, and he did several, choreographed several dances to Duke's music, and he was saying how much he'd learned as a choreographer from being with Duke and getting Duke's ideas of how the dance should go. And I know Al Murray and Duke were very, very close. And he was with him every time he was here, and sometimes he would go out to see him. And there was this great exchange of ideas. And I too remember once that I went to a rehearsal of Duke's band, and I think it was a musical or something, and he had to put in Tchaikovsky's music, or some parts of it, and he was looking over the score, and he was saying that there was a change here, here, here. He was marking it. Billy Strayhorn, who was his right hand person, arranger and ____ ____, and he said, "Well, wait a minute, Duke. This is Tchaikovsky!" Well, he said, "I know that he's a great composer, but," he said, "for our band, we have to do it this way."
AB: Um hmm.
RB: And so this is the same thing that's true for our work. You have to do it that way.
AB: It's so, it's so, all so amazing to me, is that you've been, you seem to have been in a lot of the right places at the right time. Scratch any black cultural figure of the century, and it seems that you've met him or knew him or somehow was.
RB: Well, that is true because at the time Harlem was very much like Paris of the twenties, of the thirties. Because you're living in a very kind of narrow confines. On 135th Street, you've got W. B. DuVois, James Weldon Johnson. Or go a little further up, there was always Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes. Everybody was around.
AB: Um hmm. Was there sort of a log rolling? I mean, did you feel that there was a sort of a real effort of everyone trying to help each other, or. was it just sort of flowing through, or was there a feeling of solidarity?
RB: I think it was a flowing through. I don't think the whole thing lasted that long, the so-called Harlem Renaissance, it's to be developed. All of the things that you were talking about. The storm of war came and the Depression. And, well, all this was over. It didn't have the time like, say, the Italian Renaissance, three or four hundred years, to come into any great maturity.
AB: When you were. Although there was an incredible, incredible richness, did you ever do anything when you were a teenager, like go down to the museums or, you know, did you ever go look at things, say, at the Metropolitan?
RB: I did. I remember in Pittsburgh, I wasn't too interested in art, as I recall, but they had the Carnegie, used to have the Carnegie.
AB: Oh right, the institution where they had the Carnegie International.
RB: Yes, and I, you know, I walked over and saw it, and I looked, and it was interesting.
AB: Well, there were two kinds of different accounts, and maybe you can reconcile them is that (1) Calvin Tomkins, for example, talks about your introduction to drawing because of your friend Eugene, and then later there's another interview that I found that you said that you weren't that interested in drawing till about the last year in high school when you became interested in cartooning.
AB: And I'm sort of wondering.
RB: Well, Eugene. This is about twelve. And you know all kids, if you have little nieces, you know, they're in high school now and graduated from high school, but ten years ago, even if you give 'em a paper, they'd just sit down, which they couldn't do now.
AB: No, of course not.
RB: Because they have, they have met the adult world. And so the child is in a world, another world, a different world. And so this is I meant. With Eugene, we could do things because you weren't inhibited - that the airplane didn't look right or, you know, this is, you did your concept of things.
And so it was later that I became interested in cartoons. Then you have to learn the adult way again, because you've moved out of the thing of childhood. And this is what Auden said, when we were, apropos of going back through the memories. See this thing of an artists is to capture again the spontaneity of the child but without the child there.
AB: Um hmm. Yeah, Picasso said that, too. He said, "When I was a child, I could draw like Raphael. When I grew up I tried to spend the rest of my life learning to draw like a child."
AB: And he was just so.
AB: .literal when he was younger, of course.
AB: What is the title of that painting there?
RB: The lady taking a bath?
RB: Susannah in Harlem - which I have tried to connect with Susannah at the Bath, you know, but right in this context.
AB: When you decide that you're going to sort of, going to sit down and do something, where do you begin? How do you decide where you're going? Do you sketch first? And, well, how do you work?
RB: When I worked, looked at Susannah at the Bath. See the door, these.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: But I begin to put rectangles down in the same ratio as the overall dimension. Do you follow what I mean?
AB: Yes, of the canvas.
