It is a major coup that the Cincinnati Art Museum is showcasing the work of the renowned African-American artist Romare Bearden who launched his career during the height of the early twentieth-century’s Harlem Renaissance in New York. The exhibition “Something Over Something Else”: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series gives Cincinnatians a visual treat this spring and I was fortunate to see the exhibit in person when it first opened. “ Something Over Something Else” brings together more than thirty collage paintings from Romare Bearden’s trailblazing series for the first time since its debut in New York nearly forty years ago. In this exhibit, Bearden is introduced to people who may not be familiar with this famous African -American artist who was born in North Carolina and who spent most of his artistic career in Harlem during the fantastic Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance’s cultural luminaries include names very familiar to us such as jazz orchestra leader/composer Duke Ellington and dancer/singer Josephine Baker. Some readers certainly may know of writer Langston Hughes – poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry. Zora Neale Hurston is an author, anthropologist, and filmmaker who regretfully may be much lesser known. She attended Howard University and in 1925 won a scholarship to Barnard College, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas. She also conducted field studies in folklore among African Americans in the South and published research on hoodoo. The most popular of her four novels is Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937.
In this rich cultural broth, visual artists we may know best from the Harlem Renaissance are painters, first Jacob Lawrence who lived eighty-three years until 2000. Lawrence was a social realist painter who documented the African American experience in several series devoted to Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, life in Harlem, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was one of the first nationally recognized African American artists. Romare Bearden, born in North Carolina five years before Lawrence, spent much of his career in New York City. Bearden was virtually self-taught and his early works were realistic images, often with religious themes. He later transitioned to abstract and Cubist style paintings in oil and watercolor. He is best known for his photomontage compositions and collages made from torn images of popular magazines combined with watercolor, and often sparked with bits of aluminum foil and pieces of fabric, all to brilliant effect. All his work showed his commitment to portraying African-American life whether on the farms of the South, in Harlem or other parts of New York City. His art works are as improvisational as Langston Hughes’s poetry and Duke Ellington’s jazz. They were all in it together.
I find that what makes Romare Bearden exceptional and exciting is the way he uses collage to document what was happening in the neighborhood and on the streets of Harlem. Famous European artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse experimented with collage (paper fragments cut out of newspapers, old books, old prints, colored papers and wallpaper samples and assembled together to make often surprising new paintings, mostly still lifes and occasionally portraits.) But Bearden took this experimental method to a new level since he wasn’t content to make common still lifes, which was a classical European tradition. Rather, he focused his artistic effort in this “Profile Series” we see at the Cincinnati Art Museum, toward documenting what it was like growing up in rural North Carolina. His color-drenched watercolor and collage paintings of the farmworkers and farms and woods he fondly remembered are stunning.
An example of an early rural reminiscence is Mecklenberg County, Liza in High Cotton painted in 1978. Here Bearden uses a paper punch to cut out and represent individual cotton flowers in part of the collage painting, In most of the painting, he roughly tears white paper to represent cotton clusters. These dual methods have a potent symbolic component. First, the hand-torn clumps suggest children working who pick cotton more clumsily (the roughly torn papers) while their elders can pick cotton neatly and quickly (represented by the punch-cut paper.) Further, there is more of the clumsy-looking torn paper, which to a child would seem like a daunting and endless task, overwhelming and unfathomable. The crisp, perfect circles of cut-paper cotton might be how an adult can clearly view the cotton-picking task as manageable. The workers’ faces and bodies are all black and white photographs cut from African-American magazines lending a harsh realism to the painted landscape. Finally, the sky is an unforgiving gray and the big, hot orange sun that is setting over the distant hill is a reminder of a long, arduous day of work. All of Bearden’s early rural collage paintings are visually rich and worth exploring in the many art books and catalogs devoted to the work of this gifted artist.
When Romare Bearden moved to Harlem in New York City, he was inspired by the jazz night life, skyscrapers and lively scenes happening in the neighborhood all around him. Forget the stuffy collage still lifes from Picasso and Matisse, this is Harlem! Anyone who loves color and loves history will enjoy this authentic vision of early twentieth-century life in Harlem. “To see this stunning historic series brought together is an opportunity not to be missed,” says Julie Aronson, Cincinnati Art Museum’s Curator of American Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings. “Bearden’s work defies easy categorization—he moved gracefully between abstraction and figuration with exceptional creativity and drew upon so many different traditions. Walking through this exhibition, with its combination of poetic images and words, is like having the artist whispering in your ear. It is an extraordinarily moving experience.”
