Art Doc of the Week | Five
In 1971 when Five was filmed, Romare Bearden was the best known of the artists profiled in this short, illuminating documentary. Today he’s still the most written about and studied of the group, and has the highest profile arts legacy. The film nods toward his stature by placing him in the headliner spot, making his the last interview. But the brisk, succinct portraits are all given the same weight. The artists – Bearden; Betty Blayton; Charles White; Barbara Chase-Riboud; Richard Hunt – are taken equally seriously, given equal space to comment on their art practice and their life, and how the two intersect. The film is a potent reminder of the history of black American visual artists – from painting to sculpture, from representational to abstract, with blackness at the center of it all.
The downside to the brevity of each profile is that key biographical background (and thus crucial context) is sometimes left out, and the omissions – family history, kind and level of education, just how they were able to break into the art world (to the extent they did) – vary from subject to subject. So we have Charles White and Richard Hunt talking with pride about their children and the role fatherhood plays in their creativity, but get almost nothing at all on the personal life of Betty Blayton and the ways her creativity intersects with the rest of her life. (It is admittedly an interesting twist on the ways male and female artists are framed in conversation about their private and professional lives.) We learn that Chase-Rimboud (who in addition to the painting and sculpture shown in the film is a poet and novelist) has lived in Paris since 1961 – thus making her the embodiment of the black American artist as expatriate – but nothing about how or why she ended up there in the first place.
The pros far outweigh the cons of the film, however. There’s Bearden’s hisoricizing of himself as a young artist in Depression-era Harlem, moving amongst the bright lights of the Harlem Renaissance. There is an extraordinary exchange between a black male and white male student in White’s classroom as the two discuss race, perception and the possibilities of true communication across racial lines. But what really makes the film so important is the way it captures the sometime laborious process of creation – from Hunt and some cohorts painstakingly casting a steel sculpture to the almost reverent hush of silence that falls as Blayton works on a painting and gets lost in the process. Perhaps the greatest value of the film is that it whets your appetite, makes you want to know more about the work and lives of everyone it profiles.
Lead photo 110 St Harlem Blues, by Romare Bearden, courtesy DC Moore Gallery