RB: If it's three feet. Yes. three inches by would be in that ration. Three the feet [by five], three inches [by five]. And then the art of painting is the art of putting something over something else. And then the rectangles move and it gives me an idea for something.
AB: Well, when you say you start with rectangles I mean, do you know that they're, that they're going to be figures, too, or do you just.
RB: Yes. Possibly yes. And. For instance, I had a call last night, or I had a letter. And there was a lady who's putting together a book. And they said, "Would you like to be in it? And you'd do a drawing, and we're going to have a show of this." And she gave me a quotation to work by, and she said, "I haven't heard from you." And I said, "I just couldn't do this, because I don't, you know, I don't know where I'm going. You know, this is the way I work." I mean. You understand what I'm trying to say here?
AB: Oh, yes.
RB: [But I, Then I]. You say, you know, "What affects one, affects the whole world," or something of that nature. If it was something I'd done that might say that, you know, fine. But I mean, I wouldn't know what, what was gonna. I don't know, because I don't know what's going to come out.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: I don't think that she was trying truly to understand. I don't think she did so much. But anyway.
AB: Oh, I never know when I begin writing something, where the end of it, or what's going to be in it, and so I will have to tell you also at the, at the end is that when you. I might eventually just have to call you up, because in the middle of something I might discover that, "Boy, I really need to know this."
RB: That's right.
AB: So. But I don't know that yet, because I don't know what the structure is going to be.
RB: Because. Exactly, this is what, exactly what I'm trying to say.
AB: I know it has to be in there, but I don't know what order.
RB: So I told her, you know, so I had to forego, that now. I'm going to pick up. They used my work in illustrating stuff to do poems, but they took paintings of mine that were just.
AB: Things that, things you'd already done.
RB: And that was it.
AB: Um hmm. But you don't.
RB: And I did a little book or something that just amused me, and June Kelly.
AB: Oh, Six Black Masters?
RB: No, that was writing.
RB: But this was a book about a little drummer boy, and it just was time, and I would sit down and draw these things and the. And it had to do with the Civil War, and it was a lot of fun doing these things, and I loved them. And it was like a little thread of a story come true. You know, and they could, you know, the people could write and put something into it. But that was having some fun of my own. You know, but I mean, they said, "Well, here's the story of Little Goldilocks; illustrate it," I wouldn't be able to do.
AB: So sometimes you sort of draw for relaxation?
RB: Yeah, and this is what I did for this Little Drummer Boy.
AB: What else do you like to do with your so-called spare time? Read or.?
RB: Yes, I do. I listen to music, and I like to go and, you know, to the Metropolitan or the Museum of Modern Art to see a show.
AB: Do you go to operas?
RB: I can't ever recall seeing an opera in my life, except on television. I mean, the actual opera. I think the tickets or. I guess I could. I don't want to [put] things, but I, if it hadn't been for ballet. I've seen. But I never truthfully recall ever having seen an opera.
AB: I ask you that because you were involved with dance and writing and art and music. So that was just sort of one I hadn't touch on.
RB: I've never seen an opera.
AB: Um hmm. What authors or writers have touched you?
RB: Well, of the novels?
AB: Whatever you, you want to say. I mean, whatever.
RB: Well, Al Murray. [pauses] I think some of the work of Joseph Campbell on, his myths, writing about myths.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: There's a Romanian writer, Mircea Eliade. But. And then when I was at the Sorbonne, my teacher, one of the. Gaston Bachelard, on the philosophy of space, the philosophy of volume. I read him because I, when I was there, this Jean Wahl and Merleau-Ponty. I have read some of the French structuralists, like Rousseau. And all of the novelists were so great - Mann, Gide.
AB: Are you much for American literature, for classic American literature?
RB: I like Moby Dick.
AB: I would have guessed Mark Twain, too.
RB: Mark Twain, of course. Life on the Mississippi. Wallace Stevens. I went with Baziotes once to meet him.
AB: Tell me about this. I love Stevens.
RB: [inaudible sentence] ____ in a hotel, but he just. There was no communication because he had nervous. with us. But Baziotes loved his work, so I went to with him to the hotel. He was. [That] wasn't as nice.
AB: Another Hartford man.
