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The Art of Romare Bearden


The most comprehensive retrospective ever assembled of one of America's most vibrant and innovative 20th-century artists, The Art of Romare Bearden will be on view at SFMOMA from February 7 through May 16, 2004. The exhibition features more than a hundred works, including Bearden's richly developed and well-known collages, photomontages and watercolors as well as oil paintings, murals, book illustrations, album covers, costume designs and his only known sculpture.

Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in modern art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., where the The Art of Romare Bearden originated, is curator of the exhibition. Fine comments, "It was particularly important to me to explore Bearden's myriad techniques in tandem with the recurring themes in his works, among them religious subjects and ritual practices, jazz clubs and brothels, history and literature as well as the rural and urban African American experience." Janet Bishop, SFMOMA curator of painting and sculpture, is organizing the San Francisco presentation.

Bearden's visual narrative excavates the culture of the places in which he lived-the rural South, the northern centers of Pittsburgh and Harlem, and the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Bearden was born in 1911 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, home of his paternal family. In 1914 he moved with his parents to New York City as part of the African American migration north to find greater opportunities. Though he returned to North Carolina for many visits, New York remained his base for the rest of his life.

Bearden became a prolific artist while holding a full-time job as a social worker with a degree in education from New York University. He served in World War II and used the GI Bill to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was a political activist, a respected writer and an eloquent spokesman on artistic and social issues. Bearden had a special affinity for jazz and a lifelong appreciation for practitioners of the art form. His many awards and honors include the National Medal of Arts he received from President Ronald Reagan in 1987, one year before he died in 1988.

Christian iconography is present throughout Bearden's work and is evident from the start in two of his circa 1941 gouaches, The Visitation and The Family (the latter has never before been exhibited or reproduced). Works representing literary themes based on the Passion of Christ and Federico Garcia Lorca's 1935 poem "Lament for a Bullfighter" will be on view along with two early abstract collages, Harlequin, circa 1956, and North of the River, 1962.

The civil rights movement and Bearden's participation in Spiral, an activist group of African American artists, inspired 20 small collages from 1964 made almost entirely of magazine and newspaper clippings. One of Bearden's most important motifs, the train, appears here in Watching the Good Trains Go By along with Pittsburgh Memory, The Street (depicting Harlem) and Prevalence of Ritual: Conjur Woman . Bearden's projections (photostatic enlargements of the collages) such as City of Brass, circa 1965, were a radical departure that brought him increased attention from the art world and the press. (right: Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964; printed-paper collage with graphite on cardboard; 8 1/2 x 11 3/4 inches, Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York; © Copyright Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

Bearden began using a wider array of papers, foils and fabrics in his collages and began to incorporate spray paint into his works in the mid- to late 1960s. His works depicting North Carolina include Tomorrow I May Be Far Away (1966/1967), Sunday Morning Breakfast (1967) and Three Folk Musicians (the latter a cubist homage to Pablo Picasso made in 1967). Bearden immersed himself in the street life of Harlem, as seen in The Block II, 1972, an unusual multi-panel piece with some panels inset and the others built out, and the more abstract and celebratory City Lights, circa 1970.

Berkeley-the City and Its People is on view for the first time outside of the Berkeley, California city council chambers, where it was installed in 1974. Measuring 10 by 16 feet, it is an extraordinary complex of photographs and colored papers on seven panels. The composition includes four heads representing the city's racial diversity that later became Berkeley's logo.

Bearden's world of jazz, one of brilliant color and clear forms, is depicted in his 1974 series Of the Blues, which includes At the Savoy and Wrapping It Up at the Lafayette . Bearden made album covers for jazz artists he knew including the collages Thank You . . . For F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life) in 1978 for Donald Byrd and J Mood for Wynton Marsalis in 1985.

Bearden's only known work of sculpture, Mauritius, 1969, alludes to a martyred Roman soldier, an African recruited from upper Egypt. Bearden created a dramatic textile collage, Captivity and Resistance, in 1976 for the opening of what is known today as the African American Museum in Philadelphia. The major theme is the 1839 Mende rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad, with numerous references to the Civil War.

Bearden cited "the beauty of the black woman" as a subject of immense importance to him, seen in works such as Reclining Nude, an homage to Henri Matisse, and Woman and Child Reading, both from 1977. Later works include Caribbean scenes such as Obeah in a Trance, 1984, and a domestic interior Piano Lesson, 1983, a version of which inspired August Wilson's stage play by the same name. Three never-before-exhibited illustrations created for the recently published book L'il Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story, for which Bearden also wrote the text, are on view, along with 16 designs for costumes, masks and sets that Bearden created for Conjur: A Masked Folk Ballet. (right: Romare Bearden, Reclining Nude, ca. 1977; paper collage with ink and graphite on fiberboard; 11 x 17 1/2 inches; Billie Allen; © Copyright Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

The Art of Romare Bearden will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art (June 20­September 12, 2004), The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (October 14, 2004­January 9, 2005) and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (January 29­April 24, 2005). A lavishly illustrated catalogue, The Art of Romare Bearden, published by Abrams/National Gallery of Art, is available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore or on the Museum's Web site at www.sfmoma.org. The hardcover sells for $50 ($45 for SFMOMA members) and the softcover for $35 ($31.50 for SFMOMA members). In addition, Romare Bearden Revealed, a newly released jazz CD by saxaphonist Branford Marsalis, contains all new recording of classic pieces of music referenced in and suggested by Bearden's art (including Seabreeze, a piece from the 1950s to which Bearden contributed lyrics).

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Opening Day Lecture: The Art of Romare Bearden

Saturday, February 7, 2 p.m.

Phyllis Wattis Theater

Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in Modern Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and curator of The Art of Romare Bearden, presents an illustrated slide overview of the complex and colorful images that recall and illuminate the world of the artist.


Editor's note: readers may also enjoy these articles concerning Romare Bearden previously published in Resource Library Magazine::


Read more articles and essays concerning this source by visiting the sub-index page for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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