In the 1930s, Romare Bearden contributed political cartoons to publications like The Crisis, the NAACP’s journal, then edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. In the 1940s, he began to enjoy some success as a painter—especially after joining New York City’s Samuel Kootz Gallery in 1945, which also represented such well-known artists as Alexander Calder, Adolph Gottlieb, and Robert Motherwell. But then Kootz dropped him, and in the 1950s, as often happens to middle-aged artists, Bearden’s career seemed to fall into the doldrums. Bearden was one of what Mary Schmidt Campbell describes as “a significant number of black artists…working in isolation, for the most part, from one another”—a very different situation from the prewar years, when black artists were forming collectives and the Works Progress Administration was bringing artists of all ethnicities into closer contact.

As far as wider mainstream recognition goes, things began to change dramatically for Bearden with his 1964 exhibition at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York, which sparked an unusually enthusiastic response. Soon he had become arguably the country’s most prominent black artist, or in any case a contender for that position along with Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis. The story of what changed in Bearden’s art—along with the wide-ranging consequences of those changes, not just for Bearden himself—has been often told since then. It’s recounted again, for instance, in the catalog for the recent Tate Modern exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”—in fact, it’s the starting point for the show, which will travel next year to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, and then to the Brooklyn Museum.

That exhibition’s curators, Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley, explain that “Soul of a Nation begins in 1963 with the formation of Spiral, a ‘group of Negro artists’ as they called themselves, who assembled in New York to work out a shared position on what it meant to make art within the wider context of the Civil Rights Movement.” Galvanized by events like the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, the 15 artists of Spiral were moved to overcome their sense of marginalization and find a collective way forward. Convening in Bearden’s studio on Canal Street, they traded ideas. Bearden’s was to try working together on collages. He’d already begun gathering materials. The proposal was rejected, so Bearden decided to go ahead with the collages on his own, and then to enlarge them as photostats, which he exhibited the following year. The rest, as they say, is history.

Perhaps understandably, the work Bearden made from 1963 until his death in 1988, at 75, has overshadowed all that came before it. One could get the impression that the preceding 30 years amounted to little more than a long period of preparation. That’s why the current exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, is such an eye-opener. On view through December 22, the exhibition is somewhat misleadingly titled “Romare Bearden: Abstraction.” Much of the work on view is abstract, and that’s what might be most surprising to viewers who knew only the later stages of Bearden’s career. But most abstractionists of his generation—Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, for instance—came fairly late to full abstraction, and Bearden was no exception. Before that turn, he was exploring a kind of stylized, semi-abstracted figuration, and works from that period are on view at the museum, too. In that sense, the Neuberger exhibition, curated by Tracy Fitzpatrick, has a broader scope than its title let on.

In the 1940s, Bearden was particularly drawn to religious imagery. Carl Van Vechten pronounced him “the Negro Rouault,” referring to the French painter then renowned for his rough-hewn images of Christianity. But Bearden’s treatment, in a work like the Madonna and Child (1945), hardly seems as deeply imbued with fervent spirituality as a typical Rouault. One of Bearden’s “hierographic paintings,” it is more analytical—and less concerned with religious faith than with trying to work through the European art-historical tradition while homing in on a distinctly modern style. In particular, Bearden seems to have been interested in exploring the potential for narrative sequences, which his somewhat younger contemporary Jacob Lawrence had been doing with great success, most notably in the 1941 series “The Migration of the Negro.” In this work, Bearden also makes use of literary sources: Federico García Lorca’s “Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter” (his Kootz Gallery colleague Robert Motherwell was also painting works on Spanish themes at this time) and Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Could tradition and contemporaneity be reconciled? The highly stylized, semi-abstracted Madonna and Child succeeds on its own terms; its colors glow with joyful clarity, and the heavy black outlines in which the artist encloses them seem to update the leading of stained-glass windows with the geometrical intricacy of Cubism. And yet, at least in retrospect, the painting feels constrained by its too clear-cut distinction between drawing (construction) and color, which is demoted to a kind of filling-in, however beautiful. And there’s little sense of engagement with paint as matter, as body. It’s enlightening to learn that until this time, Bearden had been painting mainly in gouache or watercolor on paper. It was Kootz who, on seeing Bearden’s watercolor series on the Passion of Christ, asked the artist if he would undertake a similar series in oil on canvas.

