“Black art has always existed. It just hasn’t been looked for in the right places.” – Romare Bearden
A pioneer of Black art and celebrated collagist, Romare Bearden seamlessly blended images of African-American life in the urban and rural South with references to popular culture, religion, and Classical art and myth. His narratives focused primarily on Blackness: the body, the culture and abstract beauty. Bearden used his art as activism by advocating for Black artist and projecting real images of African American life in his collages to show Black humanity.
Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and raised in New York City and Pittsburgh. His father, Howard Bearden, was a pianist and his mother, Bessye Johnson Bearden, was a journalist and civic activist. In his teen years, Romare Bearden would encounter major figures of the Harlem Renaissance who would regularly meet with his family at home in New York. The influences of music, writing and activism would inform Bearden’s entire career.
A gifted athlete, Bearden first began writing at a young age about his favorite pastime, baseball. He played for the semi-professional all-Black team, the Boston Tigers, while studying at Boston University in the early 1930s. His focused slowly shifted to art while in college. He served as art director for Boston College’s student humor magazine, The Beanpot, before transferring to New York University and becoming a lead cartoonist and art editor for The Medley, a monthly journal at NYU. He graduated in 1935 with a degree in science and education.
Bearden grew as an artist by exploring his life experiences. He credits famous performer Johnny Hudgins for inspiring his own process of “making worlds” through cartoons, oil paintings, and collage. Hudgins, who was nicknamed the Wah Wah Man in honor of his signature dance and lip sync routine accompanied by a muted trumpets, was internationally renowned vaudeville artist. “He was my favorite of all the comedians,” said Bearden. “What Johnny Hudgins could do through mime on an empty stage helped show me how worlds were created on an empty canvas.”
Bearden early work depicted scenes of the American South in paintings and watercolors. His style was strongly influenced by the Mexican muralists, especially Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. In 1935, Bearden became a case worker for the Harlem office of the New York City Department of Social Services. Throughout his career as an artist, Bearden worked as a case worker off and on to supplement his income.
Bearden enlisted as a private in the Army in 1942. He was assigned to First Headquarters, Fifteenth Regiment, all Black 372nd Infantry Division. After serving, he grew more interested in depicted humanity through abstract expressionism after feeling he did not see it during the war.
Exhibiting his series The Passion of Christ (1945) at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery in New York, a pioneering platform for Abstract Expressionist Art, was pivotal in Bearden’s career, as The Museum of Modern Art in New York bought He is Arisen (1945) from the series. He produced paintings at this time in “an expressionistic, linear, semi-abstract style.” In 1947, Bearden was one of only four African-American artists with a solo exhibition at Midtown Manhattan blue-chip galleries. A year later, Bearden was lauded as a trailblazing American modernist, leading to multiple exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Rampant racism the 1950s America led Bearden to return to Paris, thanks to the G.I. Bill, where he studied art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne for two years. His social circle included Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Constantin Brâncuși, and Bearden quickly gained status within Paris’s black, expatriate community, and the Negritude movement.
“You put down one color and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody.” – Romare Bearden
Bearden expressed himself in music and writing as well as visually. In the early 1950s, Bearden co-founded music label Bluebird Music Company with Dave Ellis. He returned to New York and wrote and co-wrote several books, and songs, cited as co-writer of the jazz classic Sea Breeze, recorded by Billy Eckstine, his former high school classmate, and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1954, at age 42, Bearden married Nanette Rohan, a 27-year-old dancer from Staten Island, New York. She later became an artist and critic. The couple eventually created the Bearden Foundation to assist young artists.
Bearden struggled with two artistic sides of himself: his background as “a student of literature and of artistic traditions, and being a black human being involves very real experiences, figurative and concrete,” which was at combat with the mid-twentieth century “exploration of abstraction.” His frustration with abstraction won over, as he himself described his paintings’ focus as coming to a plateau. Bearden then turned to a completely different medium at a very important time for the country. As the civil rights movement began, Bearden started to experiment again with forms of collage in the early 1960s.
In 1963, Bearden became a founding member of Harlem-based The Spiral, creating a dialogue for the role of African-American artists in the civil rights movement. He invited artists to meet at his Canal Street loft studio to discuss political events related to the plight of Black Americans. The group sought to answer the question, “What is Black Art?” They would go on to meet weekly, plan exhibitions, and make arrangements to attend the march on Washington D.C. led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in August 1963.
Building on the momentum from successful collage and photostat pieces in 1964, Bearden was invited to do a solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This heightened his public profile. Bearden’s collage techniques changed over the years, and in later pieces he would use blown-up photostat photographic images, silk-screens, colored paper, and billboard pieces to create large collages on canvas and fiberboard.
Bearden sought to give the African-American experience a universal, monumental, and Classical representation: he would often recast Classical events with African-American subjects, drawing the political injustices of his time into a universal, allegorical context. He depicted jazz musicians, monumental subjects, nudes, or mythological characters set against abstract, fragmented backgrounds. Each of his collages integrated images painted in gouache, watercolors, oil paints, which he would then fix to paper or canvas.
“Practically all great artists accept the influence of others. But… the artist with vision… by integrating what he has learned with his own experiences… molds something distinctly personal.” – Romare Bearden
In 1971, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective exhibition of Bearden’s work. Numerous museum shows and exhibitions showcased his paintings, prints, and public murals and mosaics, but Bearden was best-known for his collage pieces. He said that he used collage because “he felt that art portraying the lives of African Americans did not give full value to the individual… In doing so he was able to combine abstract art with real images so that people of different cultures could grasp the subject matter of the African American culture: The people. This is why his theme always exemplified people of color.” In 1987, Bearden was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Romare Bearden died on March 12, 1988 at the age of 75. The New York Times described Bearden in its obituary as “one of America’s pre-eminent artists” and “the nation’s foremost collagist.” Two years after his death, the Romare Bearden Foundation was founded. This non-profit organization not only serves as Bearden’s official estate, but also helps “to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of this preeminent American artist.”