What Unknowing Things Know: Zen Liberation in the Art of Romare Bearden

by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

(reprint from International Review of African American Art (Vol. 21, number 3)

What is it?

I’m trying really to remember

The clock has stopped

Now I can never know

Where the edge of my world can be

If I could only enter that old calendar

That opens to an old, old July

And learn what unknowing things know

–untitled poem by Romare Bearden (Schartzman, 1984)

On the fifth day of silence I awaken from my sleep minutes before the 4:30 a.m. wake-up bell at the Zen Center.  It is time to return to the meditation hallwhere spiritual warriors sit breathing in and out, seeing their own inner battles as if for the first time.  Our eyes rest in an open, yet closed gaze.  The lone flicker of a candle and a soft peach light from the low flame of a kerosene lamp rests between us.  The spacepulsates with thoughts.  We move, cough, and swallow.

I have asked myself, how is it that a black woman of African descent, yearning for the ancient, has come to live the teachings of Shayamuni Buddha?  The question itself is empty.  Not without worth, not non-existent, but empty, vast, open to be lived as it is – a full question. And I have attempted to live the question, live in the emptiness, meaning I have had to trust the teachings of Buddha without any proof of possible enlightenment.  Yet, I still do not know exactly why it is that someone like me heard the teachings of Buddha as the voice of God.  But I suspect that it was the offer of liberation from suffering in the Buddha’s teachings that I accepted.   I suspect that Romare Bearden accepted that same offer of freedom when he pursued Chinese art based in calligraphy practice of Ch’an Buddhism or Zen (derived from Ch’an) as the Japanese call it.  His entering the gate of Buddhism helped to reveal his essential spirit and nature in his early abstracts, which are not given as much attention these days as his later work in which his identity and heritage as an African American is evident.

As a practitioner of Soto Zen, I could see in Bearden’s abstract paintings the core teachings of Buddha.   As his Four Noble Truths the Buddha taught that there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering (attachment), and there is cessation of suffering through a path of seeing and understanding the nature of the self and other things.  In seeing one’s life, studying its impact on the world, through meditation or contemplative practices, what is revealed is the ego self that is relative, the one often categorized by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and physical ability.  What is also revealed is a notion of being without form, freed from the shackles of ego, no separation from anyone or anything.  The expression that form is emptiness and emptiness is form is a core teaching of Soto Zen Buddhism that includes the teaching of no self — being without form, yet filled with the essence of everything and everyone.   Thich Nhat Hanh, a Master Dharma teacher, said,

True self is non-self, [it is] the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements [water, fire, air, earth, space and time].  There is no separation between self and other, and everything is interconnected.  Once you aware of that you are no longer caught in the idea that you are a separate entity. (Hanh, 2006)

In the late 1950’s, Romare Bearden was introduced to these core teachings through his interest in Chinese landscape and Japanese paintings. Initially, he met a Chinese calligrapher named Mr. Wu. This introduction would be the beginning of Bearden using the Buddha’s teachings, as taught through calligraphic art and painting, in his own work.  The same brush strokes that make up the characters in calligraphy are the same brush strokes used in Chinese painting (Yee, 1958).  In the late 1940’s and early 50’s, many African American artists were expressing non-black themes, painting or sculpting recognizable forms of black people, places and things.  Then there were those black artists who were expressing non-black themes and found it hard to gain attention and acknowledgement for their work.  Bearden was part of this latter group of artists, allowing his brush to take flight across the canvas, free from the literal expression of life, a moving Buddhist meditation and visible rhythm of his own breath.

June Kelly, owner of the June Kelly Gallery in New York, worked closely with Bearden representing his art from 1975 until he died in 1988.  In a correspondence with her she wrote:

During the 1950s Romare Bearden met a Mr. Wu, whom he met by happenstance in a bookstore in New York’s Chinatown.  Mr. Wu was a scholar who studied Chinese painting and calligraphy.  Under Wu’s guidance, Bearden became interested in Zen Buddhism as a philosophy.  And at the same time he focused on Chinese landscape painting of the Classical Periods, the seventh to mid-seventeenth centuries.  As a result of this relationship, Bearden paintings became more intuitive and abstract.  This influence lasted about 6 to 8 years.  I was not with Bearden during this time but he spoke frequently about Mr. Wu.

