An Artist Talked and a World Listens
The New York Times, Dec 28, 2004
by Samuel Freedman
One afternoon in 1985, Russell Goings went to the Chinatown apartment of his friend Romare Bearden to give the artist a rubdown. For several years Mr. Goings had seen Bearden suffering from a persistent cold and a steady ache in his right shoulder, ailments Bearden waved off as the result of allergies and calcium deposits. The previous day he had finally gone to a specialist, and as he removed his T-shirt for the massage, Mr. Goings saw dye stains on his skin. They indicated the location of the bone cancer the doctor had discovered.
Faced with such unsparing evidence of mortality, the painter and his friend arrived at a compact, unspoken but mutually understood. As Bearden talked about art, creative process, influence, racial identity and other subjects, Mr. Goings would record the disquisitions. By the time Bearden died in 1988, Mr. Goings had accumulated 40 hours of audio tape and four handwritten diaries, as well as substantial bodies of correspondence and artwork.
He knew he was dying, and he would often tell me, 'I've got so much to say,'" Mr. Goings recalled in a recent interview. "He was very aware of the historical importance. He wanted to pass it on. And so he let me behind the veil. I acquired a side of him that nobody else had ever seen."
After 16 years in Mr. Goings's Upper West Side apartment, this collection of Bearden material, or at least a tantalizing portion of it, has reached the public as the basis for the exhibition "Romare Bearden: From the Studio and Archive" at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at Lenox Avenue and 135th Street in Harlem. The Schomburg show (through Jan. 9) runs nearly congruently with the Whitney Museum's major Bearden retrospective, which closes on Jan. 7.
While the Whitney displays much of Bearden's most famous work -- among them "Pittsburgh Memory" and his "Odysseus" series -- the less-ballyhooed Schomburg exhibition offers insight into the ideas, methods and inspirations behind the masterpieces. And those insights have come to light primarily as the consequence of a chance encounter between two middle-aged black men in 1976.
At a Bearden show in a midtown gallery, someone pointed out a hulking figure in a business suit and told the painter: "You see that guy? He's a football player." An avid sports fan himself, Bearden introduced himself and suggested that he and Mr. Goings watch televised games together. Mr. Goings had, in fact, played linebacker in both the Canadian Football League and the original American Football League, but he was much more than an ex-jock. After injury ended his career in 1960, he went into finance, helped establish First Harlem Securities Corporation, the first black-owned company to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and he played a key role in assembling the initial investment for the black women's magazine Essence.
There was also an element of mutual need. Mr. Goings had recently been ousted from First Harlem in a power struggle with partners. While Bearden's wife led a dance company, the artist himself worked reclusively in his Long Island City studio. One morning in 1977 he asked Mr. Goings to drive him there from Chinatown, and once at the studio he asked Mr. Goings to pick up some groceries and dry-cleaning. At day's end, Mr. Goings made the return trip with Bearden to Manhattan.
So the initial relationship developed, with Mr. Goings serving as chauffeur, go-fer, companion for watching ballgames. As the painter's health began to deteriorate mysteriously over the succeeding years, and he asked Mr. Goings to provide massages and workouts with hand weights, their conversations turned increasingly to art.
"If people were to ask me who is the most knowledgeable person about Romare Bearden, it would definitely be Russell," said Andre Thibault, the artist's studio assistant from 1980 to 1988. "Russell and Romare shared an intimacy."
Myron Schwartzman, the author of "Romare Bearden: His Life and Art," said of the diaries and tapes: "Russell was pretty scrupulous. He made a true effort to capture what was going on with Bearden right up till the end of his life."
Much of the men's discussion turned on Bearden's creative method, which was aimed at achieving a kind of practiced improvisation, much like a jazz musician's. Even at the height of his artistic powers, Bearden put himself through exercises to train his hand to do his eyes' bidding precisely. He drew through carbon paper so he could not see the lines until removing the sheet below, on which the image was imprinted; he did watercolors on graph paper because it absorbed so little paint that it betrayed any excess from the brush; he used felt-tip markers on porous paper so he would not be able to pause without leaving a blemish.
"He always talked about getting it 'in the hand,'" Mr. Goings said, which meant surrendering to spontaneity. For Bearden, before anything got formalized, it had to be "in the hand." In the process of training, Bearden tossed aside innumerable sketches and drawings, muttering, "I can do this better tomorrow." Mr. Goings collected many of these outtakes, and they form part of the Schomburg exhibition.
Besides technique, the men spoke much about artistic influence, which for Bearden ranged from that of fellow African-Americans like Jacob Lawrence to Picasso, Matisse and van Gogh. Bearden often made explicit cross-cultural links, likening Vermeer's use of observers in his paintings to Bearden's own device of inserting animals like roosters and dogs, meant to represent the spirits of African ancestors. One day Bearden and Mr. Goings debated at length about what the black American equivalent was to Hemingway's novel "The Old Man and the Sea." Ultimately, they agreed on an answer: Langston Hughes's poem "A Dream Deferred."
In the advanced stages of cancer by the fall of 1987, Mr. Bearden insisted on continuing to create. He painted even as he soiled his pants, and often Mr. Goings had to bathe him. He resisted taking painkillers for fear they would dull his touch. As Bearden lost precise control of his right arm, he trained himself to draw with his left.
"The heroic thing about Bearden," Mr. Goings said, "is that the sicker he became the more he worked. He'd say his gift was from God and it wasn't for him to back away just because he was in pain."
The proximity of death became yet another Bearden theme. "We talked about Blake, we talked about Plath, the poets and artists who deal with life and death, innocence and experience," Mr. Goings said.
The paintings on display at the Schomburg juxtapose figures of skeletal men, their ribs rendered in stark black slashes, with voluptuous women in sensual oranges and greens. Nearby the works hangs a photograph of Bearden himself from that same period, shriveled from his normal 250 pounds to perhaps half that, a wraith in baggy pajamas.
On Jan. 29, 1988, Mr. Goings drove Bearden to a doctor's appointment on the Upper East Side and then half a block to be admitted into New York Hospital. Optimistically, they made plans to watch the Super Bowl two days hence.
Instead, on that Sunday, Bearden slipped into a coma from which he never emerged.
For years afterward, Mr. Goings simply sat on his personal archive. He did not intend to sell it, and only one scholar, Mr. Schwartzman, ever made the effort to explore it. Even when the National Gallery started planning for the touring Bearden retrospective in the mid-1990's, Mr. Goings said, curators expressed interest only in his collection of the paintings and collages, not the tapes and diaries and works in progress.
In more than one way, though, the Schomburg approached Mr. Goings about sharing his material for its own exhibition at a propitious moment. At 72, Mr. Goings has endured a stroke and walks with a pronounced limp. "It's time," Mr. Goings said. "The push has to be now. I'm dying, too."