As the expansive seven-month Romare Bearden retrospective in New York City neared its March closing date, with a memorable exhibit still open at the Metropolitan Museum and another recently finished at the Whitney, one exhibit that might have been lost in the shuffle was comparatively minor in scope, but abundantly charming. "New York Scenes," on display at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, was a series of watercolors that focuses on inner-city life. Maverick filmmaker John Cassavettes originally commissioned these pieces from Romare Bearden for the opening titles of his 1980 film Gloria. Like the movie's title character—a former mob moll who protects a young Latino boy from organized crime—the Bearden series is both tough-minded and tender, matter-of-fact but not moralistic. While the titles of the paintings perform narrative work, they suggest place more than exhaustively describe it: "Skyline with Yellow Sky," "Grafitti," "Guitar Collage," "Skyline with Brooklyn Bridge." Bearden finished these "New York Scenes" in a hurry, and the speed of their completion is consistent with the idea of New York as a city where every image is feverishly competing for the viewer's attention. New York's signature locales—the Brooklyn Bridge, immortalized in Hart Crane's great poem, as well as Central Park—nearly overshadow the glimpses of narrative and character within these paintings, but not quite. In one scene, tenants attend to their laundry; in another, a young girl gazes through a fence's grille while fiery colors (sunset? sunrise? something more threatening?) blaze furiously in the background. This approach was typical Bearden. Throughout his career, he infused scenes of urban life with tantalizing narrative detail, making everything from a brothel to a Harlem street come alive with a fierce and multilayered approach typical of a lyric (and in some sense, epic) poet.
Born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Romare Bearden moved with his family to Harlem when he was a child. His mother, a journalist and political organizer, turned her home into a kind of salon for many leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, among them W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson. (Bearden later joined Hughes and other African American luminaries, such as the poet Claude McKay and the painter Jacob Lawrence, in the 306 Group, a loose collective of black artists.) Perhaps because of this remarkable upbringing, his definition of an artist was, quite literally, broad and literary: "The artist has to be something like the whale, swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he needs." The story of Jonah and the whale was apparently not the only literary influence that shaped Bearden's ideas about art. In his earliest works, completed in the 1940s, we see how Bearden imported a variety of literature into his canvasses; his subjects at the time included the Passion of Christ; the Federico Garcia Lorca poem, "Lament for a Bullfighter"; and Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. His thirty-year career as a social worker supplemented an education that included formal training as an artist at the Art Students League (where he studied with George Grosz) and studies of mathematics at New York University in the 1930s.
Bearden also wrote poems, and he even had some success as a professional songwriter in the 1950s. Among his written works, the song "Seabreeze" became a hit and was recorded by Tito Puente. More recently, "Seabreeze" appeared on a Branford Marsalis CD, Romare Bearden Revealed. Bearden's visual art often earns the adjectives "jazzy" and "improvisational," and a good part of his work is, undoubtedly, a series of striking riffs—fluid and moody, sexy and witty. As a collagist, he used photomontage, among other techniques, to show memory and vision as overlapping apparatuses. He also used visual representations to reenter the places where he lived out important episodes of his life: New York City, the American South of his early childhood, and St. Martin, the Caribbean island he visited with his wife.
One of his most striking works, "The Block," a six-panel collage that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum's permanent collection, is an expressive and vibrant look at several tenements, no two alike, on a Harlem street. Later juxtaposed with a series of Langston Hughes poems (including "Juke Box Love Song" and "To Be Somebody") as a 1995 children's book , the 1971 piece delivers, as Bearden put it, all the energy of a "particular street" whose buildings have been "X-rayed…with the imagination." Recalling the "great energy" of his Harlem childhood, he coordinates dancing figures, birds, lovers, cars, a liquor store, an angel, and other assorted figures in an arrangement suggested to him by the musical structure and the "silences between notes" of Earl Hines's recordings. Glimpses into the interior life of the block's tenants—the angelic visitation exists alongside other more mundane activities, such as taking a bath—illustrate the great psychological, social, and spiritual forces at work in African American life that Bearden sought to bring together throughout a long and distinguished career.