Jenkins Johnson Gallery is pleased to present Romare Bearden: Storyteller, opening Thursday, April 3 with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30pm, and running through June 21, 2014. The exhibition of Romare Bearden, a descendant of the Harlem Renaissance, a great storyteller and master colorist, features collages, watercolors, and prints from the 1970s and 1980s.
Romare Bearden (1911-1988), an author, visual artist, songwriter, and jazz aficionado, is recognized as one the most creative and important artists of the 20th century—even spurring a centennial celebration of dozens of national museum exhibitions, from Studio Museum in Harlem to SFMOMA in 2011. Migrating from Charlotte, North Carolina to New York when he was a toddler, Bearden’s family’s house was a meeting place for major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including writer and social activist Langston Hughes and Bearden’s second cousin and early patron Duke Ellington. A member of the Harlem Artist Guild and founding member of the civil rights group The Spiral, as well as of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Romare Bearden played a key role in the evolution of black arts and culture throughout the 20th century.
Bearden’s collages in Storyteller highlight the artist’s mastery of the medium for which he is most remembered. Poems from Africa—a maquette for a book cover for a collection of poems by African writers—utilizes bold modernist forms and symbolizes the breadth of Bearden’s creative collaborative circles, namely the book editor, poet Samuel Allen, who he befriend while in the army. In addition to collage, Storyteller features both watercolor and prints. Watercolors of New York City, originally commissioned for the opening titles of the 1980 film Gloria, present abstracted, vibrant, and packed cityscapes. Bearden also used watercolor to explore the lush landscapes and inhabitants of Martinique and St. Martin, his wife Nanette’s ancestral home. His Odyssey series showcases prints based on his collages. Illustrating Homer’s Odyssey, Bearden replaces white characters with black figures, likening Odysseus’s arduous and heroic search for home to African American struggles, and attempting to defeat the rigidness of racial roles and stereotypes. As Bearden describes, "What I tried to do is take the elements of African American life . . . and place it in a universal framework.”
His approach to his work, as seen in this exhibition, was improvisational, intuitive, and inventive—not unlike the creative process of jazz and blues that tends to evolve somewhat spontaneously. Romare Bearden: Storyteller’s collages, watercolors, and prints from late in the artist’s life, showcase the artist’s command over innovative techniques and approaches to exploring modernity, humanity, and the African American experience in the places where he lived and worked. Also on view is “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey”, a 15-minute video produced by the Smithsonian with commentary by curator and Columbia University professor Robert O’Meally.
Bearden's work is included in many significant public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and The Studio Museum in Harlem; among others. He has had retrospectives at the Mint Museum of Art (1980), the Detroit Institute of the Arts (1986), as well as numerous posthumous retrospectives, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (1991) and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2003), which traveled to SFMOMA, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Whitney, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Throughout his lifetime, Bearden received numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from Pratt Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Davidson College, and Atlanta University, and in 1987, President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Arts award. Bearden was also a respected writer on art and social issues and with Harry Henderson co-authored the book A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, and with Carl Holty co-authored The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting.