On October 6, 1964, at the height of the American civil rights movement, fifty-three-year-old Romare Bearden, a mature artist with a moderately successful career as a painter behind him, debuted nearly two dozen billboard-size, black-and-white, photographic enlargements of collages—Projections, he called them. Instead of the large abstract work he had been painting up to then, he filled his canvases with the faces of black people. Their expressions, unflinching and intense, dominated crowded city streets, southern cotton fields, and ecstatic rituals. Spontaneous passions seemed to erupt from these works, filling the walls of Cordier-Ekstrom, Bearden’s gallery on the Upper East Side of New York.
Some called his creations a sign of the turbulent times: the 1950s Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling; 1960s lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, the March on Washington, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the year of Projections. A surge of civil rights activism swept the country, compelling an urgent need for change. Figures in Bearden’s Projections embody that urgency, confronting their viewers like characters in a play caught in mid-action. At first glance the figures in Projections look ordinary, as if the artist were merely reporting a news event, except faces are fractured and dislocated, their hands swollen to twice their normal size, bodies pieced together from startling juxtapositions, including, as one commentator notes, “parts of African masks, animal eyes, marbles, corn and mossy vegetation.”
“Grotesque” might be too harsh a word to describe some of the figures in the Projections. Yet they evoke a history of distortions of black life even as they also re-envision that life. Bearden’s friend Ralph Ellison used the word “disturbing” to describe the figures in the work; their stridency, he noted, was completely out of character for an artist who, until that exhibition, was not known for representations of race. Why did Bearden so emphatically and comprehensively change the style and subject matter of his art?
Bearden himself steadfastly rejected political explanations of his art, even Projections. Yet, his life—his childhood, coming of age, and emergence as a major artist—intersected squarely with a battle over representation. It was not a new fight, for it had started in the aftermath of the Civil War and become a proxy for a violent and desperate war in the public, social, and legislative spheres over who enjoys the rights and privileges of citizenship. Before the Civil War, American citizenship flatly excluded slaves, the status of the overwhelming majority of black people in the New World. Emancipation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments radically changed that status. Theoretically, they defined, and should have safeguarded, citizenship rights for newly freed slaves. To celebrate and record and, most of all, project their newly acquired identities, black Americans often turned to self-representation, to photography.
Henry and Rosa Kennedy, Bearden’s great-grandparents, proud of their new citizenship status, understood the affirmative documentary value of photographs. An enlarged photographic image of them (probably taken in the 1920s) hung on the wall of Bearden’s studio. Former slaves, the Kennedys had become prosperous landowners and entrepreneurs after the Civil War in Charlotte, North Carolina.“Romie,” as he was called, was born in their home on September 2, 1911. The photograph shows the Kennedys sitting on the porch of their home. Rosa Kennedy looks into the camera with almost open defiance. Bearden did not discover this photograph until he returned to Charlotte years after the 1964 debut of the Projections. Nonetheless, he replicated her fierceness in the faces in Projections. He captures the same quality of interior life present in this ancestral photograph. As sociologist Robin Kelly observes, early photographs often captured “the interior life of Black America, the world either hidden from public view or forced into oblivion by the constant flood of stereotypes.”
By the time Bearden was constructing his collage paintings in the 1960s and then blowing them up into black-and-white enlargements, film, television, advertising, journalism, and documentary photography were standard bearers of beauty and fashion, symbols of mainstream American cultural identity, and acting as sales pitches for everything from televisions to politicians. With the advent of the Internet and social media in the twenty-first century, the potency of visual culture’s reach only continued to grow.
Bearden insisted that his work—paintings and collages—was neither propaganda nor sociology. During his life and after his death, his reputation has rested primarily on his collages, a blend of visual memoir and emotional realism that evokes a rapidly disappearing past. When I was a graduate student, he wrote me a letter in which he explained the phrase he has used for images of the past in Projections—the “prevalence of ritual”: “My paintings can’t be only what they appear to represent. People in a Baptism, in a Virginia stream, are linked to St. John the Baptist, to ancient purification rites and to their African heritage. I feel this continuation of ritual gives a dimension to the works so that the works are something other than mere designs.”
A connoisseur of the past, Bearden was also a master of European and American modernists. From the time he published his first essay on art in 1934, “The Negro Artist and Modern Art,” he declared his loyalty to modernism’s new ways of seeing and representing. Under the tutelage of the German modernist George Grosz, with whom he studied during the Depression years, he opened himself up to modernism’s formal dislocations and distortions as well as its subversiveness. Bearden’s odyssey was an often tortuous journey of making art, a decades-long process of first trying on then discarding one approach to painting after another, finally culminating with the Projections. The collages he completed in the last two decades of his life compare with those by modernism’s great collage artists—Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, and Robert Rauschenberg, and in the twenty-first century, Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu.
