Romare Bearden (1911 – 1988) was an African-American artist and writer renowned primarily for his collages. In subject matter, Bearden’s brightly-colored collages featured a diverse array of topics, ranging from Biblical and classical stories to jazz music and the lives of contemporary African Americans.
Recognized as one of the most important visual artists of his century, Bearden has had a number of major museum exhibitions, including Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibition debuted at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, NC in 2012 before continuing on a seven-city national tour through 2014, and it is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue of the same name published by DC Moore Gallery in 2008. Additional museum retrospectives include those organized by the Museum of Modern Art (1971), Mint Museum of Art (1980), Detroit Institute of the Arts (1986), Studio Museum in Harlem (1991), and National Gallery of Art (2003).
Bearden’s work is represented in public collections across the country, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Studio Museum in Harlem. In 1984, he received the Mayor’s Award of Honor for Art and Culture in New York City, and in 1987, was awarded the prestigious President’s National Medal of the Arts.
Among his many publications are A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, coauthored with Harry Henderson and published posthumously in 1993; Six Black Masters of American Art, also coauthored with Harry Henderson (1972); and The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting, coauthored with Carl Holty (1969).
Born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Romare Howard Bearden moved with his family to New York City when he was three years old. After attending Lincoln University and Boston University, he graduated from New York University with a degree in education. He studied drawing and painting with George Grosz at the Art Students League of New York and in the 1930s and 1940s became close friends with several older artists, including Stuart Davis, who was an important mentor.
In 1935, Bearden joined the Harlem Artists Guild and began contributing political cartoons to the weekly Baltimore Afro-American. From the mid-1930s through the 1960s, he was a caseworker with the New York City Department of Social Services, working on his art at night and on weekends.
Bearden’s career as a painter was launched in 1940 with his first solo exhibition in Harlem. He had another solo show four years later at the G Place Gallery in Washington, DC, while he was serving in the Army. In 1945, shortly after his discharge, he joined the Kootz Gallery on 57th Street, and exhibited there for the next three years. He then traveled to Paris on the G.I. Bill in 1950, studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and visiting museums throughout France and Italy. Back home in Harlem, he married Nanette Rohan in 1954. Two years later, they moved to a loft on Canal Street.
After a few years painting abstractions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bearden turned to photomontage and collage, which established his reputation as a leading contemporary artist. He joined the Cordier & Ekstrom gallery in 1961, and was represented by them for the rest of his life. In 1963, Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and others formed the Spiral group in order to promote the work of black artists and explore ways in which they could contribute to the ongoing civil rights movement. In a further expression of his lifelong commitment to the African-American art community, he, Lewis, and Ernest Crichlow later established the Cinque Gallery, dedicated to supporting and exhibiting the work of emerging black artists.
Bearden was also a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1964, he was appointed the first art director of the Harlem Cultural Council, a prominent African-American advocacy group. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972. He died in New York City in 1988.
Gallery Talk: The Visual Dimension of Albert Murray's Aesthetics
with Paul Devlin and Greg Thomas
January 26, 2012