RB: Yes. That's true. William Carlos Williams wrote about me, and he was a wonderful friend. I thought he was a wonderful poet. I've read some of the. Who are the poets? I like some of the Lorca, because I'd met him through, with Langston Hughes. Vincente Alexandra. And I think of, and my favorite ____ is Montale. There's a wide variety of reading.
AB: You've gotten around.
RB: Huh? Yeah, I've gotten around. I don't' say I read everything. An avid reader but I ____ ____. Because I go every Saturday to Books & Company.
AB: Up at Seventy-fifth and Madison.
AB: Oh, I love that place.
RB: And so I go in, you know, everybody knows me, and said, "Romie, did you read this, gonna read that?" So I take it, and I read it.
AB: Oh, I can't believe you don't go to the Strand and the places down there.
RB: The Strand, too. Well, you see the Strand was where. Burt Britton used to be way down, and he was the one that went up to Books & Company, and he's not there anymore. But because of knowing Burt, this is what first brought me up there.
AB: No, it's a beautiful place to browse there, and, of course, all around Eighth Street.
RB: And there are not many. There's just that and the Gotham Bookstore where, that, you know, you'd have certain books, which you wouldn't find anyplace else.
AB: Oh, absolutely. I'm a bibliophile with the Strand catalogs, I have only two rooms, and they're just absolutely overflowing. Do you have a big library space or.?
RB: Yes, I, I can't get anything more; I don't have any space.
AB: Is your wife telling you you have to be controlled?
RB: No, she doesn't say that. But I mean, I can see myself.
AB: Um hmm. What are some of your wife's contributions to your career.
RB: Well, she's very much interested in the dance, you know. She has a company, and she has a school at 150 West Forty-sixth Street. She has a very good eye for the paintings. She's around sometimes, and she'll say, "Why don't you do this, or that?" and it's usually right. With very good feel for.
AB: Do you have anyone that, who comes in and does, gently crit[icize] - or not so gently - criticize your work?
RB: No, I don't. I used to. Because the thing is that most of the people who are, I was with are unfortunately dead, like Carl Holty, that you could talk to in that way. That whole generation, you know, that I was around with. Someone told me the other day that Guston had died.
AB: Just very recently, yes.
RB: Yes. Bob Motherwell and de Kooning. I don't know Bob well, but know de Kooning well. Each is around; he's about all that was from that time, you know.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: And Bradley Walker Tomlin I talked to. Byron Browne, Stuart Davis, Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock. All, all of them; you just call the list. They're all gone.
AB: Do you still feel that ritual will be a continuing theme in our work?
RB: Well, I say ritual and myth are all part of the whole blues tradition. Yes, and I know that since this is my tradition, that I've worked somehow I'm better.
AB: I Think that's a wonderful term, ["The Prevalence of Ritual," The Prevalence of Ritual], and I was wondering - now, Washington's talked about [it] - but I was wondering in your own words if you could define what you mean by ritual.
RB: Right here. [pointing to Susannah in Harlem:] She's taking a bath. I've called her Susannah, and now which. And it's obviously, as I've said, in a tenement - the old type of tenements - where the bathtub is in the kitchen. Well, you know, the old New York tenements, the four sections were like that. But she's also related to bathing as a rite of purification in the Euphrates. She's related to the Renaissance in the sense that that was a favorite theme, Susannah and the Bath. It's not localized entirely into, you know, like the, some of the work here. It gets some amplitude or expansion, so that's what I mean by the ritual.
AB: Um hmm. Oh, by the way, why did you sort of decide or how did it come about that you dropped the photographs from your collage?
RB: Well, as I said, it didn't feel that I needed that.
AB: Um hmm.
RB: But I'd rather have expressed it in the color.
AB: Um hmm. You are a painter of great scholarship and erudition, and I was wondering what are some of the pitfalls of that, if any?
RB: I don't know. I mean, in whatever you would do, there are pitfalls, and the pitfall in my work is what I told you. You can't have everything and what you should. That if you want this kind of [placidity] that I have, you sacrifice something else. So it is. Always, as Braque says, you don't advance till you know your limitations. So you have to take what the pitfalls are and develop that into your strengths. Do you understand what I mean?
