Romare Howard Bearden

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Romare Howard Bearden

The American painter-collagist Romare Howard Bearden (1914-1988) was a leading abstractionist until racial strife in the United States led him to focus more directly on African American subject matter, with related changes in his style and technique.

An only child, Romare Bearden was born on September 2, 1914, in Charlotte, North Carolina. When he was still a child, the family moved to Harlem, New York City, where his mother was a well-known journalist and political activist. He received a bachelor of science degree from New York University because, he said, "I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor." E. Simms Campbell, the renowned African American cartoonist, encouraged him to study painting with George Grosz, the German-born painter and satirical draftsman, at the Art Students' League in New York. "It was Grosz, " Bearden remembered with gratitude, "who first introduced me to classical draftsmen like Hogarth and Ingres." Essential as formal institutions were to his development as a person and an artist, his association with African American artists and intellectuals of the Depression period cannot be minimized. Among these were the painters Norman Lewis and Jacob Lawrence and the writer Ralph Ellison, who maintained an atmosphere of social and political concern which heavily influenced Bearden's early work. Even though his concern for these problems in no way diminished later and all his works abound in ethnic subject matter, the mild-mannered, almost shy artist insisted that he was not a social propagandist. "My subject is people, " he said. "They just happen to turn out to be Negro."

Early in his career he emulated the styles of Rufino Tamayo and José Clemente Orozco, painting simple forms and echoing the crude power he had come to admire in medieval art. His paintings of everyday black life were forceful in color; the figures followed simple patterns and their statements were literal, as in graphic art rather than painting. By 1945 he had begun to adopt a less literal, more personal style, which proved to be the most congenial for his unique artistic expressions. In the 1950s, while working as a New York City Welfare Department investigator, he expressed his feelings in lyrical abstractions.

First Solo Shows Bring Recognition

Caresse Crosby launched Bearden in her Washington, D.C., gallery in 1945, following his service in World War II. In his first one-person show in New York the same year, 18 works were sold during the first two weeks, and the critics were ecstatic in their praise, calling his work "vibrant, " "propulsive, " and "poetic." There were subsequent invitations to exhibit, including solo shows in Paris and New York.

By 1960 Bearden's personal style had firmly caught the imagination of the art world. Drawing on his boyhood memories of the Deep South and his experiences as a long-time resident of Harlem, he depicted the conditions in which African Americans lived with such stark reality that the collage or montage became a powerfully emotive art form. With the skill of a master, he made formidable use of disparate elements of photographs and documentary film, resulting in an uncommon immediacy in his work that extended its meaning.

Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement

The early 1960s brought a period of transition for Bearden. In 1963 a group of African American artists began meeting in his Harlem studio. Calling themselves the Spiral Group, they sought to define their roles as black artists within the context of the growing civil rights movement.

His "Projections" series, exhibited in 1964, caused a wave of controversy and excitement. The tormented faces of African American women hanging upside down on the cracked stoops of Harlem tenements, New York bridges soaring out of Carolina cotton fields, and African pyramids colliding with American folk singers strumming guitars prompted one critic to write that the show comprised "a collection of headhunters." These startling images, constructed from newspaper and magazine photographs, had been enlarged from their original color into huge black-and-white photographs that provided the artist's desired effect of urgency.

The shock turned into solid success that brought Bearden many honors, including cover commissions for Time, Fortune, and the New York Times magazines; the National Institute of Arts and Letters achievement award (1966); and a 1970 Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship to write a history of African American art. In 1969 his book The Painter's Mind (Carl Holty, coauthor) was published. He also wrote a biography of Henry O. Tanner, the towering but unheralded African American artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His first full-scale exhibition in a European museum was held in May 1971 at the Rath Museum in Geneva, Switzerland. In his widely acclaimed "Prevalence of Ritual" retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, also held in 1971, many of the works displayed were collage paintings.

Focus on African American Life in the 1970s and 1980s

The primary subject of the last 25 years of Bearden's art was the life and culture of African Americans. His work covered rural themes based on his memories of the South as well as urban life and jazz. In the 1980s he produced a large body of work featuring compelling images of women. For many years he spent time annually on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, which brought tropical images to his work.

In 1986 Bearden was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts to celebrate its centennial. He executed a mosaic mural, done in mosaic glass, titled "Quilting Time". The work is typical of Bearden in that it is rooted in his memories of his southern childhood and depicts an important aspect of African American culture. The brightly colored mosaic shows a group of women making a quilt. His use of mosaic tile late in his career developed from the technique of building his forms with very small pieces of paper, called tesserae. Since the paper was so fragile, Bearden preferred using mosaic tile for large public works.

Honors and Legacy

Bearden received the Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Less than a year later, on March 11, 1988, Bearden died of bone cancer in New York City. His estate made provisions for the establishment of the Romare Bearden Foundation to aid in the education and training of talented art students.

"Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987" was a major retrospective show containing nearly 150 works from Bearden's half-century career in the visual arts. Beginning at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1991, the show traveled through 1993 to major museums in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and finally the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. His massive survey A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present was posthumously published in 1993.

Further Reading

A complete examination of Bearden and his work is available in Myron Schwartzman, Romare Bearden: His Life and Art (1990). Additional information on Bearden's career may be found in Elton C. Fax, Black Artists of the New Generation (1977), Sharon F. Patton, Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987 (1991), and the Smithsonian Institution's, African American Visual Aesthetics: A Postmodernist View (1995). □