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.