All quotes from Romare Bearden and biographical information are displayed in the exhibit.
The first piece of art I ever loved was “Sunday Morning Breakfast.” When I was five, my parents brought home the 1967 Romare Bearden print from their trip to the Museum of Modern Art and placed it in my bathroom (our home’s powder room). I wanted a painting of flowers, or at least a pink retiling, but no. They gave me an abstract collage featuring a variety of characters with big heads, a meat smoker and a background of collaged paper scraps. I made up stories about the people and places I saw. Bearden’s work left hundreds of unanswered questions, and with time, I came to love it.
Today, over 10 years since my first encounter with Bearden and 34 years since his passing, his work continues to inspire and prompt curiosity around the world. Between 1962 and 1964, his exploration in abstract watercolor and collage developed his famous style which had an immense impact on African-American cultural art and abstract expressionism. The work has rarely been exhibited since its release.
With collaboration between Neuberger Museum curator Tracy Fitzpatrick and Ozi Uduma, the University of Michigan Museum of Art Curator of Global Contemporary Art, Bearden’s work is displayed on the University campus. “Romare Bearden, Abstraction” brings pieces from before, after and during his largely unexplored era of abstract art. The chronologically ordered exhibit shows the evolution of Bearden’s artistry. These works, which are the foundations of my love for art, forever impacted Bearden’s style and abstract expressionism as a whole.
Walking into the massive, light-filled gallery to rainbow letters reading “ABSTRACTION,” I felt like a little kid all over again.
Curators organized Bearden’s works into his eras of life and inspiration, beginning with “Early Artistic Training,” which consisted of watercolor and ink pieces. Bearden, creating a distinctly individual style, found inspiration in stained-glass, the cubist movement and biblical lore. Works like “Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples,” a unique interpretation of a biblical scene, show clear influence on Bearden’s later art.
As his work developed, his upbringing played a more critical role. The next section of his work, “Growing up in Harlem,” is accompanied by an explanation of his life growing up during the Great Migration and the Harlem renaissance. However, the notes also highlight the gang violence that overshadowed Bearden’s life in Harlem and how he preferred his youth in the American South. Here we see his first abstract works exhibited to the public, a series of mosaic-style collages. The colors and textures of paper scraps, inks, newspaper and paint create a complex image that one could stare at for hours.
After his move to Paris, we see Bearden’s early efforts in oil painting ending up in an era called “Finally, Oil.” Here, we find that Bearden was not comfortable using oil until the late 1950s when Mr. Wu, a local bookshop owner, taught him about Chinese calligraphy and ink painting. In this era, Bearden experimented with large-scale works featuring casein, microscopy, thinned oil washes and calligraphy. In “With Blue,” Bearden shows a stunning abstraction of the natural world through marbling, collaging, pasting and layering multiple oil paintings.
The next exhibition, “Projections,” shows Bearden’s 1964 project of minuscule detailed collages and larger projected works. The projections of these smaller collages created the oddly-scaled figures which puzzled me as a child. This era shows his experimentation with others’ media, almost exclusively featuring scraps from magazines and newspapers. Bearden’s complex city scenes like “Spring Way” draw viewers into a new world of contrast-filled black and whites and unusual proportions.
As you exit the exhibit, you exit the world of Bearden’s abstraction and enter an era titled “Politics of Abstraction.” After the socially tumultuous year of 1963, a year of great tragedy and transformation for African-American artists and activists, Bearden “felt that the negro was becoming too much of an abstraction” and sought to represent the African-American experience figuratively. He returned to his 1940s focus on storytelling and Southern African-American culture. He pieced together small abstract collages into large-scale works that told stories about his youth in the South. This is exemplified in Bearden’s famous “Fish Fry” which features a detailed, colorful collaged scene and abstract background. This era is filled with color, complexity and storytelling, and serves as an excellent conclusion to the exhibit.
No matter how much of Bearden’s work we see, his art leaves us with thousands of questions. These undying questions remind us that art will always be up for interpretation and remind me of why I love art.
Romare Bearden’s Abstraction Exhibit will be at the UMMA from Feb. 5 – May 15, 2022.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at email@example.com.