Romare Bearden Foundation

Romare Bearden, the most widely known African-American artist of the 20th century, was born 100 years ago, on Sept. 2, 1911. While exhibitions of his work are ongoing, this year has seen quite a few (pdf) remarkable ones. The U.S. Postal Service will also honor Bearden with a group of four stamps next month.

Just like his distant cousin Duke Ellington (the first buyer of a Bearden work), he has always commanded the respect of some establishment critics, while not convincing others. Ellington still faced prejudice-based insults from the establishment decades after wowing the critics.

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Bearden, who died in 1988, has inexplicably been excluded from art anthologies and still receives eyebrow-raising, oddly phrased faint praise (such as from a prominent art critic recently). Like Ellington, Bearden mastered the most sophisticated new trends and techniques in his field but always hewed close to the African-American experience.

Bearden tried and excelled at various styles as a young artist and hit his stride in the mid-1960s, synthesizing Euro-American modernist, African and African-American traditions into an original style, making his greatest impact with photomontage and wide varieties of collage. One of his best-known works, The Block — a sophisticated critique of the New York City building programs of Robert Moses, according to Romare Bearden in the Modernist Tradition — is a masterpiece in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has based educational programs around the work and created a cool Web page about it.

Later, Bearden mastered the oil monotype and created works in other media as well. As Bearden and fellow painter Carl Holty wrote in their 1969 book, The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting, "The great masters have a simplicity that often makes us wonder at the very majesty of something that should appear commonplace."

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Indeed, recognizing and artistically bringing forth the majesty of the commonplace — a snapshot of a Harlem street or Pittsburgh tenement, a woman in her garden or a factory hand preparing for work early in the morning — is also Bearden's achievement.

Bearden has influenced a wide array of contemporary artists, from Kerry James Marshall to Kara Walker to Jefferson Pinder, but his most famous influence may be on the playwright August Wilson, who once said that Bearden's work "defined not only the character of black American life but also its conscience." Bearden was friends with many writers, from Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray to Derek Walcott and Ntozake Shange, so it is perhaps fitting that his most widely known influence at this time would be on one of the most celebrated playwrights of the late 20th century.

Like Wilson, who looked up to him, Bearden strove to portray the diversity within the African-American experience. Ironically, the category-crazed sought to segregate him. With a complexion that could easily pass for a white man's, Bearden was offered the opportunity to enter major-league baseball as a white pitcher (for Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics) but declined.

Bearden's embrace of his African-American ancestry helped him create one of the most moving, stunning bodies of work in the history of art, but it has also created a short-term setback. Despite having a large solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971 and earning the admiration of legions of major critics, Bearden is still routinely excluded from major art anthologies.

For example, although Bearden was a major figure in art from 1964 to 1988, he is never mentioned in the volume of the Oxford History of Art that covers 1945 to 2000. But one of his works is on the cover of the volume about African-American art. Certainly this volume was conceived of as separate but equal?

Nobel laureate Walcott, in an incisive interview in the remarkable recent book Romare Bearden: The Caribbean Dimension, laments the dismissive attitude — created, Walcott claims, by the barriers of prejudice — toward Bearden and African-American writers, too. Walcott was responding to the fact that Bearden was excluded from a new 34-volume history of art. Thanks to an onslaught of recent scholarship, however, the attitudes that Walcott wrote about should die out.

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Despite Bearden's frequent exclusion from his rightful place in anthologies, a parade of wonderful books about his life and work have emerged over the last decade. The National Gallery of Art — curator Ruth Fine in particular — has been a major defender and supporter of Bearden's work. In 2003 it mounted a major retrospective of his work that traveled around the country, to the Whitney Museum in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The catalog for this show was the first major book on Bearden in some time, and papers from the symposium that coincided with the show were published by the National Gallery of Art this spring in Romare Bearden: American Modernist (note the desegregated title). 

From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden, from 2009, is a beautifully produced book dealing with Bearden's work as a printmaker and the technical aspects of this endeavor (complete with stunning images of his work in color combinations rarely seen before). And Romare Bearden: Photographs by Frank Stewart, from 2004, chronicles Bearden's life in the 1970s and '80s.

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Together these books shed new light on the technical, mythic, art-historical, cultural and personal aspects of one of the major artists of the last century. Hopefully the next decade will be equally fruitful in increasing the understanding of Bearden's contribution to African-American art and to the art world as a whole.

Paul Devlin is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.