Romare Bearden Retrospective: Once-Neglected Artist Gets His Due

In the early weeks of 1969, protesters gathered before the entrances of New York City's major art museums to complain about the institutions' treatment of African-American artists. The public demonstrations faulted the museums for ignoring the achievements of contemporary black painters and sculptors and shunning the input of black curators. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one activist handed out leaflets that called the neglect an “insidious segregation,” while at the Museum of Modern Art, one demonstrator held a sign, “Retrospective for Romare Bearden Now,” that championed an artist who should have been a household name.

Four decades later, everything has changed, and it's hard to believe that someone like Bearden was once absent from the walls of America's foremost exhibit halls. A traveling show now at the Museum of the African Diaspora presents him in his full majesty, including the collage work that came to define him for a more general audience. In the '60s and '70s, Bearden's collages — heaps of faces, limbs, and objects that told epic narratives of their subjects — made the covers of well-known publications. Bearden peopled his art with African-Americans who had big, expressive eyes; made each body a mélange of cutouts, so that shoulders, hands, and feet were out of proportion; and played with iconic symbols from the present and the past, like U.S. flags, African masks, and jazz instruments.

In Bearden's interpretive assemblages, you can see the influence of Picasso's Cubism, Matisse's colorful renderings, Diego Rivera's mural art, Japanese woodblock prints, African textiles, and other traditions, but his work is never derivative. He internalized the history of art and funneled it through his own experience as an African-American from the South who moved to New York City at an early age and wrestled with his place in the world. Bearden found himself welcome in several cultures — he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, for example — but he would inevitably return to his roots. His legacy includes bringing African-American art into the mainstream. He died in 1988 at age 76.

“He was an artist who was profoundly aware of his place as an artist of color,” says MOAD executive director Grace C. Stanislaus, a former president of the Romare Bearden Foundation, as she sits in the main gallery of the exhibition. “He was very proud of that place. And he translated that in very unique and interesting ways in his art.”

Almost 100 graphic works — including lithographs, collagraphs, screen prints, and etchings — are featured in “From Process to Print.” They show Bearden's versatility and his emphasis on universal themes, especially groups of people trying to navigate their lives in unison. A jazz sextet performs at a nightclub (“Jamming at the Savoy”), a family of four gathers around a table to eat (“The Family”), and a phalanx of religious followers prepares themselves in sacred waters (“Baptism”) — all timeless scenes that in Bearden's fantastical renditions become patchwork quilts of ritual, mystery, and distortion. It's hard to take your eyes off a Bearden work, because there are always layers of arresting colors or figures to decode, whether it's the naked woman tucked beside a wall in “The Family,” the startling eye in the family's tablecloth, or the red-and-yellow sun motif that accentuates the performers in “Jamming.” He wanted people to guess at the meanings behind his work, to see his paintings, collages, and engravings as dense windows into bigger issues. Race was one of those issues, but certainly not the only one.

“All of painting is a kind of talking about life or society, but it doesn't need to be overtly so,” Bearden once said. “Often we don't know how to read it. Alice in Wonderland talked about a lot of these things, about English morals and customs of the Victorian era, but we thought it was a children's fairy tale.”

The 1969 New York protests were prompted by a single event: the Metropolitan Museum of Art's “Harlem on My Mind” exhibit, which completely ignored Bearden (who grew up in Harlem) and other established African-American artists, and was seen as a shortsighted and patronizing attempt at inclusion. Two years after the demonstrations, Bearden and other black artists were recognized in exhibits, with Bearden getting the MOMA show the demonstrator had demanded. The 1971 retrospective traveled the country, including to Berkeley's University Art Museum, and Bearden was subsequently honored with the government's highest honor for artists, the National Medal of Arts (presented to him by then-President Ronald Reagan), and named by Temple University professor Molefi Asante as one of the 100 greatest African Americans, a list that included Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, John Coltrane, W.E.B. Du Bois, Harriet Tubman, August Wilson, Malcolm X, and only one other artist: the sculptor Edmonia Lewis.

On the first day of the MOAD exhibit, large groups of young students came through, and each time the museum's docent would point out recurring motifs in Bearden's work and ask how the students felt about the art. Mostly, they were too shy to voice an opinion, but then they wandered off in smaller groups and began chatting among themselves — teenagers taking in Bearden's art for the first time and professing to have crushes on certain pieces. That's the thing about Romare Bearden. You want to stand there and study his work — really study it — before coming to any conclusion. With Bearden, the world isn't divided into black and white — only shades of gray that he brings to life in startling ways.

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