In 1963, Sleeping Car Porters union leader A. Philip Randolph was organizing what would become the historic march on Washington (where Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech) and asked Bearden to help. Bearden invited a group of artists—including such scions of the Harlem Renaissance as Norman Lewis, Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff, along with younger artists like Richard Mayhew and Emma Amos—to his studio to discuss the idea. The gathering evolved into a black artist collective that took the name Spiral.
The group often debated the importance of race to art. “That was part of Spiral’s struggle,” Reginald Gammon, who joined the group as a young artist, recalled recently. “Are we black or what? We all went to art schools in the United States, and a lot of our teachers were European. We even talked ourselves into believing that Picasso was blacker than most of us! He was using black subject matter when we weren’t.” (Bearden had mentioned to Gammon that in Paris Picasso had told him to “Paint your people.”)
By this time, Bearden had begun using photographic elements in his depictions of Harlem, Pittsburgh and rural MecklenburgCounty. Though his work built on the history of collage, with a nod to Picasso and Braque’s Cubist collaborations and Matisse’s paper cutouts, it also represented a breakthrough. “I have incorporated techniques of the camera eye and the documentary film, to personally involve the onlooker,” Bearden noted. And there was more to come.
“One day we were talking about his collages,” Gammon recalls, “and Romie said ‘I wish I could make them bigger.’ I was working in advertising and using a Photostat machine all the time, so I took him, with some of his collages, to a Photostat house in the neighborhood, and the man there asked Romie what are these? I’ll never forget it. Romie said, ‘Oh these are the works of our patients. We’re doctors from the mental hospital.’ He did it with such a straight face I almost cracked up. And the guy said, ‘Oh, yeah, I see,’ and went and blew them up. And when Romie had his first black-andwhite show, that’s what it was.”
It was actually the dealer Arne Ekstrom who spotted the 6-by-8-foot Photostats in Bearden’s studio and told the artist that he should devote his next exhibition to them. Bearden complied. A critic for the New York Herald Tribune, struck by the works’ “shock and impact,” called the 1964 “Projections” exhibition “one of the best shows in town.” Bearden had his first solo museum show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1965. The exhibits and sales that followed allowed him to trade social work for full-time painting in a series of studios in Long Island City, where he would create some of his most memorable images—among them the jazz figures in his Of the Blues series and the lush tropical landscapes of his last years. In 1971, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City featured a Bearden retrospective comprising 56 paintings going back to 1941.