Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
A Centennial Celebration
August 30, 2011–March 4, 2012
Romare Bearden's vibrant mural-size tableau The Block (1971) is on view as part of a centennial celebration of the artist's birth. The Block, an eighteen-foot-long collage, celebrates the Harlem neighborhood in New York City that nurtured and inspired so much of the artist's life and work. Bearden's elaborate and colorful cut-paper collages elevated this genre to a major art form through its unusual materials, expressionist color, abstracted forms, flattened shapes and spaces, and shifts in perspective and scale—all the while maintaining focus on the human narrative being told within a single city block.
Born in North Carolina on September 2, 1911, Bearden spent much of his youth in New York City, where his parents knew the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including the poet Langston Hughes, the musician Duke Ellington, the artist Aaron Douglas, and the social reformer W.E.B. Du Bois. In the 1930s, Bearden himself became active in several artists' groups in Harlem, and by the 1960s he was a central figure in the cultural life of the community, with a growing national reputation. He helped found the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Spiral group (artists supporting the Civil Rights movement), and the Cinqué Gallery, a venue for emerging artists. Respected as an artist, orator, author, and social activist, Bearden also mentored many young people seeking opportunities in the arts.
What set Bearden apart as an artist was his embrace of an unusual medium—paper collage—which dominated the last twenty-five years of his production. Jazzy, syncopated compositions, made with found materials such as magazine clippings, old photographs, and colored papers elevated the medium to a major art form for storytelling. He presented scenes of families and workers in the rural South and the urban North with humor and pathos. Rooted in the African American experience, these subjects appealed to diverse audiences that responded to their humanist concerns. Bearden's images are both simple and complex, and layered with meanings that can be inferred from his references to other art and cultures: Renaissance painting, modern art, African tribal sculpture, and Christian iconography. In 1977 the novelist Ralph Ellison wrote that Bearden's collages created "a place composed of visual puns and artistic allusions . . . where the sacred and the profane, reality and dream, are ambiguously mingled."