The process by which Bearden scaled up and transferred his watercolors to canvas turns out to have been important for the much later shift that took place in his work in 1963. As the artist explained, “When I started to paint in oil, I simply wanted to extend what I had done in watercolor. To do so, I had the initial sketch enlarged as a Photostat”—that is, in black and white—and “traced it onto a gessoed panel and with thinned color completed the oil as if it were a watercolor.” The photostat machine—a predecessor of the photocopier that produced negative prints—was something not much used by painters. Bearden was presumably familiar with it from his days supplying illustrations for magazines and newspapers. In his early painting process, it was merely a disposable intermediate step—but years later, when the machine was already becoming obsolete, he would return to it as an integral step for his finished works.

A 1950 visit to Paris apparently did not provide the inspiration that Bearden might have wanted. Without a studio, it’s no surprise that he didn’t paint there. But the same was true when he returned to New York. He dabbled in songwriting, not without success. It was Heinrich Blücher—the philosopher better known as Mr. Hannah Arendt—who confronted him in 1952. “You’re just wasting your time being a songwriter,” Blücher warned, “and, if you keep on at this, you’ll just go to pot and you’ll never paint again.” Instead of following his friend’s advice, Bearden had a nervous breakdown.

By the summer of 1952, he was painting again—in a very different mode. Mountains of the Moon (circa 1955) shows him working with paint in a far more full-bodied manner than had ever been the case before, laying it on in big, heavy brushstrokes. It’s all about color and texture—a weave of blue marks with other hues peeking through. The bluntness of his physical attack and the thick, dragged paint surface have a lot in common with the “action painting” of the time, but Bearden’s approach is more architectonic than that of most Abstract Expressionists. The brushstroke is not posited as a bravura expression of the painter’s subjectivity; it’s an element in the overall construction of space.

Mountains of the Moon is pure abstraction. But this wasn’t a definite commitment on Bearden’s part. Painted at around the same time, Blue Lady retains his unmistakable figurative references, but its emphasis on color and texture for their own sake is just as compelling. The lady is there, but evanescent—yet her ethereal state is counterpointed by the corporeality of the painting itself. Bearden was exploring, without preconceptions, the fundamentals of his art, rediscovering it on new terms. This is abstraction in the best sense, not an eschewal of representation on ideological grounds but a search without presuppositions. I like a phrase that Richard J. Powell once used with regard to this phase of Bearden’s work: “chromatic emancipation.” As Bearden put it, “I am trying to find out what there is in me that is common to, or touches, other men. It is hard to do and realize.”

Abstract collages made in the mid-1950s show Bearden working freely with paper of various sorts as well as with paint. Some of them were done on top of old watercolors—reclaiming his own history and rendering it unrecognizable in the process. Bearden also began studying Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. Thinning his oil paint, he taught himself how to use it with the same sense of fluidity that he’d known with watercolor and that he was learning to experience with ink. The heavy materiality of Mountains of the Moon had enabled a diaphanous chromatic lightness, but around this time he began to explore much subtler interfusions of hue in paintings like Snow Morning (1959) and Golden Day (1960), which seem to anticipate color-field paintings such as Jules Olitski’s works of the mid-’60s.

In these works, the artist seems to stand to one side and let natural (perhaps chemical) processes take over. The paintings feel like landscapes, but not because of any representational residues; rather, they feel like the results of an exposure to the elements. The painting Eastern Gate, from around 1961, more overtly alludes to Bearden’s interest in Chinese calligraphy. That year, Brian O’Doherty reviewed an exhibition of such canvases in The New York Times, saying:

He paints thinly, so thinly that at times the substance of the paint seems to have evaporated, leaving behind ectoplasmic stains scored and etched and veined with lines or dotted with evaporated bubbles, which, like collaborating atoms, move to create lines of force. This integument makes each canvas a complex of highly evocative suggestions.

As Fitzpatrick points out in the Neuberger catalog, the show that so moved O’Doherty “would be the last exhibition to focus on Bearden’s abstractions during his lifetime.” Perhaps as a result, the most powerful of his abstract paintings may be among his least-known—works made, presumably, after the 1961 show of abstractions but before the fateful meeting of the Spiral group in 1963, after which Bearden returned to figuration. I’m referring to a group of mostly untitled abstract works—many of them undated, though some are specifically dated 1962 or 1963—in which cut-out pieces of painted canvas have been collaged onto board.

Some of these are almost shockingly powerful. They combine the “ectoplasmic” chromatic atmospheres of Bearden’s color-field paintings with sometimes more or less rectilinear, often virtuosically arabesque drawing accomplished by cutting. Bearden was surely inspired by the paper cutouts of Henri Matisse; but the weight of cut canvas compared with paper, plus the rather overripe juiciness of his rich chromata—often very earthy, and so different from Matisse’s pure, uninflected, and typically astringent hues—have a much different effect. Whereas Matisse’s paper cutouts convey a wonderful sense of ease (no matter how intricate they are, they feel like they somehow came together all at once), Bearden’s canvas cutouts more often display a sense of struggle triumphantly overcome. One of the great strengths of many of these cut-out works is their use of outline. Rather than employing painted lines, as he did in the ’40s, Bearden collaged his painted pieces of canvas on top of a dark-painted board, and the outlines emerge as the seemingly accidental by-product of the canvas’s placement, of the varying gaps between the affixed elements. Paradoxically but powerfully, this gives the dark outline all the more fluidity and plasticity.

