- Dennis Raverty
African American painter, collagist, and author. Bearden is best known for his collages, which often addressed urban themes (e.g. The Dove). He was a founding member of Spiral, a group of African American artists who started meeting at his downtown New York studio in 1963. He also published essays and cartoons, designed book jackets, magazine and album covers, and is widely regarded as the first African American artist to successfully enter the mainstream of the contemporary art world. The posthumously published book he co-authored with Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (1993), in a very short time became an almost canonical text in the field.
Bearden’s family moved permanently to Harlem, a predominately black neighborhood of New York City, in 1920. His mother, Bessye Bearden, was the New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, and through her Bearden was introduced to many of the artists, writers, and intellectuals associated with the New Negro Movement (often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance). He studied at Boston University in the early 1930s and graduated from New York University in 1935 with a degree in education. He also studied for a time with the German artist George Grosz at the Art Students League, who probably introduced him to the photomontages of his fellow Berlin Dadaists, John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, influences that would resurface decades later in Bearden’s collages.
In 1935 he became a case worker for the Harlem office of the New York City Department of Social Services, a position he maintained on and off throughout most of his career to supplement his uneven income as an artist. In 1940, he had his first solo exhibition at 306, a well-known African American artist’s and writer’s enclave and gallery located in a former stable on 141st Street in Harlem. In 1945, after a brief stint in the army, he joined the Samuel Kootz Gallery, one of the few avant-garde commercial galleries in New York at that time. His painting from that period was in an expressionistic, linear, semi-abstract style. He often addressed biblical or mythic themes in the work from these years (themes that also attracted Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and others at that time).
In 1950 he traveled to Paris on the GI Bill, where he studied philosophy with Gaston Bachelard at the Sorbonne and later traveled throughout Europe visiting artists, including Picasso, with letters of introduction from Kootz. Over the next few years, Bearden tried his hand at writing lyrics in collaboration with composer and musician Dave Ellis while maintaining a regular presence in group exhibitions; but in 1961 Bearden joined the stable of the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery in New York City, the gallery which was to represent him for the rest of his career.
It was in 1963 or 1964 that Bearden began making the collages for which he has since become well known. Composed of images snipped from popular magazines and arranged, along with colored papers, which were often abraded with sandpaper or bleach or enhanced with graphite or paint; these small compositions were then blown up through the photostat process onto full-sized sheets of paper. The photostat enlargement reduced the diverse finishes and textures of the printed, pasted, and abraded papers of the collage to an even, continuous, smooth matte surface, and in this way the fragmented quality of the collages was reduced and a new overall unity was achieved. The relatively large size of the photostats added to their visual impact.
Although Bearden’s debt to Dadaist photomontage is well known, subsequent research has revealed equally strong influences from his childhood in North Carolina, both from the scraps of colorful fabric familiar from quilting sessions that he observed as a boy, and from the whole assemblage tradition of “Hoodoo,” a southern variation of the syncretistic Vodun tradition from West Africa, conveyed by means of the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas.
After a well-received exhibition of the photostats at the Cordier and Ekstrom gallery in 1964, Bearden was invited to mount a solo exhibition of his collages and enlarged photostats at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a major museum in Washington, DC. Following this, his visibility increased with one successful show after another, culminating in a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1971, when Bearden was in his late 50s. In his later work, he incorporated enlarged photostats of various photographic images cut and pasted directly, as well as large sheets of silk-screened, colored paper and even fragments of billboards in creating large collages, at first on canvas, then later on fiberboard (see fig.).
- “The Negro Artist and Modern Art.” Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life 15 (Dec 1934): 371–372.
- “Rectangular Structure in My Montage Paintings.” Leonardo 2 (Jan 1969): 11–19.
- with H. Henderson. A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. New York, 1993.
- The Prevalence of Ritual. New York, MOMA, 1971. Exhibition catalog.
- The Art of Romare Bearden. Washington, DC, N.G.A., 2003. Exhibition catalog.
- King-Hammond, Leslie. “Bearden’s Crossroads: Modernist Roots/Riffing Traditions.” In Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections, 86–103. Charlotte, NC, Mint Mus. A., 2011. Exhibition catalog.