In Memoriam: Romare Bearden  (1914-1988)

This feature originally appeared in ART PAPERS July/August 1988, a special issue on contemporary Black artists. 


A poet with brush and bits of torn paper in hand, Romare Howard Bearden created a legacy with paint and collage that will cause him to be singled out as a master of 20th century American Painting. He was born on what he liked to call “a dusty street in Charlotte, North Carolina” September 2, 1914. His death on March 12 of this year leaves a void among American Abstract painters, particularly among those who devote their artistry to interpreting the Black experience. 

Bearden bore witness to the religious and not so religious rituals of Black people while indulging in the fantasy of a beautiful world that combined Black Northern ghettoes, Southern domestic scenes, and myths and legends from Africa, the Americas, and the ancient world. Bearden’s iconic collages are inventive beyond the tradition of covering the surface of the canvas to achieve a likeness. His own strong and personal style adds measurably to the medium of collage while at the same time permitting the viewer to make inquiries into the mysteries of Bearden’s unique world. One senses the importance of history and the revelations of the past in Bearden’s lively narration in painterly form. He was a great raconteur and a man of exceptional kindness. So much of the warmth of his personality exuded from his physical presence as well as from the autobiographical character of his work. A writer, art historian, musician, composer, and painter, Bearden stood without peer as a visionary who saw above and beyond the creative crowd.  

If one is willing to experience the full force of Bearden’s art and its distinctive style, a journey must be taken to the bowels of the city where so many of his compositions are born. It is here that the blues song is heard, gospel is preached in incoherent patterns, and the crowded nights are filled with sensuous pleasure. Bearden’s style seems single wedded to this locale. 

As early as the ‘40s, Bearden began to hone his style with works in watercolor and gouache. This mode of expression continued to grow and blossomed in compositions such as Whipping it up at the Lafayette (1974). The lively use of people as instruments of style became the element by which much of Bearden’s art is recognized. 

In collages of the ‘60s, one sees cut and torn bits of paper that relate compositionally one to the other in the same manner that line is drawn to relate to an adjacent space in a traditional painting. When arranged according to the artist’s plan, they set into motion select ideas that rely upon color coordinates for their lively existence. Geometric forms are juxtaposed with soft curving edges. There seems always to be a concise way of treating form, a way which is dictated by the poetic style which is always narrative yet lyrically felt. 

Bearden was always a keen observer of nature and of the art of the past. He acknowledged the contributions to his work of the Dutch masters, Matisse, the Cubists, and his own teacher, George Grosz. His art builds upon past traditions without precise reference to history, through he also relied heavily on nature as adjunct material and subject matter, often using birds, serpents, and various matter, often forms of fauna and foliage as compositional elements. Bearden’s stylistic presence, which seems equally spiritual in nature, also references music, from the blues song, jazz gospel, and popular idioms, all combing to reveal the poetic soul of the painter. He also read the literary works of the past and present to enrich his imagery. In the use of materials, Bearden was kin to Schwitters, Picasso, and Braque, but in style and reason, he was, to paraphrase Rollo May, alone among the gods, challenging them to battle. Thus, Bearden paid homage to heroes, great and small, through the quietness of his own mode of expression 

Style in Bearden’s art is a revelation of that which is constant. His art records the style of life’s patterns without being exclusively narrative. And for the keen observer it means discovery and rediscovery. There is the birth of new forms clamoring to be understood the painterly format of Bearden’s work demands that we be prepared to see beyond our known world. We must fantasize while we absorb the magic of his style, experience opulently rich colors that activate form in an unusually brilliant way. 

Bearden’s collages of the ‘70s evolved from the same wellspring that brought photomontages into existence a generation earlier. Brilliant colors explode over the edges of shapes that are simplified to read as a head, a mask of an African king, or a bather in the doorway of a shanty. These sensitively perceived compositions are narratively rendered with poetic vision. They show the logical growth of an artist’s work whose content is perceived in a way which permits joy and pain to be registered at the same moment. It is again from this wellspring of childhood experience and city life that Bearden’s personal style emerged. 

Bearden’s city, tenement houses lavishly filled with smells and sounds of the urban scene, repeats itself in many of the compositions of the period. Out of these heaps and piles of paper that are stained, dyed and formed into strong images comes a new vision that is detached from the real world. Undaunted by a moralistic definition of things as we know them in blighted cities, these images are visions of beauty in an otherwise hostile environment. 

Bearden’s constant revision of materials and the establishment of certain human values in his art helped keep him in touch with what is real. And yet, the style of Bearden’s art dictates that he should mix that which is real with the world of dreams. 

The dream does not manifest itself in his work in the same manner in which it appears in surrealism. Instead, Bearden focused keenly upon the mythic dream without explicitly giving credence to its powerful promise—he thereby changed the symbol so that it appears heavily laden with familiar themes from Neo-African and Afro-American cultures. He retrieved for us a glimpse of the blues, the glories of Ife and Benin, and we rejoice with the lyrical sounds that are heard in the jazz world of his art. 

Bearden’s references to particular people are not meant to be realistic portraits. Instead, the viewer is introduced to a way of seeing and feeling. One experiences the inner sight of Bearden’s subjects, fused in a holistic manner. Parts of buildings appear to move in and out of the composition, punctuated here and there with people. Sometime these people are represented only by heads, half faces, and enlarged feet, hands, and masks. Significantly, Bearden felt that Black lifestyles and classical myths need not conflict with one another. Indeed he felt that they parallel each other very well. 

Bearden ordered form by arranging figures against each other as though they must compete for space within the picture plane. The distortions and exaggerations of hands, feet, and heads juxtaposed one against the other in his collages denote a fixed style, one which is heightened by the magic of ritual and cultural myth. In recent collages, images of people are sometimes repeated over and over again as though a blues song is being presented with cinematic motion. There is the sense of time ticking away by the turn of a head in more than one direction or by the rushing by of a locomotive. This action speaks of the simultaneous echo of synthetic cubism. But Bearden injected new life into the process, and therein lies the unique gift he brought to modern art. 

Finally, it is that peculiar aspect of style which causes us to want to explore every inch of the richness of Bearden’s art. His work leaves much for the viewer to invent, to see beyond the geometric walls against which his figures often stand. The style of Bearden’s art is informational. It is filled with bits and pieces of history, with myth and ritual dynamically woven in a way of giving that which is both joyous and good to share. His style is lively, it is filled with motion and emotion, but is also invades the world of the classical. It is autobiographical, haunting in its spiritual stance, But most of all, style with Bearden is his form—the joyous expression reawakened in the mind and selfishly shared with humanity.