JEFFREY BROWN: In his 1964 collage called "The Street," Romare Bearden captured the Harlem faces around him. His portrayal of the rhythms of African-American life would become his best-known work. But here and elsewhere, Bearden, who died in 1988, also drew on his many interests: Old masters' painting, sometimes a direct influence; literature -- this is a scene he did based on Homer's "Odyssey"; religious ritual; and much, much more.
A retrospective at Washington's National Gallery of Art focuses new attention on an artist of wide learning and deep engagement with the past and his own time.
Curator Ruth Fine:
RUTH FINE: There's something really beautiful about the work and seductive about the work. With Bearden, you know, whether you want to look at it in terms of religion, you want to read about sociology; you want to think of it through that lens; you want to think of it through the political lens; you want to think of it through the lens of how art is made, the process, there are so many places you can go with him.
JEFFREY BROWN: Romare Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents were college-educated, part of an established black middle class. Early on, the family moved to New York, into the center of the Harlem Renaissance. Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois, Duke Ellington and many others visited the Bearden home.
For many years, Bearden worked for New York City's Department of Social Services and painted at night. From the start, he was a student of art history. His early work showed the influence of Picasso and other leading European figures. Renee Ater, an art historian at the University of Maryland, teaches a course on Bearden.
RENEE ATER: Bearden is fascinating in the sense that he looked... he was very conversant with all of kind of western art history, but also with other traditions. So Bearden is someone who looked at Dutch 17th century painting. But he's also, later on in his career, looking at the benign bronzes, looking at Ife terra cottas. So he is wide-ranging in the kind of artistic sources that he is wanting to kind of adapt to his own artwork. (Jazz music playing)
JEFFREY BROWN: Music, especially jazz, was another important influence. Bearden said he learned about spacing between images from listening to the space between notes in jazz. His work, in turn, has inspired contemporary musician Branford Marsalis to release a CD called "Romare Bearden Revealed" to accompany the current exhibition.
It was in the early '60s that Bearden began to work in collage almost exclusively, taking fragments of colored paper, magazines and other materials, cutting and pasting them together. He created a series of pieces on life in New York, from the time spent in Pittsburgh with his grandparents, and scenes from rural areas of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina. Earlier artists, like Picasso and Georges Braque, had used the collage technique. Bearden is credited with reinventing it.
RENEE ATER: When I talk about, you know, reinventing collage, he's harkening back, you know, all the way to cubist use of collage, and then transforming it into a completely new kind of medium by having it have a narrative context.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the large Mecklenburg collages is "Sunday Morning Breakfast." Curator Ruth Fine:
RUTH FINE: It's a wonderful picture in which you really can see Bearden's concern with the geometric understructure. There are all of these square areas that provide the background. It's a wonderful picture to see his use of materials. The man's face on the left is composed of photographs of human faces. And then you come to a face that's primarily an African mask. And then on the far right, there's a woman whose face is just a flat piece of brown paper. And it really does show Bearden's extraordinary sense of humor. There's a cat in the lower right-hand corner that's essentially, again, a flat piece of paper, but these wonderful eyes and other catlike features come out.
JEFFREY BROWN: Bearden developed and varied his collage technique over the years. His work made it into popular culture: Covers for Time Magazine and TV Guide, an album cover for Wynton Marsalis. He had gallery shows and several museum exhibitions. At the same time, he remained involved with the politics and culture of his time. He was a leading member of Spiral, a group of black artists formed in 1963 to respond to the civil rights movement. He thought and wrote often on questions facing black artists in 20th century America.
RUTH FINE: In the '30s, he wrote an essay basically saying that African-American artists should use African-American subject matter. It was one of the positions taken by a group of intellectuals in the Harlem Renaissance. By the 1940s, he was saying African-American artists should think of themselves as artists and not limit themselves. I think that's something he wrestled with all of his life.
JEFFREY BROWN: In 1987, a year before his death, Bearden talked to the NewsHour's Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you feel about always being defined as a black artist? Do you think you've transcended that now in your...
ROMARE BEARDEN (1987): I think no one should ever transcend what they are. Your art can do it sometimes, like African sculpture or other things. But you should always respect what you are in your culture, because if your art's going to mean anything, that's where it has to come from.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the art world, however, both Ruth Fine and Rene Ater think Bearden has long been pigeonholed as a black artist and left out of the mainstream story line of American art.
RENEE ATER: We keep coming to Bearden. I mean, Bearden has a major retrospective like every 15, 20 years. And we think, "Oh, what a great artist; he's so wonderful; he should be part of the American canon." And then fifteen or twenty years go by and we reinvent the wheel all over again. And I think it's wonderful, the show at the National Gallery. But I think in some ways we have to rethink the way we talk about American art history.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see that changing?
RENEE ATER: I do. That's what I'm hoping that I'm doing. I mean, I think we have to change.
JEFFREY BROWN: For scholars, and now for the public, the new exhibition is a chance to ponder such questions and to see how the fragments in his work add up to a full picture of the art of Romare Bearden.
GWEN IFILL: The Bearden exhibition will visit five American cities in all. After Washington, its next stop is San Francisco in February.