“Art Is Always Made from Other Art”: Romare Bearden’s Multiplicity
A curator revisits the artist’s radical collages of Black life.
Nov 1, 2022
In 1971, The Museum of Modern Art presented the exhibition Romare Bearden: Prevalence of Ritual. Images from the opening party show the “celebrity-starred throng” described in the press, with a dapper and relaxed Romare Bearden greeting well-wishers. The artist was not new to MoMA—in fact, his drawing He Is Arisen (1945) entered the collection the year it was made (the artist’s first acquisition by any museum), followed by the experimental abstract painting The Silent Valley of Sunrise (1959) in 1960. The large-scale paper and fabric collage Patchwork Quilt (1970) was acquired just prior to the exhibition’s opening, and graced the catalogue cover. While Prevalence of Ritual was on view, the Museum acquired two small collages that were included: The Conjur Woman and The Dove. Both date to 1964, and both were part of Bearden’s breakout exhibition that year at Cordier and Ekstrom gallery. Celebrated at their debut, these collages have since come to be recognized as some of the most radical and important works of Bearden’s career, and of postwar American art. Both were recently installed on the Museum’s fourth floor, in a gallery titled In and Around Harlem, providing a rare opportunity to see them together again—and juxtaposed with the large-scale photographic reproductions they developed into.
A Career Before Collage
Although Bearden is best known today for his work in collage, he had a full career before adopting it as his principal medium. He worked as a cartoonist in the 1930s, drawing both comical scenarios and illustrations linked to more serious issues of the day. In the early ’40s, he made a series of large-scale gouache paintings on brown paper, genre scenes of figures with strong religious undertones, which were also prominently featured in his MoMA exhibition. The Visitation shows two women in a rural landscape, perhaps deep in conversation. The title, however, clarifies that we are looking at the Virgin Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Bearden’s stylistic development at mid-century reflects an increasing interest in abstraction, as well as the artist’s attempts to balance his career with changing life circumstances: an influential trip to Paris, success as a popular music composer, and marriage to Nanette Rohan.
Installation view of the exhibition Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of the Ritual, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 25–June 7, 1971
Visually, the collages are expertly balanced arrangements of found imagery from magazines and photographs, with defined figures emerging from the composition’s wild mix of color, pattern, and texture.
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