The exhibition Something Over Something Else references Bearden’s own life so the art works appear in a chronological order starting in the 1920’s. Bearden began this series in the late 1970’s after the publication of a feature-length biography published about him in 1977 by Calvin Tomkins and it brought Bearden new fame. After this success elevated the status of Bearden, he decided to look back on his life with a new series about his own artistic journey. Each artwork is accompanied by a short text written by Bearden, in collaboration with his friend, the writer Albert Murray. So we are treated not only to Bearden’s lush, color-drenched collage paintings, but also to the poetic and poignant narratives Bearden wrote, just as this series was envisioned by Bearden and presented in New York. So Bearden leads viewers through his story as he wished to share it.
Also interesting in this Profile Series is Mecklenberg County, Expulsion from Paradise. Here we see autobiography couched in wry humor in the wall text accompanying the collage painting. The wall text reads: “The church was always filled when people knew Reverend Russell was going to preach about Adam & Eve and the Apple.” Just typing this makes me chuckle. We can just imagine how vividly the Reverend would recount the telling of this Biblical tale in great and bombastic detail. Of course, though Suffragists provided a fresh new feminist agenda, we all know the patriarchal trope of temptress Eve. Think of how many Renaissance artists represented Adam, Eve, the Serpent and the apple. Bearden’s rendering of it, surprisingly, is quite classical in my opinion and suggests how much he looked at art history (he wrote numerous texts over time including an art history text on African art.) The same paper-punch cut paper circles are deployed in the offending apple tree and oddly some are painted red and some are still the original white. The overall color palette of the collage painting is on the dark side, with strong landscape greens of Eden, browns and blacks, so I imagine Bearden kept some of the apples white for visual lightness, not for accuracy of subject. As in other works, the sun is a reminder of long days – even in Eden. Here, the sky is blue and the big orange sun is starting to set. The figures of Adam and Even are black with white outlines making them a bit like Day of the Dead skeletons. Importantly, the are not Caucasian, they are black. I think of Kerry James Marshall and his use of black acrylic paint to represent black people. Yes, black is black.
In the Profile Series we see here at the Cincinnati Art Museum, it is very important that Romare Bearden leads us through his autobiography on his terms. He was born in 1911 and like countless African-Americans, he suffered from the kind of prejudice many professional people of color suffered. So it was tremendously important that Calvin Tomkins highlighted and featured Romare Bearden in “The New Yorker” in the 1960’s and from that, a full-length bio.
Midtown Sunset is another full-on Bearden masterpiece: here the sky on the left (day) is buoyant orange, the sun yellow and on the right the sky is inky black and the moon perfectly white.
We cannot imagine how frustrating it would be for someone of Bearden’s talent to have been overlooked for so many years. Bearden had worked for the New York Department of Welfare to support his family and he made his lush and timely collages and paintings evenings and weekends as so many artists did and still do. Bearden also came to know of the artists of WPA era, when President Roosevelt sent so many professional artists out to paint murals in Post Offices and such during the Great Depression. He became very aware of the importance of their social realism artwork. Over the decades, since so many African-American artists (and women artists) were overlooked in the professional art world, it was a triumph for someone of the status of Calvin Tomkins to single out Bearden for such a comprehensive biography. It wasn’t until 2003 that he was the first African-American artist to have a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta has been a leading repository of Bearden’s art works and it inaugurated this exhibit. Cincinnati is its second and final stop. The Art Museum states: “The exhibition title, “Something Over Something Else,” is a phrase Bearden used to describe his own creative process. “You put something down. Then you put something else with it, and then you see how that works, and maybe you try something else and so on, and the picture grows in that way,” said Bearden. This description of the nature of his work with collage, painting and mixed media also echoes the improvisational nature of jazz, the music that Bearden so greatly admired.”
The exhibition featured a variety of public programming starting with a lecture by exhibition curators Stephanie Heydt of the High Museum of Art and Robert G. O’Meally of Columbia University that opened the exhibition on Thursday, February 27. A Staged Reading of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” by August Wilson in collaboration with Playhouse in the Park was slated to take place on April 16 at 7 p.m., though of course at this time that is highly unlikely Additional programs will be posted on the museum’s website if there are opportunities to reschedule.
I believe any contemporary artist who works on paper is aware of and likely influenced by Romare Bearden. This is a sweeping statement. Bearden spoke of his times so directly, gluing the faces of black people cut out from magazines onto his watercolor paper. No equivocating. Its almost as if he is saying, “I am black, I know what it is to be black and here are my people.” His color sense was as good as Matisse’s. His compositions are perfect. His work needs to be seen in person so you take notice of a small piece of crumpled aluminum foil in a corner of the painting. The foil is used, just as most of our ancestors saved and reused foil unapologetically. The scraps of colored paper, magazine cut-outs, leftover watercolor swaths, pieces of old and worn fabric all are savored, mulled-over and used deftly in his highly-original narratives. I hope everyone can see this exhibit.