Romare Bearden used to say that an artist is like a whale—swimming with his mouth open and taking in everything.
And he did. The North Carolina-born artist was amazingly versatile, creating, at different periods, oil paintings, cubism, abstract expressionist work, figurative art, cartoons, watercolors, works on paper, large-scale murals and quilts. Interested in the jazz idiom, he took the structure of music and put it into 2-D form.
But the most distinctive aspect of his creative life were his collages, made of printed paper, newspaper and magazines, and fabric, said Diedra Harris-Kelley, co-director of the New York-based Romare Bearden Foundation, which was established by the artist’s wife. “He created them at a time when collages were not taken seriously as fine art.”
Bearden, who died 30 years ago, was a Renaissance man—a lifelong art history expert, a writer and activist, taking part in the 1963 March on Washington and on picket lines. He was also one of the founders of the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social and artistic explosion that took place in the Harlem neighborhood of New York during the 1920s.
Recognition for his art came slowly, though. Bearden created at a time when the works of African-American artists were relegated to the basements of museums rather than to their galleries, Harris-Kelley said. In fact, he worked tirelessly to have works by these artists properly recognized.
Much of the glory he received was posthumous. After Bearden’s death, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a retrospective of his work, and his collage, “Family,” became the national poster for the federal government’s 2000 census, among other honors. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Studio Museum in Harlem.
In 2004, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., featured a Bearden retrospective.
Now, beginning this month, Harrisburg’s Susquehanna Art Museum is hosting an exhibit of Bearden’s work.
Entitled “Romare Bearden: Vision & Activism,” the exhibit, drawn from the Romare Bearden Foundation Collection, examines how the artist agitated for change through both his images and writing. Included is a diverse collection of original collage, watercolor, limited-edition prints, reproductions and rare archival material, including Bearden’s magazine covers and editorial cartoons.
“The exhibit also explores how Bearden, one of the most-important visual artists of the 20th century, countered racial stereotypes with images drawn from history, literature and the free world of his imagination,” said Lauren Nye, director of exhibitions at SAM.
The exhibit traces Bearden’s evolution into a true master artist, Nye said. It begins with his editorial cartoons for university magazines and, later, national publications and newspapers. The section called “Rewriting History” offers examples of when he took on the past to engender pride, as in “Black History,” a maquette (small preliminary model) for a public mural.
Much of Bearden’s art illustrated the domestic and home life of African Americans, not generally represented in the art world. He also did religious scenes of biblical drawings as well as charcoal drawings with universal messages, said Nye.
Some of his subjects were not African-American themed, as in the “Mayor [John] Lindsay” piece for Time magazine, in tribute to the mayor of New York.
“The Susquehanna Art Museum is really glad to be doing this exhibition,” said museum Executive Director Alice Anne Schwab, who personally met the artist. “We selected Bearden, in part, because he’s recognized by some, but not all, and should be recognized by all.”
There are other reasons that the museum selected Bearden. One is the “resurgence of interest” in the Harlem Renaissance, and another is the artist’s tie-in with political activism and the civil rights movement, which resonates with young people, Nye said.
Scheduling an exhibition of a major figure in African-American art during the summer months isn’t arbitrary either.
“That’s when many traveling visitors, as well as summer camps and programs, come to the museum in groups,” Schwab said. “I would contend that there has never been a better time in our nation’s history to familiarize people with an artist so noticed for social activism.”
“Romare Bearden: Vision & Activism” runs June 9 to Sept. 23 in the Main Gallery of the Susquehanna Art Museum at The Marty and Tom Philips Family Art Center. Museum members are invited to a special opening preview on June 8, 5 to 7 p.m.
The Susquehanna Art Museum is located at 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.susquehannaartmuseum.org or call 717-233-8668.