Upon seeing The Conjur Woman, a 1964 collage by Romare Bearden, Ralph Ellison called the work “disturbing.” Composed of gouache and collaged paper, it features, among other oddities, birds scattered about the foreground and a gigantic shadowy hand that shoots up from the earth behind a peculiar woman. The woman’s ringed hand, connected to an arm with exposed bone jutting out, suggests that she is fleeing in terror, but her relaxed posture and doe-eyed face connote calmness. Ellison doubtlessly sensed in Bearden a kindred-spirit. Ellison’s acclaimed novel Invisible Man, which follows an unnamed narrator through various tropes of black experience, has much in common with Bearden’s project of reconfiguring our trained ways of seeing.

Romare Bearden, The Conjur Woman, 1964, Cut-and-pasted printed paper and gouache on board, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund.

Ellison later wrote that Bearden’s art uncovers a world “long hidden by the clichés of sociology and rendered cloudy by the distortions of newsprint.” Mary Schmidt Campbell’s illuminating new biography, An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden,1 takes a panoramic view of such clichés and mass-media distortion. Campbell renders her subject, whose late-career surge shocked the mid-sixties art world, as a conduit of circumstances beyond his control: galleries chiefly interested in what they can sell right now, and a black community deeply concerned with representation as a means to an end.

Bearden’s life and career prove instructive both for contemporary artists hoping to navigate the constantly vacillating whims of the art market and, more broadly, for all wary onlookers of the current social climate. Bearden’s art reminds us that the success of an artistic work isn’t reliant upon its use in an overarching narrative; rather, great works are our narrative. And an aesthetics that prioritizes base impulses such as class or skin color inherently pollutes our critical faculties. That Bearden was able to split the difference late in life, through an idiom of collage that puts the stereotypes of mass media in conversation with the best works of Western art, is a testament to his formal mastery, as well as his profound individualism.

Romare Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, but moved as a toddler to Harlem. Given his background, it was practically inevitable that Bearden would become a “Race Man.” His mother, Bessye, was the New York correspondent for the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender; this position put young Romare in direct proximity with several New Negro luminaries. Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston were regulars at the Beardens’ 131st Street apartment; Langston Hughes brought over Federico García Lorca for a visit. Campbell painstakingly documents Bessye’s society columns, which detail her interactions with Harlem’s political and intellectual elite, in speaking to Bearden’s rarified position in Harlem’s social strata. His eventual attendance at Lincoln University—a prestigious historically black university—was less a conscious choice so much as a formality; this was simply what someone of his stature did.

But Bearden soon grew tired of the preordained path, so he transferred to Boston University before graduating from New York University and continuing his studies at the Art Students League under George Grosz. Throughout his undergraduate career, Bearden cartooned for student newspapers and black publications, but Grosz raised the stakes. He gave Bearden a more classical art education, introducing him to the works of canonical Western artists such as Bruegel, Goya, Daumier, and Kollwitz. This formal training would provide a durable backbone for Bearden’s developing narrative visual language.

Like jazz, which borrowed from the tradition of classical music to advance an idiom for the modern age, black artists needed to embrace “discovery and organization,” Bearden thought.

A year after meeting Grosz, at the age of twenty-three, Bearden published “The Negro Artist and Modern Art,” an essay that lashed out at New Negro aesthetics as retrograde, calling their relationship to African antiquity “tepid” and “uninspired.” Patronage from firms such as the Harmon Foundation proliferated stereotypes of “inherently Negro traits,” which stifled creativity by cutting black aesthetics off from the rest of the world’s traditions. At the end of his essay, Bearden upholds the Mexican muralists as model artists who had infused the aesthetics of Modernism with the visual language of their own ethnic heritage. Diego Rivera, José Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros all presented populist-socialist visions of contemporary life with innovative technique and narrative dynamism. Under the public patronage of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, so would Bearden with his own art, only to irritate bourgeois blacks who found his work “disgusting and morbid” in its prioritization of the laborer class over black progress.