It’s true that, at least once, in an undated piece here referred to as Untitled (green)—though green is only one of its colors and not the dominant one—Bearden comes close to Matissean grace, but much more typical and just as fine is a work like River Mist (circa 1962), with its juxtaposed vertical areas that I somehow want to call slabs of sky, vistas of stone. Finally, three small works from 1962 and 1963, very short and wide (two of them are just under three by 12 inches; the third, seven by 25 inches), would appear to be studies for murals. There is a grandeur to their forms that suggests they’d work perfectly at seven by 24 feet. One could imagine their maker on the verge of a great expansion.

Instead, Bearden moved forward by turning inward. Evidently, his works with collaged canvas—like his experiments in the mid-’50s with abstract paper collage—would feed into his turn to figurative collage-making in 1963. So, of course, would his familiarity with the photostat machine, and the socially conscious Expressionism he’d imbibed from George Grosz at the Art Students League in the 1930s. As usual, the great turn was also a great synthesis.

Just as “Romare Bearden: Abstraction” starts not from the artist’s first abstractions but with the figurative, narrative works that paved their way, it contains several of the “Projections,” as Bearden called the photostat works of 1964, and ends with some other figurative collages from 1967—thereby acknowledging that abstraction turned out to be, for Bearden, not an end but a method of discovery. Still, the question lingers: What made the change necessary? Was Bearden acceding to a demand imposed by the times? Was it an inflection of the inner logic of his artistic development? Or was this one of those happy cases where an artist’s inclination and the historical moment were magically in sync?

Those last three abstractions I mentioned, the ones that I take as pointing toward the possibility of expanding to environmental scale, suggest that Bearden had come to a crossroads. The whole decade that he’d spent exploring abstraction—working restlessly without quite settling on a signature style; plumbing the resources of paint as material and letting go of his old, ingrained dependence on linear design; coming to terms with what he’d learned of Chinese art (which I suspect was influenced by the principles of the Southern Sung period, with its emphasis on atmosphere over detail, spontaneous expression over control, in order to generate what one scholar sums up as a “landscape of the mind”)—all this had led Bearden to a point at which he was clearly prepared to commit himself to an abstract art of rare grandeur.

But he decided not to go there and, in a sense, made a strategic retreat from the cosmic-nature dreamworld to which his abstraction seemed to be leading him, in order to recoup a different area of his inner life, one that was still mythic in nature but in which mythic beings were incarnated as figures and faces rather than impersonal natural forces. I’m reminded of the pianist Cecil Taylor’s observation that, at a certain point, he “had put a lot of things into music that the music itself was not able to resolve,” leading to “a kind of personal isolation.” The conceptual artist Charles Gaines later diagnosed Bearden’s problem (and Taylor’s might have been similar) this way: “How does the language of modernism allow minority artists to make art that also reflects the reality of the social space?” Taylor’s solution was to seek an outside witness to catalyze the resolution he sought. For him, that came through psychoanalysis; I suspect that Bearden was looking to his friends in the Spiral group to help him resolve the dilemmas in his art. When they didn’t respond, he continued on his own.

It’s important to remember that although Bearden’s ostensible reason for the move to figurative collage-making was to register a response to the civil-rights crisis in America that had necessitated the March on Washington, most of his collages—and the photostat “Projections” that he made from them at first—were far from topical in substance. His emphasis was on what the titles of some of the projections call “the prevalence of ritual”—that is, on the mysteries of the inner life, not of an isolated individual but of a society. The darkness of the black-and-white photostats, in particular, seems a direct reflection of the dreamlike night world into which Bearden plunged his art.

And the society with whose rituals he identified was not the one in which he was living—the urban world of New York City—but the one from which he had come: His new art would trace the resonance in his own memory of the folkways of the rural black South. Still searching for “what there is in me that is common to, or touches, other men,” he began doing so by way of the myths and memories woven into his own sense of identity—a side of Bearden’s work manifest, for instance, in the sultry, chromatically rich 1979 “Bayou Fever” collage series that was shown last spring at the DC Moore Gallery in New York. As James Joyce had found the universality of Dublin and Picasso that of a mythic Spain, Bearden had arrived at a point where he felt confident that “the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.”