American Song: The Art of Romare Bearden

By Gilmore, Brian | The Progressive, February 2004 | Go to article overview

American Song: The Art of Romare Bearden


Gilmore, Brian, The Progressive


In the summer of 1963, the artist Romare Bearden, as a member of the New York-based African American artistic collective Spiral, suggested that the group collaborate on a collage to make a statement on the civil rights movement. The March on Washington was to be held that summer, and the group felt a need to speak to the moment. The members of Spiral didn't take to Bearden's suggestion. But Bearden, a rising star in the American art world at the time, wasn't discouraged.

Over the next few months, he created a series of small-scale collages that would serve as his own personal statement. He used clippings and snippets from magazines such as Life and Ebony and produced art that portrayed African American life as never before.

"They seemed to capture the times," as Bearden's biographer, Myron Schwartzman, put it in the film The Art of Romare Bearden.

Bearden also had the collages photographed and blown up large scale in black and white on Photostat paper. These photo-montages eventually became known as Projections. When the collage-based paintings were discovered the following year and placed in an exhibition in New York, Romare Bearden, then in his early fifties, was suddenly a major artist.

Now, forty years after Bearden embarked on that remarkable creative journey, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has introduced an exhibition of his work. The exhibition, "The Art of Romare Bearden," which opened on September 14, 2003, includes 130 pieces of work spanning fifty years. There are paintings, drawings, permanent murals, and sculpture. Over the next few years, "The Art of Romare Bearden" will travel to Dallas, New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

"I would hope within the context of the art world that his presence will take on the luster that it deserves," says Ruth Fine, curator of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Fine chose the pieces from more than 1,500 works of art. She traveled all over the country for several years, meeting with collectors and dealers, and speaking with many who privately own Bearden's great works.

Without being overtly political or committed to wasteful sloganeering, Romare Bearden made universal statements about American life. Like poet Sterling Brown and jazz composer Duke Ellington, he created art about real people in America living their lives. He embraced what Fine describes as "the whole of human culture as he understood it" and gave particular attention and love toward the community he belonged to--Black America. That community is the key source of his creative power.

Bearden was born in 1911 in rural Charlotte, North Carolina. His family, like thousands of others, migrated to New York City to the capital of Black America at the time--Harlem. He came of age during the Harlem Renaissance in a family that associated with the best of Black America: the poet Langston Hughes, the jazz genius Duke Ellington, the renaissance man Paul Robeson, and the dean of all African American intellectuals, W. E. B. Du Bois.

Bearden took to art early on and started out drawing political cartoons. After college in the 1930s, he was soon expressing the specific nuances of African American culture and life on canvas,

His subject matter was distinct: the South of sacred cultural rituals, emotional religious customs, and folklife; the North of tough streets and the spread of jazz. And everywhere, he focused on the constant struggle for equality.

Bearden's art was informed by his own life. When he was very young, he traveled back and forth between Charlotte and New York City visiting relatives. As a young adult, he worked at the New York City Department of Social Services, interacting with everyday people. He also lived in Pittsburgh, and he spent time in Paris where he hung out with the black expatriate crowd. He fused it all into a dynamic artistic manifesto, akin to jazz. Using the techniques of the European masters, he created art that had its own voice.

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