Romare Bearden’s first solo exhibition, in 1940, in the Harlem studio of fellow artists in New York City, featured 24 watercolors, oil paintings and drawings. He had not yet become the renowned artist recognized for his compelling and original collage and photomontage compositions. In that exhibition’s catalogue (as quoted in the book The Art of Romare Bearden, Harry N. Abrams), Bearden wrote: “I believe the function of the artist is to find ways of communicating, in sensible, sensuous terms, those experiences which do not find adequate expression in the daily round of living and for which, therefore, no ready made means of communication exists….”
Romare Bearden was a masterful and prolific artist who worked with various mediums and in many artistic styles that ranged from abstractionism, cubism, impressionism and social realism. His oeuvre is a remarkable treasure of artwork that celebrates African-American life. Bearden was born in September 1911, and this year the Romare Bearden Foundation, which was founded in 1990, two years after the artist’s death, has planned a yearlong Romare Bearden Centennial Celebration honoring the incredible artist and his work. The tribute began in New York City in April with a kick-off gala, An Evening of Art and Jazz that featured jazz legend Randy Weston and the vocalist Somi, and continues with events in selected cities through Spring 2012. This September, a United States postage stamp commemorating Bearden will be issued.
“Bearden was very active in collaborations. He was instrumental in starting the Studio Museum, for example, and he worked across the board with other artists of color, as well as with dancers, musicians and visual artists,” says Diedra Harris-Kelley, a co-director of the Romare Bearden Foundation. “In fact, to establish a foundation was stated in Bearden’s will.”
Johanne Bryant-Reid, also a co-director of the Bearden Foundation, says, “The mission of the foundation is to perpetuate the legacy of Bearden. He was a twentieth-century American master, and we truly want to keep him in the public eye and make sure that people will not forget what a great man and artist he was.”
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, a young Bearden moved with his family to New York City around 1914. After graduating from New York University in 1935 and attending classes at the Art Students League in 1936, Bearden worked as a caseworker with the New York City Department of Social Services and later enlisted in the Army. All the while, he worked on his art.
In the early years of his career, Bearden established himself as a cartoonist and illustrator of politically and socially conscious visuals; by the 1940s, he was a well-known painter with a distinctive artistic and intellectual aesthetic. Yet the richly textured collages and collagraphs, or collage prints, that emerged in the mid-1950s and 1960s gained him wider recognition. Bearden found inspiration in the works of other artists, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, as well as in jazz. His images of musicians and jazz clubs, of rural and street scenes, religious ceremony, along with depictions of people going about daily routines and the symbolism associated with Black culture captivated exhibitors and viewers. According to David Driskell, an artist, art historian and founder of the David C. Driskell Center for Study of Visual Arts and Culture at the University of Maryland, Bearden was also a scholar. “He was an artist’s artist. He was always encouraging other artists and reminding young artists to not let anything get in their way,” says Driskell, who met Bearden when Driskell was a student at Howard University. “He was always producing, creating; never letting anything get in the way of his artistry. He produced examples to us of what an artist could do.”
In 1963, Bearden led the formation of Spiral, an activist group of artists who were concerned with the artist’s role in social change, as they were energized by the Civil Rights Movement. In 1964, he was appointed art director of the newly formed advocacy group named the Harlem Cultural Council. Howard Dodson, outgoing director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York, comments, “Bearden knew probably early in his life that he wanted to be an artist. But he didn’t know what his mission as an artist would be. And his mission was to present Black people in the most compelling, elegant and graceful way possible at a time when the West looked down on Black people and couldn’t see their beauty.” In 2003, Bearden was the first African-American artist featured in a solo retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Driskell adds, “He was interested in setting the record straight about how we, the people of African descent, contributed to the culture of this nation.” Bearden’s art clearly shows his connection with history. Though the rhythms sensed and the moods portrayed in his works are deeply rooted in Black American and African culture and from his own experiences, the narratives of everyday life reflected in his paintings have the power to speak to a universal audience. It’s that global appeal that places Bearden in the pantheon of great artists. “He was a true Renaissance man,” says photographer Frank Stewart, a longtime friend of Bearden. “It wasn’t just about the art. He knew about history, literature, medicine, science, sports, you name it. His legacy is not just American; he was connected to the world. His legacy is a world legacy.”
As one of the oldest African-American established and operated foundations in the U.S., the main emphasis of the Romare Bearden Foundation is to preserve his legacy and broaden the general public’s knowledge of Bearden. It also works to nurture talented art students through its numerous arts education programs, scholarships and special projects. Since the foundation’s inception, Nanette Rohan Bearden, Bearden’s wife, was custodian of his legacy until her death in 1996. Bryant-Reid adds that the foundation’s mission with the centennial celebration is “to make a glorious noise.”
For details and information about the Romare Bearden Centennial Celebration, please visit www.beardenfoundation.org.