Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Art of Romare Bearden

The Art of Romare Bearden, the most comprehensive retrospective ever assembled of the large and diverse body of work by one of America's preeminent 20th-century artists, was presented by the National Gallery of Art in its East Building, September 14, 2003 - January 4, 2004. Approximately 130 works explored the complexity and scope of the artist's evolution and will feature many rarely exhibited and/or never before reproduced works from private collections.

Romare Bearden, Piano Lesson, 1983
collage of various papers with paint, ink, and graphite on paper
The Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature
© Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

The central subject of this composition is thought to be jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, who spent her childhood years in Pittsburgh. Just as Bearden's work was inspired by that of others in a variety of artistic fields, Piano Lesson inspired the play of the same title by playwright August Wilson, himself a Pittsburgh native.

Romare Bearden, Of the Blues: At the Savoy, 1974
collage of various papers with paint, ink, and graphite on fiberboard
From the Collection of Raymond J. McGuire
© Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.
One of twenty collages in Bearden's "Of the Blues" series, this takes us to the Savoy Ballroom, which was advertised at the time as "the home of happy feet.

Paintings; drawings and watercolors; monotypes and edition prints; collages of diverse materials, including fabrics; photographs; wood sculpture; designs for record albums, costumes, and stage sets; and book illustrations reveal the places where Bearden lived and worked: the rural south; northern cities, principally Pittsburgh and New York's Harlem; and the Caribbean island of St. Martin. They also reflect his wide range of interests and explore often overlapping themes of religion, ritual practice, everyday life, jazz clubs, brothels, history, mythology, and literature.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition was also seen with slight variation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, February 7 - May 16, 2004; the Dallas Museum of Art, June 20 - September 5, 2004; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 14, 2004 - January 9, 2005; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, January 29 - April 24, 2005.

Romare Bearden's oeuvre of more than 2,000 known works in many media reveals the diverse influences of earlier Western masters ranging from Duccio, Giotto, and de Hooch to Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse, as well as his fascination with African art (particularly sculpture, masks, and textiles), Byzantine mosaics, Japanese prints, and Chinese paintings.

The sections of the exhibition are Origins, Circa 1964, Mecklenburg Memories, The City and Its Music, Stories, Women, Monotypes, Collaborations, and Late Work.

Also in the show are three illustrations (never before exhibited or reproduced) for a book, Li'l Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story, for which Bearden also wrote the text. It has just been published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

In addition to the exhibition, the Dallas Museum of Art debuted its newest acquisition, Soul Three (1968), a major large-scale collage by Bearden. The acquisition is the first work by Bearden to enter the Museum’s collections, which also contains important works by African-American artists Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, Willard “The Texas Kid” Watson, Annette Lawrence, and Jean Lacy. Soul Three was purchased through the Museum’s General Acquisitions Fund and the Roberta Coke Camp Fund. The collage will be on view near the entrance to the retrospective exhibition.

The Art of Romare Bearden represents Bearden’s early expressionist, cubist, and semi-abstract compositions, later watercolors and prints, and colorful and complex collages, which reveal Bearden’s mastery over this medium.

Using cut-out images of faces and other fragments of reality, Bearden typically pasted them on cardboard and augmented the work with paint, ink, and graphite. Themes in the works include jazz, the rhythms of modern life, women, Greek mythology, stories from the Bible, and life in Harlem, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and the Caribbean island of St. Martin.

“Geographic inspiration for Bearden’s art ranges from his birth place in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, to New York’s Harlem in the 1920s through the 1980s, to the Caribbean island of St. Martin, where he and his wife owned a home,” said Dorothy Kosinski, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Art and curator of the exhibition in Dallas. “The child of a middle-class family, Bearden grew up in Harlem in the social and cultural exuberance of the Harlem Renaissance. Frequent visits from family friends such as Duke Ellington and Fats Waller made jazz an early passion for Bearden, and music continued to inform his art throughout his life. His highly narrative works also show references to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, particularly the inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The Art of Romare Bearden included examples of Bearden’s “projections,” photo-enlarged versions of his collages that represented the African-American experience. Highlights include Berkeley-The City and Its People (1973), which measures 10 x 16 feet and was seen here for the first time outside of the Berkeley City Council chambers where it was installed in 1974; The Block II (1972), an unusual multipanel piece depicting the varied indoor and outdoor life of Harlem; and Mauritius (1969), his only known work of sculpture, which alludes to a martyred Roman soldier, an African recruited from upper Egypt.

Romare Bearden, Berkeley––The City and Its People, 1973
collage of various papers with paint, ink, and graphite on seven fiberboard panels
City of Berkeley, California, Public Art Collection<
© Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.
This mural, one of Bearden's earliest commissions, was installed in the Berkeley City Council Chambers in 1974. Composed on seven fiberboard panels joined together, it is Bearden's largest known collage. Its subject is unusual in that it is not rooted in Bearden's long-term personal experience, but rather is based on Bearden's travel throughout Berkeley for a period of several days, during which he gathered material. Architectural details, such as the university campanile, to the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, to political rallies, worship services, sailing vessels, and figures of importance to Berkeley's history are documented. There are protesters, students, football players, and a wide racial and ethnic spectrum. The image of four overlapping heads in the lower right quadrant, representing the community's diversity, has become Berkeley's city logo.

Romare Bearden, The Block II, 1972
collage of various papers with foil, paint, ink, graphite, and surface abrasion on seventeen fiberboard and plywood panels including two applied in relief and one recessed
The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art
© Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

Documenting Lenox Avenue between 132d and 133d Street in Harlem, The Block II is one of Bearden's most complex views of New York. A non-judgmental guide, the artist helps us bear witness to people of varied races and ages engaged in the spiritual and secular activities of everyday life.

The Artist

Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, the seat of Mecklenburg County, on September 2, 1911. About 1914, his family joined in the Great Migration north, settling in New York City, which remained Bearden's base for the rest of his life. He became a prolific artist whose works were exhibited throughout the United States and Europe. He was also a respected writer and an eloquent spokesman on artistic and social issues of the day. His many awards and honors include the National Medal of Arts he received from President Ronald Reagan in 1987, one year before he died in 1988.

After graduating from New York University, Bearden earned his living as a social case worker for Gypsies for New York City’s Department of Social Services. With the exception of service during World War II and some postwar travel in Europe, he continued his work in social services until retiring at age 58. Until then, he created his paintings and collages at night and on weekends. Even while employed as a social worker, art for Bearden was always a full-time vocation.

While studying and traveling in Europe, Bearden was profoundly influenced by the Dutch paintings of Johannes Vermeer and the collages of Henri Matisse. In addition to his education at NYU, Bearden studied at the Art Students League in New York. He played an important role in Spiral, a salon for black artists interested in social change. Bearden advocated for the responsibility of black artists to reflect their struggles while at the same time illustrating a common humanity that transcended race.

“Perhaps because of his immersion in music as well as visual art, Bearden was constantly improvising in his collages,” Kosinski said. “Through improvised color, texture, composition, and ideas, he constantly experimented and pushed the limits of his art beyond the status quo.”

While he is best known for his visual art, Bearden was also a songwriter whose lyrics were performed by Billie Holiday and recorded by Billy Eckstein, who had a major hit with Bearden’s song “Seabreeze.” After drawing inspiration from participants in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Duke Ellington and Ralph Ellison, Bearden, in turn, influenced later generations of musicians and intellectuals, including playwright August Wilson and jazz virtuoso Wynton Marsalis. His artistic interests blended when he designed album covers for jazz recordings, including one by Marsalis.