“I was intrigued by the series of houses I could see from the windows. Their colors, their forms, and the lives they contained within their walls fascinated me….…. When I sketched this block, I was looking at a particular street, Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Street), but as I translated it into visual form it became something else. I lost the literalness and moved into where my imagination took me.“— Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden (1911-1988) has always been one of my favorite painters. An African-American, Bearden became well known to the American public because Bill Cosby was one of his most ardent collectors. Cosby displayed many of Bearden’s paintings on the walls of the “Huxtable house” on the Cosby Show, one of TV’s longest running sitcoms. So you are probably more familiar with Bearden’s work than you might imagine.
The work consists of six paintings-collages — depicting a single block in Harlem, New York that nurtured and inspired so much of Bearden’s work. Bearden was a keen observer, peeking into windows, listening to sounds, noticing small details. Harlem was and still is a center for the arts and a crowded, interesting place to be an observer. Bearden was also drawn to the musical styles that surrounded him, especially jazz, but also blues and gospel.
“Romy is too consistent with all of this stuff not to know precisely what he is doing, and it’s the literary man that has to come to terms with what he’s doing. It’s his consistency which makes it possible to say this is a Bearden. What is ‘a Bearden’? A Bearden statement. That’s always the whole thing. Now, he might deal with a ‘chapter,’ he might deal with a sequence, or he might deal with just a detail, but it will all go together ultimately because there’s a consistency in the way his sensibility works. And the literary legend-maker, as it were, tries to find clues to that consistency.”— Albert Murray talking about his friend, Romare Bearden
In the gallery, on view to the public for the first time, are some of Bearden’s preliminary sketches for The Block, which reveal his close attention to architectural detail and human gesture, as well as his overarching interest in the spatial relationship between individual buildings and between the buildings and the street.
None of these sketches is directly quoted in the finished collage, but they share many of the same subjects and served as the foundation for Bearden’s final, more imaginative interpretation of the scene.
Photos and text by Jill Krementz
Photo credits: 1. Albert Murray, Robert Penn Warren, and the artist, Romare Bearden at The Academy of Arts and Letters, May 22, 1974. Photograph by Jill Krementz. 2. The Block, 1971: An 18-foot-long collage in six parts.
Cut and pasted printed, colored and metallic papers, photostats, pencil, ink marker, gouache, watercolor and pen and ink on masonite. 3. Writer Albert Murray sitting in his apartment on 132nd Street. Mr. Murray and Mr. Bearden were very close friends. Murray owns 15 works by the artist, including the sketch that you can see hanging on the wall in his office, April 18, 1995. All photos and excerpted text by Jill Krementz