AB: I was wondering what you do feel are some of the limitations that you've set up in your work?
RB: It's what I've told you. You know that, here, it's a lack of what Rubens has. All of the arabesques, and the turning, you know, the movement, you know. It's something that I take out of it for another type of statement. I'm not against what he. I think he is a great painter, you know. In Veronese, there were people who did this type of thing. But I go to, you know, I just dispose of something like that.
AB: Yeah, there's so, especially in the painting, the women at the table, there is that sort of very static formal kind of quality.
RB: That's right.
AB: . the kind of. But a beautiful quality someone like Pippin had, and especially with the little tiny sort of decorative towel over the chair, or something. He was just such a master at doing things like that.
RB: That's true. But that is ____ ____ sort of central. You take that and you lose something else. Because we, ____ usually don't find it.
AB: Have you ever taught, by the way?
RB: Yes, but not painting. I've taught at Yale. I think that was my big teaching thing, six lectures.
Tape 2, Side A
RB: . in between terms where they had invited someone to come and lecture with ____. So I did that. I think. And then one night at the Art Students League, because one of the artists said to me, you know, "Come and take this class." Because he had to do a radio broadcast or something like that. And I think that's it.
AB: But you're not, you were never really involved with wanting to be a teacher or anything?
AB: Do you collect?
RB: I think an artist is put in the world to create. You know, very few. I understand Picasso has a lot of paintings, so when you collect something that can help you or interest you at the moment, and people say, "Oh, I think that Rembrandt is a great painter," but it means he can help you. [chuckling] You know, in what he's trying to do at that time. So I don't collect, not even my own work. [chuckles]
AB: I was wondering. Also, a lot of times artists trade with each other, too.
RB: I see. That's a friendly gesture.
AB: I was going to ask you what you think of another sort of autobiographical sort of art. What do you think of conceptual and performance art, body art?
RB: Well, this is all. Oh, you know, I have no feelings about anything, you know - that it's all good. It comes out of your recesses ____ ____ ____.
AB: When young artists.
RB: I think that it's, to me, that you can take colored grease, you know, and make kings. [train goes by, obscuring several sentences]. And I was asked once by one of your colleagues, Irving Sandler, who had come to NYU, a graduate class ____, to look at the paintings and see. And I had a young friend with me, you know, and he did. Because [if you] ask me. But I don't have much of ability to, to look or tell people. And he could do it. You know, this works, this doesn't read right going up, and all this. But I just don't have that.
AB: Well, if a young artist, a young person, comes to you, and, says, "I want to be an artist," well, what advise would you give him or her?
RB: Well, I [would] think that, if they would be asking this, "You know you should only be an artist if you have no choice." You know, if you're asking me, you know, "Well, should I?" [chuckling} Well, you ____ ____ ____, if there's, the choice is there, you shouldn't take the other one.
AB: Do you, do you think that the situation is relatively hopeful for young black artists today? I mean, it's difficult for everybody, but.
RB: Yeah, I think that's the best answer. It's difficult for everybody, because while it seems a lot of galleries, it seems that way, but it is ____ ____ ____. [another train] The thing is, that an artist, that people think that you don't care, or this, or just want to paint that. It's very difficult to go on that way because if you paint, you're doing it out of response to somebody else. And while there was not the same attention to - to, let's say the black artist when I came along in the thirties - they did have a community. And I remember at 306 West Hundred Forty-first Street there was a studio Charles Alston.
AB: Oh, yes.
RB: . and Michael Bannarn, Mike Bannarn, had and all the artists used to gather there. And it was the same way with the Impressionist thing. Say here, they had Cézanne. Well, [if] a great artist like Renoir comes along, you're a master. Well, maybe that, that meant a whole lot. Too, it maybe wasn't selling, or making any money, but it was the approval of the people that you respected and. At that time, you know, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, would come, and the women around would, say, have a party for the artists every month or so, and they'd put a little work up that you could sell - maybe got ten, fifteen, or twenty-five dollars. People were poor. But it was. They were showing this kind of interest. All artists knew each other, and that thing of a community living here, this one is living here, in New York, and maybe they get down to SoHo or T____ or Little Rock, but it's not quite the same. It. If you understand what I'm saying. And now it.