Bearden wrote of Mr. Wu’s influence:

As I began to look at it [Chinese painting], underneath the seeming simplicity was a great long tradition, and a very complex one, in which so much had been taken away to find the essence of the landscape…(Gelburd, 1992).

In an interview I had with renowned artist Samella Lewis, who also studied Chinese art as a Fulbright scholar at the P’ung Hai University in Taiwan, states that, “We [Bearden and I] often sat and talked about Japanese Art.  I would visit him at his Canal St. studio and we would talk about the art.  I often would trade a book on Japanese Art for a signed print of his work.”  She also noted that, “One of the greatest influences on Romy was the soft cubism of the Chinese Sung Dynasty.”

In speaking with Sherman Edminston, practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism and owner of the S.E. Greene Gallery in New York, stated that, “Romy had a strong Buddha nature which came through in his work as he articulated an inner spirit and captured the essence of things in his paintings.” Edminston went on to say that Bearden did consider himself a Buddhist, although not in any specific tradition, nor did he openly practice any particular teachings.  It was hidden in the way he lived and how he lived surfaced in his work.  Edminston ended with the fact he believed that Bearden, nearing his death, chose the Buddhist tradition of cremation because of his interest in Zen philosophy.

The ancient tradition of Chinese painting is based on calligraphy and is the principles of that practice that are carried forth in Bearden’s abstracts.  In the practice of Zen calligraphy, called Shodo or the way of the Buddha or the way of the brush, a practitioner follows the core teaching of no self.  He or she does not give expression to the ego, its feelings and thoughts.   What emerges is mu-shin, the formless self, the state of no mind, or the state beyond thoughts, emotions, and expectations.  What emerges is sunyata, the Pali term for emptiness. In Buddha’s teachings emptiness is not a vacancy, but rather fullness beyond the substance of things.  Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870 –1945) said, “True creativity is not the product of a conscious effort, but rather the phenomenon of life itself (Terayama, 2003).”  In other words, art that is produced through an effort to make it realistic is ultimately without life.

Concepts of space and emptiness that is not vacancy fascinated Romare Bearden whose interest in art was bracketed by interests in philosophy.  The “open corner concept” is one example.  In The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting by Bearden and Carl Holty, Bearden attributed his study of Chinese landscape art to “the device of the open corner to allow the observer a starting point in encompassing the entire painting.” (Bearden and Holty, 1969).

Bearden was able to use the spirituality expressed in calligraphic-based Chinese art by including the blank surface as part of the unintentional arrangement of ink that sprung forward from his own artistic meditation and attention.

In organizing The Art of Romare Bearden retrospective for the National Gallery of Art, curator Ruth Fine, While many innovative painters were drawn to “action painting” in the late 1940s to mid-1950s, Fine states that Bearden “found in Zen a quieter road to abstraction, one in which the canvas itself played an important role.”   The role of the canvas, Bearden explained, is in “its character and how you applied the paint and you lifted (the canvas) and let (the paint) roll. The artist’s role, in the end, was to select and retain forms that emerged and say, ‘that’s a painting.’ ” (Fine, 2003)

Fukushima Keido Roshi, a Japanese Zen master of calligraphy, said that a calligrapher becomes one with the brush (Wirth, 2003).  To become one with the brush means to have no self so that each brushstroke reflects unbounded life energy.  When applying calligraphy to painting one does not try to create the illusion of reality.  Philosopher Alan Watts said that in the West we see and depict nature in terms of artificial symmetry and superimpose forms, squeezing nature to fit our own ideas, while in the East the artist presents what is, and not what the artist thinks it means (Watts, 1957).  In other words, artwork based on Eastern philosophy would encourage artists to bring forth nature and spirit in their work as opposed to a photographic representation of an object.  For example, a Chinese painter was once commissioned to paint the Emperor’s favorite goat.  The artist obliged.  When the Emperor asked about the painting, the artist confessed that he had not yet made one. Picking up an ink brush at that moment, he drew eight nonchalant strokes, creating the most perfect goat in the annals of Chinese painting.

