Romare Bearden in his Long Island City studio with the photograph of his great-grandparents Henry and Rosa Kennedy on their porch around 1920 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo: Frank Stewart (1980)
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? Read More