Romare Bearden lived in many dimensions. He had a degree in education, but became a painter. He borrowed ideas from the 14th-century Florentine artist Giotto and from Byzantine mosaics, but used spray paint, sandpaper and Clorox on his canvases. He was a social worker looking after gypsies in New York City, a child of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and an artistic leader in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He shopped for groceries in Paris with Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi and took Spanish artist Joan Miró to a baseball game in New York City. He loved cats, and a friend says he lived nine lives—all at the same time.
Bearden became a master of collage, an art form as complex, fragmented and many-layered as his life. And in a body of work that is unique in American art, he made collage a medium for celebrating his African-American heritage and culture. He cut up photographs and magazines, newspapers and prints, pasting and painting the pieces and shapes into powerful portraits of contemporary black life. In the process, he gave his works a sense of myth and ritual, so that a black woman bathing became a “Susannah at the Bath,” and a Harlem street scene, as allegorical as a canvas by Brueghel.
Bearden’s life spanned a good part of the 20th century, from 1911 to 1988, and he won major recognition, including exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and other prominent American museums. Art News put him on its December 1980 cover, and President Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 1987. But four years later, Time art critic Robert Hughes could write that “Bearden got left out of the history books.” Bearden’s niece, Diedra Harris-Kelley, a New York City painter who made collages at Bearden’s feet as a child, recalls hearing an art history teacher at Long BeachState mention his name. “I was shocked. I blurted out, ‘That’s my uncle!’ ” she s a y s . “Before that, I hadn’t seen his name anywhere. I didn’t see a lot of black artists in any of the books.”
Now a major retrospective, “The Art of Romare Bearden,” is helping to rectify the oversight. Organized by Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art (and sponsored by AT&T), the show—the most comprehensive of Bearden’s work ever—opened there this past September, moves to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in early February and heads to the Dallas Museum of Art in June. (It will go on to New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art in October and to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in January 2005.)
The National Gallery’s Ruth Fine, the show’s curator, calls Bearden “a central and important figure” in 20th-century American art. Although African-Americans populate his imagery, and he is often viewed as a “black artist,” Fine says he should more properly be seen as part of the mainstream of modern representational painting. “This retrospective assures Bearden’s place in history because he created timeless works of art that will place him among the best of American painters,” says June Kelly, who runs a New York City gallery that bears her name and was Bearden’s manager from 1975 until his death. “It’s the scholarship that determines who we think about—which artists we should be looking at. That’s been done for the Rauschenbergs, the Jasper Johns and the de Koonings, all of them. If you don’t see a Bearden there, you think differently about him.”