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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Still, he couldn’t quite escape the second-class status of a black artist. A1981 review by Amei Wallach in Newsday compared two exhibitions then on view—“Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980” and “Romare Bearden 1970-1980”: “Lichtenstein’s slickly mounted exhibit,” wrote Wallach, “inhabits the entire fourth floor of the Whitney Museum in Manhattan and has been accorded all the attention due to the work of a media darling. The Bearden show is tucked away in a series of small galleries on the fifth floor of the BrooklynMuseum, and there is no money available to reprint enough catalogues. . . . Lichtenstein,” Wallach went on, “is a clever, often amusing commentator on contemporary values. . . . But Bearden is simply an extraordinary painter . . . rivaled by only a few artists painting today.”


Bearden’s response was just to keep on creating. “I guess to be anything of a painter you need to have the hide of an elephant,” he once wrote to a fellow artist. And as his income from art increased, he and his wife were able, in 1973, to build a house and studio on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, where Nanette’s family had come from. Bearden’s Caribbean sojourns during the last 15 years of his life have been likened to Matisse’s time in Morocco or Gauguin’s in Tahiti. “The colors just zing!” says his niece Diedra Harris-Kelley.


In New York City, says sculptor Nancy Grossman, who met Bearden in the 1960s and became a close friend, the artist followed an unvarying routine. “He got on the subway and he’d stop at the same place to get his tea and his cheese sandwich,” she says. “The door to his studio looked like a lawyer was behind it. His studio looked like an office room with nothing in it but a tall table, with things that were on their way to being finished lined up against the wall. It looked like a place where no gardens were growing. All the gardens were inside of him.” But behind the orderly façade were large appetites. “We both loved to eat,” Grossman says. “I used to come to his studio and bring him a whole box of pastries, enough for a crowd of 20, and then we would just eat all of it while we talked. It was such pleasure, so many colors, so many tastes. He was like that. He wanted to eat up the pleasures of the world, eat up the wonders of the world.”


“I think the artist has to be something like a whale,” Bearden once said, “swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.”


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