In popular culture, calligraphy is often reduced from a 3,500 year-old spiritual practice of harmonizing the mind and body, to a style of writing and art used for graphic or interior design.  This reduction takes away the transformative nature of calligraphy and the paintings based on this tradition. Even as I write about Bearden’s work, I am taking away its breath, its formlessness, and its rhythm by trying to describe it in terms of Zen liberation, a liberation that varies from person to person, and largely remains indefinable.  Exactly for the same reasons of remaining in the moment of breath and having no ideas or concepts while painting, I believe much of Bearden’s abstract work remains untitled.

However, in the non-dualistic Zen spirit, many of Bearden’s abstracts are titled. Titles such as Eastern Gate, Leafless Garden, and Eastern Spirituality were evident of Bearden’s senses being influenced by Mr. Wu and Buddhism. Featured here with this essay, A Walk in Paradise and North of the River, are two works painted during the same time Bearden was steeped in Zen philosophy. His works were described as having a “quiet, meditative quality.” (Gelburd, 1992)  This kind of serenity of his work made him unique among the Abstract Expressionists of his time.

Harry Henderson, historian of African American art, wrote that, “Bearden was not interested in the western orientation of Abstract Expressionism that was purely from feelings and a subjective sense. He found a rationale by studying Zen. His works were always serene and lacked the tremendous physical involvement employed by the Abstract Expressionists (ACA Galleries Catalogue, 1989) such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack.

As an artist and mostly through my Buddhist practice I can see in Bearden’s art that without imposing form or an individual self in his abstracts the sensibility of the African American is in each stroke.  I know this because it is Bearden’s body that is in the brush strokes; and Buddhism is a body practice of breathing in and out those things we see, hear, feel, touch, and contemplate, which results in a meditative stillness in motion.    Even with my unsophisticated artistic eye I can see that Bearden maintained an uninterrupted flow of attention and an undisturbed state of peaceful awareness.  There is liberation in his work because there is no attachment or clinging to name and form.  As Charles Johnson wrote in his book Turning Wheel, “One is especially free, on this path [of Dharma], for the belief in an enduring ‘personal identity,’ an ‘I’ endlessly called upon to prove its worth and deny its [the black self] inferiority…(Johnson, 2003) Yet, this no self is not a concept or another identity; it is a lived practice in understanding the interdependence of all beings.  You cannot think no self and then use it as a tool in your work, but rather hold it within your being, as Bearden did.

Perhaps like Bearden, despite my heritage and because of it, I have fully planted my feet firmly in the mud, on the path of dharma, feeling the roots of the trees from which Buddha’s teachings arrived to the world.  Living with Buddha is a response to the moaning, the yearning to end suffering, a suffering that is so ancient it has gathered the strength of all the oceans and has nearly wiped us all off the face of the Earth.  So, the question, how is it that a black woman of African descent, yearning for the ancient has come to live the teachings of Buddha and live as a spiritual warrior of the earth, remains empty and full, without an appropriate theory or concept to solve the mystery.  It is a question that I can only live, breathing, like Bearden, into the movement of my dark body.

References:

Bearden, Romare and Carl Holt. The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting, Crown Books, New York, NY 1969

Fine, Ruth.  The Art of Romare Bearden, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 2003

Gelburd, Gail.  A Graphic Odyssey: Romare Bearden as Printmaker, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1992

Hanh, Thich Nhat, This is the Buddha’s Love, interview by Melvin McLeod in Shambhala Sun Magazine, March 2006.

Henderson, Harry. Quote in the ACA Galleries Catalogue for Romare Bearden: A Memorial Exhibition, New York, 1989

Johnson, Charles.  Turning Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, Scribner, New York, 2003.

Schwartzman, Myron. Untitled poem by Romare Bearden published as Romare Bearden Sees a Memory in Artforum 22, May 1984:64

Terayama, Tenchu. Zen Brushwork, Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York, London, 2003

Watts, Alan.  The Way of Zen, Random House/Vintage, New York 1957

Wirth, Jason.  Zen No Sho: The Calligraphy of Fukushima Keido Roshi, Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, NM  2003.

Yee, Chiang. Chinese Calligraphy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1958

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