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Harlem Master Artist

(1911 - 1988)


Movin' to the left,
Movin' to the right,
Doin' the Harlem Shuffle
--my arr. from Nelson/Stones

Romare Bearden was part of what is called the African-American Harlem Renaissance. His work graced the cover of magazines like Time and his murals can be seen where they had been commissioned by cities Baltimore, Maryland, Detroit, Michigan, and Charlotte, North Carolina. His prolific prints are sought, and can be bought today. This Commander of Collage's style mixed Parisian avant-garde with southern and northern, rural and urban black symbology.

His Story

Transplanted Roots

In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina. --James Taylor

Though Romare Howard Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina on the second day of September of 1911, he hardly had time to establish roots in that location, as soon after the blessed event, his family moved to New York City's Harlem. His mother was very involved in the community; she was a school board chairman, and Council of Negro Women's treasurer. Father found good employment as a city Sanitation Department Inspector.

They did, however, stay in touch with his grandfather and grandmother in Carolina, making visits there, as well as to his mother's folks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He stayed in the latter location long enough to get his fourth-grade education. In 1925 went back to reside with his grandma in that western PA metropolis long enough to get his diploma from Peabody High School. More importantly his 'Iron City' buddy, Eugene, got him interested in sketching.

I'm goin' back to New York City,
I do believe I've had enough.
--Bob Dylan

A is for Apple, A is for Algebra, A is for Art

Entering New York University in 1930 his interest was in mathematics, but around the time he graduated in 1935 with a Bachelor of Sciences, Bearden revived his art interest. He helped support himself playing 'farm-club' baseball. He studied under the German expressionist, George Grosz at the Art Students League, where the emphasis was not only jarring eyeballs, but jolting consciousness and consciences concerning human injustices as well. This same year he began to paint in earnest, and his cartoons provided income for the next couple of years for the Baltimore Afro-American. He also founded the "306 Group" for aspiring artists in Harlem. Romare Bearden's critical acclaim was still a years in the future -- as he was just beginning to develop his craft. Not to be the starving artist, ends were met, and folks were helped by his job in 1938 as a New York City case worker.

A is for Army, A is for Africa

World War II was an interruption for Romare just like it was for so many talents of the time, and he served his hitch from 1942 until it's end in 1945--and survived to return to New York City. Here, with a new maturity, and much design allusions to the mythos of his people, his work was shown with accolades in a trio of solo presentations at the Samuel Kootz Gallery for the next two years.

The Master's Course

But Mona Lisa musta had the Highway Blues
You can tell by the way she smiles.
--Bob Dylan

Ironically, though Bearden started to employ African-American stylistic techniques and topical motifs with success -- whether it was from the motherland or the new world; or town and country, he began to understand the importance of learning the fundamentals (and beyond) of the zenith of Fine Art started in the European Renaissance. For several years he photographed famous works of art, and studied their essence in his studio, adding his own ideas of color to the monochrome blow-ups.

Wanting the best in an education from the Masters, and taking advantage of the GI Bill, he went to Paris, France in 1950 to study at the Sorbonne. But it was not Rembrandt and Rubens that influenced him as much as it was Constantin Brancusi, Fernand Leger and Georges Braque. He also came under the spell of the visiting black intellectual, James Baldwin. As well as the classics, and commentary representational work, for inspiration he went even beyond the Impressionists --to their source, Asian art. Though he learned much from these cubists and others, albeit creating nothing while overseas, he also saw that the 'New School' was actually 'Old School,' and yearned for his own new path, which he knew started somewhere down Broadway in the happening place, the Big Apple.

Crashed Course in Music

Listen to my Bluebird sing,
she can't tell you why.
All alone she sits and cries:
she knows how to fly.
--Buffalo Springfield

Living in Harlem, Bearden could not help but be immersed in jazz and blues, and indeed he met Duke Ellington and others, but for about a year starting in 1951, blue became a thing that affected his visual arts. He switched to music, feeling the need to express his funk in words he penned more than twenty songs, and even formed with composer Dave Ellis, The Bluebird Music Company to record most of them.

And one thin dime won't even shine your shoes,
On Broadway.

Not financially self-sufficient yet, in 1952 he also resumed his work as a case worker for the Department of Social Services and focused on the needs of the influx of Gypsies in the City.

Of All the Girls in New York City

Doo-wa, doo-wa, doo-wa diddy,
Talkin' 'bout the guy from New York City.

And he's cute --in his Mohair suit,
And his pockets are full of spendin' loot.

In 1954 he married his biggest fan, Nanette Rohan, who provided an impetus for him to restart picking up the brushes. For the next decade while supporting his wife and his craft, the payoff finally comes. This not from just patience and perseverance, but from now concentrating predominantly on collage --comes in 1964 with an show entitled "Projections" at Ekstron's gallery. This display is followed the next year at Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery. This success allows him to leave his social work career, and dedicate his full-time to art. Nevertheless, he never abandoned his concern for his surroundings, as his art work still had reminders of what shaped him, and his involvement was demonstrated in 1967 when he helped put together a show, a first of its kind, at City College of New York, "The Evolution of Afro-American Artists: 1800-1950." The whole country knew him after his bizarre portrait of NYC mayor John Lindsey adorned the cover of Time magazine in 1968. He also collaborated with Norman Lewis and Ernest Crichlow to create the Cinque Gallery in 1969. This was a rare outlet for young minority art lovers to create or exhibit. He still maintained concern for the formalistic elements as declared by him in 1969:

I am afraid, despite my intentions, that in some instances commentators have tended to over-emphasize what they believed to be the social elements in my work. But while my response to certain human elements is as obvious as it is inevitable, I am also pleased to note that upon reflection many persons have found that they were as much concerned with the aesthetic implications of my paintings as with, what may possibly be, my human compassion.

He also wrote his first of four books in 1969, The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting. Music continued as a theme even in these graphic arts with titles of "Tenor Sermon," "Stomp Time," and "Blues Queen." His paintings of "Mother and Child" and "Prodigal Son" show his other influences.

Retrospective to the Future

Bearden finally arrived in 1971 when the Museum of Modern Art gave a retrospective showing of his work, ("The Block" still on display there from that year). His notoriety now got him elected the next year to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. 1972 was the year he wrote his second book with Harry Henderson, Six Black Masters in American Art.

While now perpetuating more work, pen and ink, torn paper, photos, mangled and mingled together, which included numerous prints, he wrote another book in 1983, The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcot --and the Art of Romare Bearden. His last was 1993's A History of African-American Artists: From 1972 to the Present. He fit into his schedule, theatrical set design, and helped on the 1989 published kid's book, A Visit to the Country, as well as cookbooks. He was one of the first to have a mixed media exhibition with sound and sights, and his work is used by schools across the country, to teach not just art, but social studies and even geometry. His mind and eye took him and us everywhere with pieces like "Quilting Time,", "Delilah," "In the Garden," "Morning of the Rooster Pilate," and "Homage to Mary Lou" ("The Piano Lesson").

On March 12, 1988 at the age of 76 he took a train -- they were some of his favorite subjects-- but, riding this one,

...you don't need no baggage, you just get on board...


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