One of these problems involved reconciling the demands of modern art, which was nonsectarian and formalist, with the desire to speak about the distinctive character of African American culture. In 1934, black artists who painted narratives risked being stereotyped as "primitive" or "folk" artists, which offered mainstream museums, scholars and critics a rationale for ignoring them.
Even in 1934, Bearden believed that black artists could synthesize an aesthetic that would be true to their time and their heritage. In an essay called "The Negro Artist and Modern Art," he criticized many black artists for producing "hackneyed and uninspired" work that failed to communicate fundamental truths.
He also singled out philanthropic societies and foundations for failing to impose high critical standards on black artists and for encouraging a "racial identity" in art. By doing so, Bearden wrote, these institutions encouraged mediocrity.
He was especially critical of the Harmon Foundation, which for years sponsored exhibitions for black artists. His comment startled me at first,
because the Harmon Foundation, no longer extant, at least gave black artists an opportunity to exhibit their work nationally at a time when they were shut out of major museums and galleries.
Yet Bearden's criticism is valid, because the foundation's program, however altruistic its intentions, also reinforced the idea that African American art was something apart. Judging by the work that black artists entered in the foundation's competitions, it would seem that many of them were ambivalent about whether they should honor the customs and rituals of their culture or paint like card-carrying (i.e., white) modernists.
Bearden resolved this dilemma for himself, and he resolved it brilliantly, but not until he had been working for nearly 30 years. That it took him so long demonstrates how difficult it has been for black artists to be accepted as contemporary on their own terms.
Through a retrospective called "Memory and Metaphor" at the National Museum of American Art, we can trace Bearden's struggle to find his voice. Organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem, the exhibition of about 140 works is concluding a national tour there. It's on view through Jan. 3.
It's the largest exhibition for the artist since he died in 1988 at 75 and the first full retrospective since a 1971 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Like the MoMA show, this one emphasizes Bearden's interest in the mundane rituals of daily life, and how perpetuation of those rituals creates a communal sense of social and historical continuity.
Bearden is known as a master collagist, and it's safe to say that from the time he began making collage paintings in 1964 no American artist developed greater mastery of the technique. For Bearden, collage proved to be absolutely appropriate to his imagery and to the spirit of his work, which is decidedly African American but also indisputably modernist.
This fusion of black experience and modern compositional strategy without slighting either one is Bearden's most impressive achievement, all the more so
because he kept it up for so long. At its heart, his art represents a synthesis of content and style, of experience and language, of life and art.
As he indicated in his 1934 essay, Bearden believed that art should deal with content that was mutually understood by the artist and his audience. So the problem for him, as it was for his contemporaries, was to adapt this traditional view of art to a modern style.
Unfortunately "Memory and Metaphor" doesn't show us the starting point of his career, the social realism of the mid-1930s. It begins in earnest in the mid-1940s, when Bearden executed a series of religious pictures in a style that features heavily stylized figures boldly outlined in black, a style that suggests familiarity with cubism and Picasso.
In pictures such as He Is Arisen, Bearden shows us what he was talking about in his 1934 essay. He's trying to interpret traditional, narrative subject matter in a modern way. Today, these pictures seem self-consciously ''modern" rather than innovative, almost generic for their time. Their formal concerns for line, color and form overpower their content because Bearden hasn't yet found the ideal balance.
In the mid-1950s, his painting moved farther toward the mainstream - that is, toward the internally generated images of abstract expressionism. Anyone who knows Bearden only through his later collages might be surprised by these nonfigurative color fields, which seem to represent a surrender to current fashion.
Yet, in light of Bearden's 18 months in Paris in the early 1950s, part of that time studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, his experiment with pure abstraction doesn't seem so odd.
Bearden was an educated and sophisticated man, a college graduate who had experienced the creative excitement of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1930s. In Paris, he met Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, Fernand Leger and Wifredo Lam. He hung out with jazz musicians, poets and writers.
Apparently the experience made him question what he had been doing, for he didn't paint at all in Paris nor for about two years after he returned to New York. When he did pick up his brush again, it was to become an abstract expressionist.
That phase lasted until the early 1960s, when Bearden developed the collage style that became his signature. It emerged during the period of intense civil rights activity, when he realized that he had wandered too far from the principles he had espoused in his youth.
From 1964 on, his pictures combined photographic elements integrated into painted collages. For themes, he mined memories of his childhood and youth in North Carolina, where he was born and spent many summers; in Harlem and in Pittsburgh, where he lived during his high school years. In his pictures, we find allusions to the social customs that have always bound communities together.
His subjects became affirmatively African American - blues guitarists, jazz musicians, women working in the fields and figures such as the "conjur woman," who represented the knowledge and powers of African culture. Trains also figure prominently in his later work because, in his view, the train symbolized the encroachment of the white civilization on the lives of blacks. ''In the little towns it's the black people who live near the trains," he wrote.
Bearden's collages stand as a distinctive contribution to American art. Even more than his religious paintings of the mid-'40s, they express a strong sense of cubist spatial ambiguity, which makes them tingle with nervous energy. His color is lively but always under control; Bearden was particularly skillful in harmonizing his colors with the tonalities of black-and-white photo elements.
More important, such pictures as Sunset Limited, which features a mother and child, a nude and a train in a landscape, relate life in the present to the art of the past. This was Bearden's purpose all along - to create an art that not only would describe the black experience but make it part of the general human panorama.
He was able to achieve this in part because he was broadly familiar with art history and drew sustenance from it. Because he respected the achievements of the past, from sources as varied as Dutch and Chinese art, he was able to transform the present with intelligence and a sense of purpose. It's a model that today's artists would do well to emulate.
IF YOU GO
* "Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987" will remain on view at the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution through Jan. 3. The museum is at Eighth and G Streets N.W., at the Gallery Place Metro station. It's open every day except Christmas Day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. Telephone: 202-357-2700.