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

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.”

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.

In Harlem, his mother became an influential social activist and political figure, his father, a city sanitation inspector. The writers, musicians and reformers who were defining what came to be known in the 1920s as the Harlem Renaissance were often in the Bearden apartment. Romare grew up rubbing elbows with jazz greats Duke Ellington and Fats Waller (both would be among the first to buy his paintings), poet Langston Hughes, and singer and actor Paul Robeson. He also knew civil rights figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Mary McLeod Bethune, who would launch the National Council of Negro Women.

Even in relatively progressive New York City, black youngsters soon learned about the color line. Duke Ellington played at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club—with its “whites only” audiences. Paul Robeson would cause a sensation in 1943 when he played Othello on Broadway, the first black man to do so in the United States since 1865. Just before he died of bone cancer at age 76, Bearden confided a memory to his longtime friend Les Payne, a reporter for Newsday. Bearden, Payne wrote, “recalled his grade-school days in New York City when his white teacher set him and the only other black student apart from the rest of her class. She told them math was too complicated for them, and young Bearden [who would later study mathematics in college] acquiesced by drawing in class.”

In high school in Pittsburgh, where he lived with his grandmother, Bearden befriended a neighborhood boy named Eugene Bailey, who lived on the top floor of a brothel and loved making drawings of the activities he saw through cracks in the floor. His drawings depicted the brothel without a front wall—each room revealed. When Bearden’s grandmother saw Eugene’s sketches, she tore them up, marched him home and told him to pack his things and come live with her family. Eugene’s mother agreed to the plan, and Eugene became Bearden’s impromptu art teacher. Years later, one of the large paintings Bearden exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Block, showed a row of tenements, à la Eugene, laying bare the lives of its occupants.

In college, at Pennsylvania’s LincolnUniversity, he started as a math major, then transferred to BostonUniversity, where he pitched for the baseball team and began to publish cartoons and illustrations. Later, at New YorkUniversity, he studied art and education. But he always downplayed his formal art training, perhaps because his mother disapproved of painting as a career and worried that her son had his head in the stars. He got his degree in education in 1935, but was soon painting almost full time.

For the young artist, Harlem was better than Paris. “In the ’30s,” Bearden once recalled, “everyone would gather together and encourage each other. Countee Cullen [a leading poet of the day] would have a party for the artists every month or so and put up a few paintings to sell. You would only get $10, $15 or $25, but it kept up morale.” There was an open house for artists, musicians and writers at 306 West 141st Street, and Bearden showed his early work there as part of the “306 Group.”

In the 1930s, Bearden took classes at the Art Students League, a downtown hotbed of artistic and political ferment where Social Realism—as in the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera—was all the rage. Bearden studied there with German Expressionist George Grosz, a refugee from the Nazis. The young painter Jacob Lawrence showed Bearden his studio near the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street, and Bearden rented space in the same building. “It was eight dollars a month with electricity included,” Bearden reminisced in an interview in Art News. He had also found a job, as a New York City social worker, which he would keep for much of his life. 

Grosz, whose drawings and watercolors had satirized the rise of Nazism in Germany, proved an ideal mentor. Though Bearden had been contributing political cartoons to a popular newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, the German artist taught him to think like a painter. Bearden would later write that Grosz “made me realize the artistic possibilities of American Negro subject matter . . . [he] led me to study composition, through the analysis of Brueghel and the great Dutch masters, and . . . in the process of refining my draftsmanship, initiated me into the magic world of Ingres, Dürer, Holbein and Poussin.” Bearden was so taken with 16th-century artist Pieter Brueghel that classmates nicknamed him Pete.

At the same time, Bearden was soaking up the lessons of Italian frescoes, Byzantine mosaics, African sculpture and new trends in modern art. Over a lifetime, he explored many different ways of painting, keeping elements of each as he moved through periods of Social Realism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and, finally, the exuberant collages he made his own. “Everything that I have done since [my first painting],” he wrote in a 1969 essay for the arts magazine Leonardo, “has been, in effect, an extension of my experiments with flat painting, shallow space, Byzantine stylization and African design.” Bearden’s hope, says Fine, “was that by absorbing the history of art and marrying that to African-American subject matter, he would be able to talk to everyone.”

Referring to one of Bearden’s early works, The Family (circa 1941), Fine points out that the hand gestures, emphasis on the eyes, focus on family photographs, interplay of abstraction and representation, and the inclusion of a little still life and patch of landscape are all elements that occur again and again in Bearden. “My sense of Bearden,” she says, “is that he never stopped using what he started with, in his subjects and his techniques. He keeps adding, so it gets more and more remarkable. He has given us some of the most interesting and complicated surfaces in modern art.”

Joining the Army in 1942, Bearden was assigned to an all black infantry division and sent to Harlem to guard New York City subways against sabotage. In 1944, the G Place Gallery in Washington, D.C. gave “Sgt. Romare Bearden” a solo show, exhibiting ten of his paintings. After Bearden’s discharge in 1945, G Place gallery owner Caresse Crosby introduced him to New York City art dealer Samuel Kootz, who invited him to show his work at Kootz’s newly opened gallery. (Other Kootz artists included Robert Motherwell, Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso.) Bearden’s first one-man show there was a series of works on the theme of the Passion of Christ. It was a success, and one of the paintings, He Is Arisen, was purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Bearden considered these paintings “abstractionist,” but they were too figurative for Kootz; when he reorganized his gallery in 1948, Bearden was dropped. These were the years when America’s abstract artists were rejecting all European influence and, as Bearden put it, “push[ing] Picasso out of the picture.” Although Bearden delighted in this development, and produced some purely abstract works himself, he was ultimately drawn back to figuration.To hone his skills, he copied the works of such European giants as Duccio, Veronese, Manet and Matisse.

In 1950, he went to Paris on the G.I. Bill. He spent seven months there, haunting museums and galleries and meeting artists (Braque, Brancusi and Picasso were among those he mentioned later) while taking classes in philosophy. Perhaps overwhelmed, Bearden hardly painted in Paris or for several years after he came back to New York.

He turned instead to music, co-writing the hit song “Seabreeze,” which was recorded by Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie; it’s still considered a jazz classic. But he found life without painting stressful and depressing. In 1954, at age 42, he married Nanette Rohan, a 27-year-old dancer and fashion model. “Nanette was very particular about how she looked,” her younger sister, Sheila, recently recalled. “And then she met Romie and married, and became a bohemian!”

Their marriage lifted Bearden’s spirits, but two years later he collapsed on the street. When he woke up, in the psychiatric ward at Bellevue hospital, a doctor told him that he “blew a fuse.” He realized then, “I just had to be a painter, that was it.” Nanette nursed him back to health, and they moved from uptown Harlem downtown to Canal Street, into an apartment large enough to double as a studio. There Bearden plunged into abstraction, painting on rice paper and pasting it down in layers, tearing it, adding new layers, scratching it with sandpaper and painting on top of it. His new work caught the eye of art dealer Arne Eckstrom, who began showing it. But in 1961, after Bearden and Nanette went to Paris, Florence and Venice—a sojourn among the old masters—his love of representation revived. Caught up in the burgeoning civil rights movement, he began incorporating African-American imagery into a new kind of collage.

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.

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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