After his discharge from the Army in 1945, Bearden applied for a Guggenheim fellowship. His stated desire was to find “real plastic expression,” something that he thought was sorely missing from black aesthetics due to an “interrelated lack of an encouraging social atmosphere and individual opportunity.” Like jazz, which borrowed from the tradition of classical music to advance an idiom for the modern age, black artists needed to embrace “discovery and organization.” Alain Locke called this desire “problematic,” while James Thrall Soby of the Museum of Modern Art downgraded Bearden to the “near top of the second rank of Negro painters.” These critics chafed at his growing interest in the strictly formal innovations of Cubism, which he appropriated in his interpretation of classical scenes. Both Cotton Workers (1936) and The Visitation (1941) are composed of precise shapes, each texture and color presented within clearly defined borders before another piece of the puzzle is constructed. Later, The Passion of the Christ (1945) introduced cubist line and an expressive color palette to the centuries-old motif of the Stations of the Cross.

Romare Bearden, The Visitation, 1941, Gouache, ink, and pencil on colored paper, The Museum of Modern Art,  Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

In step with the burgeoning New York scene, Bearden’s paintings caught the attention of the gallerist Samuel M. Kootz, an early champion of the American avant-garde. But a 1947 group show that Kootz curated, featuring Bearden as one of “the six most talked about, exhibited modernists in America,” disappointed the artist. Bearden was singled out for ridicule by the critics, with one calling Bearden “the worst of the lot, with a careless and facile brush stroke and colors laid down at random in a sort of jigsaw puzzle.”

Despite the bad press, Bearden continued his examination of narrative with a series on the Iliad. His solo show in 1948 was just as poorly received; Bearden’s lingering commitment to figuration, albeit through abstract shapes, had by this time landed him outside of the New York mainstream, whose interests had shifted to Abstract Expressionism. Paradoxically, black artists and critics—at that time ensconced in just the sort of representational kitsch that Clement Greenberg upbraided in the Partisan Review—either pilloried or ignored Bearden’s work because he wasn’t portraying blackness in a politically sufficient manner.

Kootz closed his gallery a year later to become the sole worldwide representative of Bearden’s aesthetic hero, Pablo Picasso. When he reopened in 1949, his first exhibition, Intersubjectives, placed a handful of alumni from the ill-fated show two years prior alongside rising stars such as Pollock, Gorky, de Kooning, and Rothko. In the exhibition’s press release, Kootz noted that he had left out those artists “who could not shake off the Picasso Experience” in favor of including those who dealt with “inward emotions and experiences . . . a point of view in painting rather than an identical painting style.” It wasn’t hard to discern to whom the gallerist was referring.

By the mid-1960s, Bearden’s Picasso-inspired use of collage was firmly in tune with the aesthetic moment.

Effectively “exiled” (Campbell’s term), Bearden moved to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne on GI Bill benefits. There, he met Picasso, as well as the artists Jean Helion and Constantin Brâncuși. He also met a number of fellow black exiles, most notably the intellectuals Albert Murray and James Baldwin. The confluence of exposures sharpened both his formal modernist language and his thoughts on race and representation.

By the mid-1960s, Bearden’s Picasso-inspired use of collage was firmly in tune with the aesthetic moment. His breakthrough, The Evening Meal of Prophet Peterson (1964), is a surreal Sunday dinner scene comprising photographs, paper, and bits of magazines that one could associate with either the humble repast of a sharecropper or a scene from Leave It to Beaver. By infusing a familiar scene with shards of mass media, Bearden was able to engage both outsider and insider views of black culture. With the formal leap to collage, Bearden had also finally reconciled his desire to use plastic form in the service of a more universal, even mythological, mode of storytelling—a mode that was also, paradoxically, all his own.

At the behest of the prominent New York gallerist Arne Ekstrom, Bearden increased the scale of his collages through black-and-white photographic enlargements, slyly titling the project Projections. Debuting at Ekstrom’s gallery in 1964, the artist who had spent his career being pulled about in conflicting directions suddenly found himself at the center of arts and culture. Seven years later, Bearden was given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside the abstract sculptor Richard Hunt. Before his death in 1988, his collages appeared on the covers of Time and Fortune, and he did several public commissions throughout the United States. He also found a following among younger black artists, collaborating with Derek Walcott, Ntozake Shange, and Jayne Cortez.

Campbell calls this Bearden’s “homecoming,” and one assumes she’s referring to his reacceptance into popular black culture. Yet after reading this comprehensive piece of scholarship, one can’t help wondering if Bearden left the black community, or if the black community left him.

Or if, to paraphrase Ellison, they didn’t even see him.

  1.  An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden, by Mary Schmidt Campbell; Oxford University Press, 464 pages, $34.95.