AB: Well, the art world was so much smaller then.
RB: Yes. And everything now seems to be organized discussions. You get these things, and we'll talk about this aspect. What about mural painting? What about women in the arts? What about this, or what about that? Where all these things should come up casually, you know, like in the cafes. This is where our great art has been made.
Also. I wonder if I can say this? The art is. You talk about Mark Twain and the Mississippi. Most art comes from where there's flowing water that's not polluted. The Tiber, the Arno, the Hudson, the Mississippi, the Seine. The energies of water flowing like this, has something to do with the development of art. But what. There was a friend of mine who had a lake, and the lake was polluted, and he couldn't work and everything, ____ ____. "Out here," he says, "you can't work, you know, you're living in a polluted situation." And this is what is happening now. The energies need to come from another sparkling situation where people wake up, because, you see, art is. Eventually, as I said, sort of celebrates a victory, and it's made out of love. And this is where the ____ the energies flow ____ ____. And so it was filled with dead fish, all of these [things] that would be, the nature. You see, with me. Goethe said in the last, near the end of his life, was writing a letter. He said, "We have reached a point where history is superseding nature." "History is superseding nature." And it's moving on in, and we are not in tune with nature in the sense that the Indian was when we took the plains from them or other people in the Amazon. [another train] We bring civilization but. You can cure certain things, too, but it's taking other things away. You know, there's man and his response to his environment, see. So I mean, that's just why I can't answer, to the future, that you asked me. The sparkle has got to come back before we can have great art.
AB: Do you find, by the way. I mean, do you.
RB: But that's if that's not too mystic.
AB: No. Don't worry, I don't have to use every reply. Interviews and pieces about people are always collages, too, of course.
RB: Oh, right.
AB: You take a bit of this and a bit of that, and you stitch together. Do you find it tedious, or if you get tired of kind of being the eternal spokesman for black artists?
RB: I'm not the, ____ ____ ____. I don't know why people said that. That, you know, ____. They have discussion groups and things. I'm hardly a spokesman for myself in the first place.
AB: I thought. The reason that. I noticed that the Metropolitan hired you as a consultant for a while, and I was wondering.
RB: Well, that was a different thing. That was nothing to do with this spokesman for black art. That was. They had two blacks in this class. But what it was, it was a group of - they have names for these things, as ____ ____ - but they were being trained to be curators in museums, and they had me and other people, too. And they wanted to. Well, "how does an artist think about certain things?" And that was what I did. And I came in once a week doing a spring class and just talked about this.
AB: Oh, well the reason.
RB: And we would go around, say, look at paintings.
AB: Well, see the reason that I jumped to the conclusion was it seemed to me, when I was looking in the chronology, to coincide with that very poor exhibit, "Harlem on My Mind," so I thought maybe you'd been involved in that.
RB: I was involved with that, but in the negative. At first, and then I didn't like it, and then in a negative sense. I never saw it, because I didn't like the way it was done.
AB: Have you ever been subjected to criticism by the black intellectual community for your art?
RB: Well, earlier, I mean, as someone once said - I don't know if it's so intellectual - "that no wonder Ralph Ellison likes his work because it has this same kind of cold analytical quality of him." And then some people came and said they read that, and say, "Oh, this is, the show, this is entirely different. I don't know why that fool would say such things like that." But I don't think that from them. That's the only overt thing of that nature - at least that came to my attention, unless you know others.
AB: No, I don't know, if you.
AB: I'm asking truthfully. I didn't know of an instance. I was just wondering.
RB: No, I think the reception of the, of the writing, or in the papers, and the recent response has been very heartwarming.
AB: I had, I was looking. I haven't been able to find a bad notice. [But] I went to the Museum of Modern Art and went through two scrapbooks of all sorts of clippings and things about you, and it was very. You know, I was just amazed. I've never read any.
RB: Yes, well, I mean, this. Because, I think. You know, at least he's making an attempt to deal with the things that he knows.
AB: I was just wondering if you ever thought you'd see the day when you'd see a Southern president [Jimmy Carter] invite ten black artists to the White House for awards.
