Romare Bearden's "The Block": An American Story

Lisa Mintz Messinger

Magazine issue: 
#1 2012 (34)

In 2011, in celebration of the centenary of Romare Bearden's birth, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York featured one of the artist's largest and most important work of art, the mural-size collage "The Block" from the museum's collection.

During a career that lasted almost half a century, the American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) produced about 2,000 works of art in a variety of media, ranging from paintings, drawings, and prints to murals, tapestries, book illustrations, and theatre designs. His best known works, however, were the colourful and visually complex cut-paper collages that dominated his production during the last 25 years (around 19631988) of his life. Like the rest of his work, these signature pieces were based on the artist's biography and retold the experiences of struggle and triumph of African-Americans living in urban cities like New York and in rural areas in the American South. Depicted with humour and pathos, these scenes of everyday life appealed to viewers from all walks of life and of all ages, and brought Bearden national renown when they were exhibited in major art museums across the United States.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 2 1911, Fred Romare Harry Bearden spent much of his youth traveling back and forth to the predominantly black neighbourhood of Harlem in upper Manhattan in New York, where his family finally settled in 1920. His parents knew many of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement in the 1920s that raised awareness of the important contributions made by African-Americans to American society. Meeting people like the poet Langston Hughes, musician Duke Ellington, artist Aaron Douglas, and social reformer W.E.B. Du Bois encouraged Bearden to explore his own artistic talents, which included writing music, and to pursue higher education. After graduating from New York University in 1935 he earned his living as a social worker at the New York City Department of Social Services for the next 34 years while simultaneously building a very successful art career.

Bearden was one of the few African-American artists of the period to secure a following and gallery representation outside of the black community. Even when he himself moved out of Harlem, he remained central to its cultural life from the 1960s on, respected as much for his art as for being an orator, author, and social activist. Among his many activities and honours, he helped found the Studio Museum in Harlem (1968), was elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters (1972), and received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1987. By the time of his death on March 12 1988 Bearden was widely acknowledged to be one of the most popular and best-known African-American artists of the 20th century.

What set him apart as an artist was his commitment to the unusual medium of paper collage. His jazzy, syncopated compositions, made with found materials (such as magazine clippings, old photographs, and coloured papers) pasted on paper or board, elevated that medium to a major art form. Bearden's images were both simple and complex — flattened spaces, naive figures, large shapes, and bold colours juxtaposed with sophisticated references to art from other cultures and periods (for example, Medieval and Renaissance painting, modern art, African tribal sculpture, and Christian iconography). In 1977, his friend the novelist Ralph Ellison wrote that Bearden's collages created "a place composed of visual puns and artistic allusions... where the sacred and the profane, reality and dream, are ambiguously mingled".

The quote aptly describes one of Bearden's largest and most important works of art, the mural-size collage "The Block" that he made in 1971 for his first major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This tribute to Harlem depicts a specific street — Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Streets — that the artist initially surveyed from the balcony of a friend's high-rise apartment. Starting with small sketches of the buildings and a few tiny black-and-white photographs, he let his imagination move away from the literalness of the scene when he made the collage. Expanded over six large panels, it became a far more colourful interpretation filled with human activity of all sorts — much of it taking place on the street. Churches, stores, a barbershop, a funeral parlour, and small apartment buildings provide the backdrop for different vignettes, including a funeral (replete with Medieval angels), children playing, a homeless man asleep on the ground, and groups of teenagers and seniors socializing on the sidewalk. What goes on behind closed doors — a couple making love, someone watching television, children living with mousetraps in substandard housing — is revealed through windows and cut-aways in the walls that Bearden called "look-ins". Like the collage medium itself, he presents a montage of different images in shifting scales and perspectives that alternate between fantasy and reality. It is a world that is at once eminently recognizable and wholly unique.





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