WHO IS THE NEGRO ARTIST and what is his responsibility? Ever mindful of the pivotal period in which he was living, Romare Bearden (1911-1988) set about answering these cultural questions by bringing together the Spiral group and embarking on a monumental effort to document the canon of African American artists.
As civil rights leaders prepared for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bearden gathered with fellow black artists in New York to discuss their role in the movement. Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, James Yeargans, Felrath Hines, Richard Mayhew and William Pritchard were all in attendance at the July 5 meeting at Bearden’s studio.
Romare Bearden in his Long Island City Studio with a photograph of his paternal great grandparents in the background, circa 1980 | Courtesy Frank Stewart
The collective formed the Spiral group, “for the purpose of discussing the commitment of the Negro artist in the present struggle for civil liberties, and as a discussion group to consider common aesthetic problems,” according to “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present,” a comprehensive reference volume by Bearden and Harry Henderson (1914-2003).
A half century later, as new generations gather with elders at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Spiral’s tenure—its purpose, actions and discussions—offers insight about the experiences of 20th century artists that inform and provide context for the opportunities and challenges of black contemporary artists today. The exploration of the collective is one of the most fascinating sections of the book:
“The older artists particularly recognized that the fundamental issue was the question of their identity as black artists in a white society—an issue that had emerged in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and been restated in the Harlem Artists Guild’s discussions in the 1930s. There were many aspects to this issue. For example, should an artist’s work attempt to express directly the issues in the civil rights struggle in the tradition of social protest painting? Or might artistic achievement in itself enhance the status of black people? …There were also questions of standards, of recognizable, identifying unity of expression, and of freedom of expression.”
Merton Simpson, and younger artists Emma Amos (the only female member), Reginald Gammon and Alvin Hollingsworth soon joined Spiral. Calvin Douglass, Perry Ferguson, William Majors and Earl Miller later rounded out the group. Citing Bearden’s meticulous notes from the meeting, the groundbreaking 541-page volume reports on the collective in a chapter devoted to post-World War II artists.
Woodruff suggested the name “Spiral,” referencing (Greek mathematician) Archimedes’ spiral “ascending upward in ever broader circles, as its symbol of progress.” The moniker also captured the disparate perspectives and diverse styles of the members whose aesthetics ranged from modern abstraction to figurative and “social protest” works, and aged 28 to 65, were at varying stages of their practices.
At the outset, gatherings were held weekly and by October, the group secured a storefront at 147 Christopher Street in the West Village, a meeting place that also served as a gallery space. Members contributed $50 to establish the location and ponied up a $10 monthly fee to help cover rent and other expenses. Lewis was elected chairman of the group, while Bearden became secretary-treasurer.
The gallery was the site of Spiral’s sole group show. The artists agreed to contribute works executed exclusively in black and white, a symbolic reference to the civil rights struggle. Bearden further suggested that they pursue a uniform aesthetic and create collages from black-and-white magazine and newspaper photos. But the idea fell flat. In the end, Bearden alone made a collage and the experience was the genesis for what would become his signature layered composition style.
Exhibit catalogue as shown on p.g. 224 of “The Art of Romare Bearden” (National Gallery of Art, 2003).
“First Group Showing (Works in Black and White),” was on view from May 14 to June 5, 1965. The exhibition catalog contained what amounted to a manifesto:
“We, as Negroes, could not fail to be touched by the outrage of segregation, or fail to relate to the self-reliance, hope, and courage of those persons who were marching in the interest of man’s dignity. …If possible, in these times, we hoped with our art to justify life…to use the black and white and eschew other coloration.”
The credo continued:
“…This consideration, or limitation, was conceived from technical concerns, although deeper motivations may have been involved. …What is most important now, and what has great portent for the future, is that Negro artists, of divergent backgrounds and interests, have come together on terms of mutual respect. It is to their credit that they were able to fashion art works lit by beauty, and of such diversity.”
A brochure for a recent exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art excerpts this language. “Spiral: Perspectives on an African American Collective” was on view from Dec. 10, 2010 to March 6, 2011 and included 18 works by seven Spiral members. One painting in the show, “Freedom Now” by Reginald Gammon, was featured in the original Spiral group exhibition.
The retrospective traveled to the Studio Museum in Harlem, a significant venue as the Uptown institution was founded with support from several Spiral members. In Harlem, the exhibit ran from July 14 to Oct. 23, 2011 and was expanded to include works by Spiral artists from the museum’s permanent collection and other notable New York collections. (Several of the additional works appeared in the 1965 show.)
The Birmingham museum’s exhibition brochure continued:
“The Spiral collective coalesced during the remarkable period of American history that followed the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national leader of the Civil Rights Movement. The artists in the group were moved to gather to discuss their own engagement in the struggle for Civil Rights, and each resolved the question of engagement in a different way. Some created work that directly reflected the urgent concerns facing the black community in American society. Others responded more broadly, some with direct or indirect references to Africa as a source [of] empowerment. Although the collective eventually dissolved, its formation allowed for a shared response to the enormous energy and courage that marked the struggle for civil rights in the early 1960s. The paintings that remain allow us to consider the visual response of African-American artists to one of the most pivotal points in U.S. history.”
Spiral actively convened from July 1963 through the fall of 1965. The interactions exposed members to each other’s work, inspirations and viewpoints and prompted invaluable support and vigorous debates about the intersection of art, race and politics. The collective was short lived, but Spiral members remain among the most acclaimed American artists of the 20th century and the conversations the group began about the role of the African American artist and definition of black art still resonate.
In 2001, Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, first used the term “post-black” in reference to a new generation of black contemporary artists who desire to transcend race and distance themselves from the “black artist” label, despite the fact that their work in most cases is tethered to explorations of blackness.
Bearden’s book notes that landscape artist Richard Mayhew, a founding Spiral member, contends that the group never ceased, “but has taken another form, that is alive and kicking in discussions among African American artists all over the country.” CT
Research and interviews for “A History of African-American Artists” took more than two decades and Bearden died five years before the ambitious project was completed. Henderson, his co-author, shepherded the book to publication in 1993.
Bearden and Henderson collaborated on an earlier book in 1972, which was much more modest in scope: “Six Black Masters of American Art.” And in the years following the release of their magnum opus, Henderson began working on a biography of Edmonia Lewis, the first African American woman to receive national and international acclaim for her work as a sculptor. He finished the manuscript for “The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis. A Narrative Biography” shortly before his death in 2003 and it was finally published in 2012.