RB: Well, you don't sink back. You see, if this was 1925 when Hoover or someone else was there, Calvin Coolidge. But, you know, this is. Progression, things happen here, things happen there, you know, and the. I'd have to get back in hindsight.
AB: What qualities do you feel, or effects that you feel, are most important to create in your work?
RB: I'll have to. Gee, that's so wide a question. I mean, how would you mean?
AB: Well, I don't know. I was, I purposefully made it sort of wide just so you could say what you wish, but it's.
RB: You mean a quality that a person has to have or.
AB: No, no, no. What qualities are you striving for in the work?
RB: Oh. Well, I, I'll give the best definition that I can to things of the objective world and also the unseen world of affinities and. [another train]
AB: What sort of schedule do you maintain, by the way, for your painting?
RB: I come here almost every day except Saturday. Get here around nine-thirty or ten, and then work till the late afternoon.
AB: Do you have to. Do you like facing this? I mean, do you, do you have to get into the mood or.?
RB: Well, you asked me about Matisse, and he told me things. Let's say that I'm painting that picture, and to finish it I would need to put the light bulb in. Don't do it. Wait till tomorrow. Because when it's on your mind, you've got something to come back to, and in finishing that, that leads you on to something else. So you've always got something, like, unfinished that you ____.
AB: This is a great quote that I something you said that I thought was just great - and I wanted to read it to you. You said, "I think the artist has to be something like a whale, swimming with his mouth wide open until he has," you know, "what he really needs, and when he finds it he can start to make his limitations, and then he starts to grow." Now when did you get to this point when you felt you really started to grow in your work? When it was really something you felt strongly about?
RB: Well, I think this is a continuous thing, continuous thing, that you grow. So hard to say the exact time, because you have something that you're facing every day. Degas said, "You want to live long in art, you've got to live as long." [chuckles]
AB: Yes. Reuben Nakian told me, he said, "One of the secrets to being a good artist is not to drop dead too soon." [chuckles]
RB: Yeah, that's right. Unless you've, unless you've done your thing.
AB: That's true.
RB: Like van Gogh or Raphael.
AB: Um hmm. By the way, I read that there was in. There was a good interview in, that interview in the Archives of American Art was very helpful, so thank you for sending that permission. In it, you talked about you went through a stage when you were much younger about copying old masters.
AB: About when was that?
RB: That was in the fifties.
AB: Um hmm. Let's see. You mentioned Charles Alston before in the studio.
RB: Um hmm.
AB: Wasn't. But you must have met him before then. Wasn't he a distant relative of yours?
RB: Well, his mother, after her husband died, married an uncle of mind. So there wasn't any blood relationship, but they had that kind of knowing me since I was a child.
AB: I wanted to ask you also about that show at the G Place Gallery, in 1945, you mentioned.
AB: . what kind of work were you doing then? How would you describe it?
RB: Oh, gee whiz. It was some of the work that I told you that I had done on the brown paper.
AB: And then you mentioned you went to the Kootz Gallery. Now was Sam Kootz sort of a mentor or a help or.
RB: Well, the big thing about Kootz at that time was that, although it seems strange, there were very few what you might call avant-garde painters in 1945. All this had been a development. He did, he had a meeting every month in his apartment, and he brought all the artist together, and sit and talk about things. And maybe had something he might show, a group show he was going to do, what should it be? And all this, and I got a lot from that.
AB: And you stopped your association with him when you went to Paris, is that right?
RB: I think he closed his gallery then, when I was in Paris, and then when he opened again, I wasn't painting.
AB: Um hmm. Well, I wanted to ask you about the Projection series which was, which were quite powerful. I guess that was in.
RB: In '64.
AB: Right. I mean, would you consider that sort of a breakthrough in your work?
RB: I guess so, yes. Uh huh.
AB: Did you. I mean, did you all of a sud. I know you're talking about you don't know where you're going, but did you see early on that this was [something that was], that these were very, very powerful sorts of images, that.?
RB: I didn't at first. But when I began to do, you know, when I saw the response to it, you know.