Yet to understand Romare Bearden’s odyssey is to take into account the clashes and contradictions of the world into which he was born. That world was one of quarreling visual images and, to borrow a phrase from scholar/poet, Kevin Young, “multiple inheritances.” Bearden was born into a world in which mainstream American visual culture, on the one hand, promoted reductive images of black people. Douglass and Du Bois, on the other hand, were early observers of the potency of visual images as an assertion of identity, cultural complexity, and truth-telling. Bearden’s collages are a lightning rod for the clashes and contradictions of those “multiple inheritances.” Those contradictions manifest themselves in the multiple labels that adhere to him. Was he an artist, a black artist, or an artist who happened to be black? Critics and curators have placed him in any number of contexts—with collage artists, with black Atlantic artists, among American Abstractionists, or with artists from the civil rights era. He confounds the taxonomies of conventional art, and it is tempting to see him as an artistic Everyman. His beginnings were rooted in a sharply divided American culture, and reconciling these divisions was one source of his artistic restlessness. In the last interview he gave before his death in March 1988 (published months after he died), he reaffirmed his need to take in everything, “like a whale or something; you’re going along, you’re taking what you have to eat, the plankton or whatever get [sic] in there; and what you don’t like, you just spew out.” Still, every artist needs an anchor, a sense of self. “But I think that you first have to assert what you are. And you look in and find what your art needs.”
Odysseus journeyed for a decade before he reached home. It would take Bearden nearly thirty years for him to discover what his past had given him. To follow that discovery, we need to follow the chronology of his life: his birth in Charlotte and itinerant childhood that took him to the Tenderloin district in New York, briefly to Saskatchewan, Canada, then to Harlem with summers in Charlotte, and Lutherville, Maryland. Harlem was home, but twice he spent time during the school year in Pittsburgh. He lived in the homes of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents and became a keen observer of each household’s rules and culture. He witnessed the lives of the children who worked the cotton fields that bordered his home in Charlotte, the migrants who came back from the steel mills to his grandparents’ boarding house in Pittsburgh with scorched backs, and the rituals of family and church that wove through his various homes.
Bearden was anchored by a Harlem that valued the arts, though the world was still deeply ambivalent about the role of black visual artists and the rights and privileges of black citizenship. His great-grandparents were the products of Reconstruction, bent on embodying a new image of prosperity and success to represent the country’s newest citizens. Bearden’s parents escaped the constraints of a Jim Crow South believing that the promise of a more expansive life awaited them in the North. Bearden spent his childhood at the heart of the New Negro Movement, his mother fully realizing those opportunities as she cycled through her multiple roles, in addition to her work at the Lafayette Theatre: political impresario, social arbiter, journalist, community activist, renowned spokes-person and public figure, and most of all keeper of one of the most vibrant artistic salons of the time. Her son came of age as an artist at the height of the Depression, when public support of the arts briefly opened doors for black and white artists alike, and Harlem’s night life was an incubator for daring musicianship and artistry. When public support halted and doors shut, Bearden began to redefine his artistic identity.
Bearden’s life consists of a series of artistic self-redefinitions. Political cartoonist in his youth, he was an unabashed “race man.” As a case-worker assigned to the tenements of Harlem after he graduated from New York University in 1935, he was a painter of social injustice. Though he enjoyed the admiration of some of his peers, he encountered critiques from some of his friends, who considered his representations of black laborers and struggling families unflattering and unrepresentative of the middle-class life he enjoyed. He enlisted in the US Army during World War II just as alienation from his own community had begun to affect him deeply. His mother’s sudden death during the war, the indignities of serving in a segregated army, and the cultivation of a new set of artistic relationships all pushed Bearden to abandon black subject matter. He turned to literature and to universal themes of death, rebirth, and war that inspired lyrically figurative abstractions.
After his discharge from the army, Bearden’s life took what he believed at the time was a fortuitous turn. He was invited to join the Samuel Kootz Gallery, one of New York’s arbiters of up-and-coming Abstract Expressionists. His membership turned out to be short-lived. Kootz determined that Bearden’s brand of abstraction, reminiscent of Picasso and Cubism, was no longer in the vanguard but regressive. Bearden turned his back on the New York art world and, with assistance from the GI Bill, sailed to Paris, where he lived and studied for several months.
On his return to New York at the end of the summer of 1950, he resumed his job as a social worker—a job he would keep well into the 1960s—and became a songwriter. A bachelor and principal caretaker for his widowed father, he had resisted marriage until his forties. In the fall of 1954 he married a model and fashion designer, Nanette Rohan. Nanette would prove to be his North Star. When he suffered a nervous breakdown—the timing of which is often disputed—she prodded him back to painting, encouraging him to leave the distractions of song-writing, and clearing a path to the way home.
Publicly, Projections and the collages looked as though they came out of nowhere. But they were the result of several years of on-again, off-again experiments in representation and in collage. After his return from Paris, Bearden resumed drawing from models, from black models in particular, experimenting with collage, and building on motifs from earlier works. He exhibited few of these experimental works. They demonstrate, nonetheless, that images of black men and women—especially women—were seeping back into his artistic consciousness and onto his canvases. When Projections debuted, Ernest Crichlow, a fellow Spiral member and co-founder, with Bearden and Norman Lewis, of the Cinque Gallery, referred to them as a “homecoming.”
Bearden’s exhibition of Projections was widely hailed as a breakthrough. In choosing collage, Bearden intentionally selected a medium in which he could substitute the ready-made with the imaginative re-construction of the visual world. The works that followed are the product of a life that ran parallel to America’s own struggle with old ways of seeing and knowing. Civil rights, a catalyst of Bearden’s full embrace of his new work, attempted to forge a new way of being American, to open up the single narrative to multiple stories—an effort still under way.
Mary Schmidt Campbell is President of Spelman College and Dean Emerita of the Tisch School of the Arts. She served as the vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under former President Barack Obama.
From An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden by Mary Schmidt Campbell. Copyright © 2018 by Mary Schmidt Campbell and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.