September 8, 2017

Romare Bearden: Abstraction

Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, SUNY

Romare Bearden, River Mist, 1962. Mixed media, 54 x 40 inches. The Romare Bearden Foundation. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, NY. © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

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Recognized as one of America’s great 20th century artists, Romare Bearden is best known for his uniquely textured collages, evoking the history, culture, richness and tension of the African-American experience. Those influential collages were produced largely over a twenty-four year period, from 1964 to his death in 1988. They are found in every major museum collection in the United States, have been widely published, featured in school curricula, and included in national and international exhibitions. However, Bearden was making art long before 1964, experimenting with various ways of abstracting form, going all the way back to the 1940s. Romare Bearden: Abstraction focuses on a startling body of work he produced throughout the 1950s and early 1960s comprised of exquisite, fully-abstract watercolors, oil paintings, and mixed media collages. Most of that work is largely unknown; that is about to change.

Approximately forty of Bearden’s abstractions—watercolors, oils, and mixed media collages, executed in the 1950s and early 1960s, will be on view in the exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, which organized the show. Not only will the exhibition serve as the first public viewing for many of the works, it will also contextualize them within the framework of what Bearden produced both before and after this decade. “The works are striking and fluid, astonishing in their variety and scale,” notes Tracy Fitzpatrick, Director of the Neuberger Museum of Art and curator the exhibition. “They directly inform his later figurative work.”

Some of the abstractions in the exhibition, which he produced after a trip to Europe in 1950 where he visited with Picasso and other modernist artists, come from public and private collections. Many, however, have remained in storage since they were first exhibited in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, the abstractions were included in a handful of exhibitions and received some critical attention, but now the work is largely absent from later survey shows. “In a sense it was a lost decade, but we will correct that omission,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick.

Romare Bearden: Abstraction also will provide the first substantive and scholarly examination of this important body of work. “The scholarship produced through this exhibition will contribute to the development of alternate storylines around the dominant narrative of postwar abstraction, while at the same time reveal for the first time, the roots of the work for which Bearden is best known,” Dr. Fitzpatrick writes.

According to noted curator Lowery Stokes Sims who has contributed a preface to the fully-illustrated color catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the modernist movement strongly influenced Bearden’s work. “He was a cubist in the strictest sense of the word, breaking forms using color to complement rather than to describe the forms. In the 1930s, even when he was studying with George Grosz (German-born expatriate Expressionist painter) at the Art Students League, his work was more figurative. But he had an acute sense of the underlying abstractness.” Ms. Sims is the first and only curator to focus on Bearden’s abstractions in a meaningful way in a museum exhibition, in her 1985 Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Romare Bearden: Originals and Abstractions.

Collaborating on the exhibition are the Estate of Nanette Bearden, the Romare Bearden Foundation, and DC Moore Gallery, New York which has conserved and framed many of the works. Dr. Fitzpatrick will contribute the main essay for the catalogue, a placement of the abstractions within Bearden’s larger body of work.

The project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support has been provided by Morgan Stanley, the Triennial Adeline Herder Fund for Collage, Ronni Rubin Bolger, ArtsWestchester, with support from the Westchester County Government, the Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art, and the Purchase College Foundation.

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