AB: What do you think have been the most difficult obstacles to overcome in your career, in getting to be an artist?
RB: I think it's yourself. Because you're always at issue with that; there's art and then there's yourself. And I think you must cross, you know, over that bridge of yours. And everyone's. You know that song, "I want to be me."
AB: Um hmm.
RB: Well, the artist wants to be exactly the opposite - you know, transcend yourself. When you ____ to get that moment that Manet, whom you like so much, says, you know, "Painting. Every painter, it's only a certain moment you get upon the surface." To allow yourself to do that and make a judgment, you know, like in a battle. It's a war. You know, there's always a solution, and it's a simple solution to it. The difficulty is there's so many that are available to you that you take the right thing that might lead your painting. And then having a certain thing, confidence, that once you start the energies of a painting going that, that it can do half the work for you. And, of course, when we resist that, because that doesn't sound right. See, you know, whereas everything's very true.
AB: Um hmm. Um hmm. Right. You also said once that, that an artist, when you become an artist, you have to feel that art history, that there's a, there's a void and you have to fill up, try to fill up some of that void with your own art. I was wondering what you mean by that.
RB: What I meant was that you go to see art in the museum, you know, all the paintings. You say, "Well, this is fine; there's only one missing." That, that sort of thing.
AB: Um hmm. Well, I was wondering what you felt that your contributions to art have been.
RB: Right, ____ ____.
AB: How did your idea for doing The Block come about?
RB: I was up with Al Murray, and he lived on 132nd Street, 133rd Street, and off Lenox Avenue, and I was looking out the windows, and there was a. At that time the Vietnam War was still going on, and there were always, each week or so, a funeral of some soldier that had been returned. And it happened this day, just exactly what it was. And the soldiers were coming out, and I said, "Gee, this is interesting." These are blocks. I mean, not to do with the funeral.
AB: Um hmm, yeah.
RB: . but it gave you the whole ambiance of a block. What might be going on in here is everyplace. So I said, "Al, give me some paper," and I did this sketch of the block. Like that. As it would be going on. And I imagined what people, what's going on inside, so that came from Eugene.
AB: Oh, yes!
RB: You know, it brought back that to me, because he used to draw an x-ray, you might say, of a house. So that's how The Block came about.
AB: Well, I would say that that's certainly one of your strongest works, and I was wondering what other works that you feel are your strongest, or which you're particularly fond of?
RB: Well, there's another one, that I did for Lincoln Hospital, and they felt that it was too. I can't find the right word, but it wasn't, if you could think of a ____; it wasn't something to put up into a hospital. And much to the chagrin of the ____ people on the arts council, ____ the politicians, you know, and so it still, after four years or so, still ____ ____...
AB: It hasn't gone up yet?
RB: I mean, it hasn't, can't find any place, but I think it's a very strong work. Much deeper than The Block. And you should see it. I have photographs.
AB: Is The Block going to be shown in North Carolina?
RB: Yes, uh huh.
AB: Have you had, you know, when you look back on your career, which is full of honors, any regrets about things you haven't gotten around to?
RB: Oh, you mean in painting?
AB: In anything. I mean, any regrets?
RB: No, you can't look back. You know, ____ ____ ____. I feel sure there would be many, but what's the use?
AB: Well, when I mentioned honors, of the many that you've had, which ones mean the most to you?
RB: They all mean about the same. You know, because it comes out of the consciousness of people who are thinking about you. So they're all the same. I wouldn't pick any one, not the president or higher than something, you know, because they're all the same. To me they're all really the same.
AB: Let's see. If, now, if I could only say one thing about Romare Bearden in this article, what would you have it be?
RB: I have, I couldn't think, I can't think right now what that would be. I have something here. Somebody helped me when I was doing a book, and they're asking various people, "What would you say to a young teenager?" and everyone said something like for the YMCA: "Don't despair, there are people who have made it." You can't say anything to anyone because you don't know what the different kinds of conflicts they're going through at the time, and so that. You know, the only thing I could think wouldn't be appropriate, some cliché.
RB: Well, listen, let's. There's a place over here. While you're thinking, let me take you to lunch.
RB: All right?
AB: I'd love that.