Romare Bearden: Man of Many Parts

A new exhibition showcases Bearden's innovative collages and stakes a claim for him in the pantheon of 20th-century American artists

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Fine initially thought she could pull the show together in three years, then asked for an extra year to extend her research. Her biggest surprise? The complexity of Bearden’s techniques. “The fact that I couldn’t figure out at first how so many of his collages were made drove me crazy.”


But the way Bearden broke up and layered his images, improvising with new materials and new ideas, was more than a matter of technique; it came out of his life and culture—the improvisational nature of the jazz music he loved, the Christian iconography he saw in black churches, the patchwork quilts and rooms wallpapered with old newspapers and magazine pages he recalled from childhood summers in North Carolina. His work was also shaped by a lifetime of study and a deep knowledge of how artists of the past solved the eternal problems of space, color and form. As Bearden’s friend the late novelist Ralph Ellison put it at a memorial service for Bearden in 1988. “I can remember visits to Romie’s 125th Street studio during which he stood at his easel sketching and explaining the perspectives of the Dutch and Italian masters,” he said. “Other times he played with the rhythms of Mondrian and related them to the structure of jazz.”


In a 1977 interview with New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins, Bearden described how, as a young man, “I’d take a sheet of paper and just make lines while I listened to records, a kind of shorthand to pick up the rhythm and the intervals.” No wonder jazz musicians were drawn to him. In 1985, Wynton Marsalis asked Bearden to design an album cover. “Then when he finished it,” Marsalis recalled, “I didn’t like it. . . . I was just young and dumb.” But Marsalis would later become a Bearden collector.


Diedra Harris-Kelley thinks that in some ways her uncle even anticipated hip-hop: “When they borrow a sample from James Brown and they stick it into a contemporary beat,” she says, “it’s the same as Romie borrowing a piece of African sculpture and putting it in with a contemporary, realistic eye. And look at his layering of color; when you listen to the rap artists, you hear them layering, you hear the backbeat, and then you hear the James Brown [lick] or the jazz that they stick in there, and they’re rapping on top of that, and somebody might be singing too. So you have this layered experience, which is what collage is.”


romare bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1911. His parents had both been to college, and in the face of menacing Jim Crow laws, they fled the South in 1914 for New York City. Bearden grew up in Harlem but made many family trips back to Charlotte and the surrounding rural parts of MecklenburgCounty. He also spent time in Pittsburgh, where his grandmother ran a boarding house. All of these places figured in Bearden’s imagery.


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