Romare Bearden

1_Empathy / 6D – Spaces, Systems, Objects, Products, Graphics, and Experiences

Romare Bearden utilizes his experiences with the complexities of contemporary and historical materials to create works that reveal aspects of the black experience in America, palimpsest with themes of the human condition. Bearden’s body of work explores the plasticity of his own perspective and fluid identity in unison with the minutia of human life to create pieces that uncover the depths and dynamisms of not just African American life, but the lives of every human. For example, in Bearden’s Projections (especially The Street), the artist delves into themes of the black experience within the context of the urban sphere, capturing and revealing aspects of his own history as well as the diverse lifestyle of city life. The Street deals with a crowd of black folks in Harlem (or Bearden’s fantastical collage of a streetscape in Harlem), and the many experiences: young and old, laughing and stoic, sleeping and active, eyes open and eyes closed, etc. The constant visual contradiction of found images collaged in a mosaic of human emotions and experiences begin to reveal Bearden’s own image of Harlem, allowing him to capture his perspective of that time and space. The graphic medium of collage and montage frees Bearden to express the dynamic and contradictory nature of the lives of black peoples within the context of American history on one hand, while on the other hand is a portrait of feelings, expressions, and experiences of a human being. Another piece in the Projections series is Tomorrow I May Be Far Away. Contrastingly, Bearden explores the rural communities of black individuals, creating an abstract quiltlike work that appeals to his southern upbringing in North Carolina. By exploring two seemingly disparate spaces, Bearden can link his own journey from southern ruralness to northern urbanity. At the same time, he seems to express that despite the differences in locality, within the black experience (and at times the human experience), there are similar struggles, hopes, and dreams. While he focuses on black communities, his work is inherently empathetic. Bearden’s dynamic and contradictory collages influence one to “feel-into” the black experience, revealing the innate humanity of these communities. Whether the audience is exploring a street scene in Harlem, a jazz scene, a religious scene, a rural scene or any number of settings Bearden creates, the viewers are left discovering the plastic and dynamic perspective that Bearden provides. All of Bearden’s use of the 6D’s -space, systems, objects, products, graphics, and experiences- are plastic, dynamic, and complex much like the life of the artist.


Bearden blends elements of his life, experiences from black communities, historical art and artifacts, and found materials to create dynamic pieces of cultural significance. Bearden’s contradictory upbringing from rural North Carolina to his migration to more urban settings of Pittsburgh and New York City bleed through his body of work. Furthermore, Bearden’s artistic style draws from art history and contemporary work. By utilizing the modern aesthetic of collage and montage for the subject of the black experience, Bearden breaks down the categorical nature of the art and museum world (which so badly wants to put artists into boxes). He is neither a modernist nor a “black artist,” he is more like Venturi’s idea of “both-and,” embracing the complexity and contradictions of life. DuBois’ idea of “twoness” begins to explain Bearden’s dialectical nature of duality. In his art career, Bearden works with painting, collage, montage, photograph, music, and many other assortments of medium. By bringing together disparate materials, images, narratives, etc. he can create on unifying message. Embracing the contradiction allows for a wide variety of people to connect with his themes and begin to understand other perspectives, enhancing the empathetic effect of his art.


The works of Bearden show how the artist can process the complex nature of being alive by remixing elements, reorganizing them to express their own perspective. As Ellison expresses, Bearden has the ability to “reset society's clock by imposing upon it his own method of defining.” His dynamic works that juxtapose, palimpsest, morph and distort elements of history and the black experience to reveal to audiences a deeper level of the human condition. While many “protest paintings” of his time show the spectrum of atrocities and emotions in the context of the black experience, Bearden reveals. In one interview, Bearden explained how artists “take some place, and like a flower, they sink roots, looking for universal implication.” The universal implication of the artist’s work surrounds the ideas of cultural complexity but simultaneously the similarity of human experiences. In many of his works, Bearden seems to struggle with his conflicting identity as a modern artist (historically, a cultural aspect for wealthier people of European-descent) and his identity as a black man. Throughout his life, Bearden disregards the categorization the dominating culture tried to place him in, constantly blurring the lines to redefine his own perspective and identity. He broke down the restrictive “roles” of society to explore what it means to be a human. Fundamentally, Bearden embraces the culmination of complexities and contradictions in order to influence the empathetic reactions of his audience.

4_ How does categorization limit the nature and identity of an entity?

While organization and categorization can help people digest and understand vast concept, it also limits the very nature of that entity. Humans seem to have the innate desire to group and categorize based on similarities. This framework of administrative and bureaucratic thinking can limit the understanding of the subject. Romare Bearden seems to understand the limitation of categorical frameworks, choosing to disregard this type of thinking. When art critics first saw Bearden’s work, most attempted to analyze his work through the context of a modernist lens or a “black art” lens. While these categorical frameworks can help one understand elements of Bearden’s work, it’s more important to simply experience the work as a human being. Throughout Bearden’s life, the institutionalized thinking of categorization constantly attempted to define his identity. Even the very nature of his skin tone confused people, as some critics attempted to profile him based on race. The beauty of Bearden’s body of work is the way he can show the flaws in this way of thinking and crush it. Bearden’s constant plasticity and contradictory nature defies categorization. No organizational technique or philosophical framework can truly express the entirety of a human being. Frameworks help breakdown complex systems into simpler more digestible entities, but at the cost of filtering away some characteristics of that system. Bearden, through his life and his work, really begins to explore the beauty and dynamism of the human experience.