Recognized as one of Americas great 20th century artists, Romare Bearden is best known for his uniquely textured collages, evoking the history, culture, richness and tension of the African-American experience. Those influential collages were produced largely over a twenty-four year period, from 1964 to his death in 1988. They are found in every major museum collection in the United States, have been widely published, featured in school curricula, and included in national and international exhibitions. However, Bearden was making art long before 1964, experimenting with various ways of abstracting form, going all the way back to the 1940s. This exhibition focuses on a startling body of work he produced throughout the 1950s and early 1960s comprised of exquisite, fully-abstract watercolors, oil paintings, and mixed media collages. Most of that work is largely unknown; that is about to change.
Beginning September 10, 2017, approximately forty of Beardens abstractions watercolors, oils, and mixed media collages, executed in the 1950s and early 1960s, will be on view in Romare Bearden: Abstraction at the Neuberger Museum of Art
, Purchase College, State University of New York, which organized the show. Not only will the exhibition serve as the first public viewing for many of the works, it will also contextualize them within the framework of what Bearden produced both before and after this decade. The works are striking and fluid, astonishing in their variety and scale, notes Tracy Fitzpatrick, Director of the Neuberger Museum of Art and curator the exhibition. They directly inform his later figurative work.
Some of the abstractions in the exhibition, which he produced after a trip to Europe in 1950 where he visited with Picasso and other modernist artists, come from public and private collections. Many, however, have remained in storage since they were first exhibited in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, the abstractions were included in a handful of exhibitions and received some critical attention, but now the work is largely absent from later survey shows. In a sense it was a lost decade, but we will correct that omission, says Dr. Fitzpatrick.
Among the works featured in Romare Bearden: Abstraction are easel size watercolors and oil paintings such as Blue Ridge and Mountains of the Moon from the mid-1950s, showing Beardens devotion image-based painting but increasingly through abstraction. The large stain paintings, such as Green Torches Welcome New Ghosts and Eastern Gate, both of 1961, in which he applied thinned oil in a variety of ways including brushing, pouring, and spraying, demonstrate his interest and knowledge in the ways in which artists at the time were experimenting with unprimed canvas. This technique appears in works such as Green Torches Welcome New Ghosts and Eastern Gate, both of 1961, in which he applied thinned oil in a variety of ways including brushing, pouring, and spraying Collages, such as River Mist, although not seemingly related visually, are the backbone of the well-known collages produced after 1964. Works such as Melon Season of 1967, are effectively produced on top of the abstractions. River Mist is a cut-canvas collage work in which the painted elements are cut, then fitted together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and finally adhered to a painted board. It was once described by a critic as a collage of natural forces. The blue expands like the sky and crashes like a waterfall. Sometimes less than three inches high or over six feet tall, the abstractions will be a revelation to scholars of postwar American art in general and of Bearden in particular.
Romare Bearden: Abstraction also will provide the first substantive and scholarly examination of this important body of work. The scholarship produced through this exhibition will contribute to the development of alternate storylines around the dominant narrative of postwar abstraction, while at the same time reveal for the first time, the roots of the work for which Bearden is best known, Dr. Fitzpatrick writes.
According to noted curator Lowery Stokes Sims who has contributed a preface to the fully-illustrated color catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the modernist movement strongly influenced Beardens work. He was a cubist in the strictest sense of the word, breaking forms using color to complement rather than to describe the forms. In the 1930s, even when he was studying with George Grosz [German-born expatriate Expressionist painter] at the Art Students League, his work was more figurative. But he had an acute sense of the underlying abstractness. Ms. Sims is the first and only curator to focus on Beardens abstractions in a meaningful way in a museum exhibition, in her 1985 Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Romare Bearden: Originals and Abstractions.
Collaborating on the exhibition are the Estate of Nanette Bearden, the Romare Bearden Foundation, and DC Moore Gallery, New York which has conserved and framed many of the works. Dr. Fitzpatrick will contribute the main essay for the catalogue, a placement of the abstractions within Beardens larger body of work.
Romare Bearden, often referred to as the nations foremost collagist, was a prolific and innovative artist whose work referenced a variety of artistic heritages -- from Mexican muralists and cubist modernism to abstract expressionism, Chinese calligraphy and Eastern philosophy, and African art and contained many cultural references: music (especially jazz), southern and urban culture, African and Greek art, family, religion, and politics. He was strongly influenced by Picassos cubist experiments with collage and its use by George Grosz and others for political critique. Layered fragments of color and pattern, evoking various rhythms and textures, and referencing race, class, and the African-American experience characterized his abstractions. Later, Bearden returned to figurative art that the American abstractionists largely abandoned. What I've attempted to do is establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic, he once commented.
Born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina to intellectual middle-class parents who later settled in Harlem, Bearden began work as a political cartoonist and was a social worker for the New York City Department of Social Services, a position he retained for 30 years, while pursuing his art at night and on weekends. He studied for a short time with George Grosz at the Art Students League during the 1930s (his only formal training) and had his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940. In 1950, he traveled to Paris and was introduced to Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Brancusi, later bringing those influences back with him to the United States but infusing them with his own personal American idiom. He arrived at his unique use of collage after much experimentation with abstraction and its application on painted papers in the 1950s. A man of many interests and abilities, Bearden also wrote songs and essays; published, collaborated, and co-authored several books; and designed costumes and sets.
Beardens work is included in most of the important public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Museum of Modern Art, where he was the subject of a one-man show in 1971. He has had retrospectives at the Mint Museum of Art (1980), the Detroit Institute of the Arts (1986), as well as numerous posthumous retrospectives, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (1991) and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2003), which was the first retrospective given to a black painter. He was the recipient of many awards and honors throughout his lifetime.