Exhibition review

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is beloved for his large-scale collages that testify to the everyday experiences of Black Americans. They are vivid, complex and necessary works of art that are written about in art history books, prized in art collections and instantly recognizable as Beardens.  

A traveling exhibition of Bearden’s abstract paintings, now showing at the Frye Art Museum — the last stop on a national tour — will change the way you think about those iconic collages. 

Are there collages in the show? Yes. There are some wonderful examples of his signature, figurative collages such as “La Primavera” from 1967. Depending on the route you take, these big, beautiful works either complete a chronological walk-through or welcome you with an introduction to his best-known work. 

And — spoiler! — there are quite a few nonfigurative collages that he created in the earlier decade of abstract painting that is the focus of this show. These collaged paintings from the 1950s and early ‘60s directly contradict the oft-told story that Bearden only turned to collage in 1963 when he decided to feature Black figures and stories. 

In “River Mist” from around 1962, for example, Bearden cut and tore his canvas and remounted it on a painted board to create a raggedly flowing composition of mottled blue and soft white, with glimpses of glowing orange. 

These abstract paintings are both radically different from his later collages and full of foreshadowing, holding hints of Bearden’s compositional virtuosity and material experimentation. This exhibition sets out to prove a point and it does so brilliantly: These paintings were fundamentally important to Bearden’s development as a collage artist.

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From the mid-1950s to 1963, Bearden embraced nonfigurative painting, exploring different arrangements of color, texture and painterly techniques. This is a show to see in person, to study the brushed, dripped, stained and scumbled surfaces. 

The dreamy, marblelike surfaces of 1961’s “Heart of Autumn” show evidence of paint soaking into the canvas, splattered and dabbed across it, and softly brushed on to create bursts of shapes. New approaches to the age-old medium of paint were celebrated during this time when abstract expressionism reigned. But look even closer and you’ll see pencil marks where Bearden plotted out and emphasized his compositions. Even in the midst of all this seemingly spontaneous abstraction, Bearden was thoughtfully putting the pieces together. 

The exhibition is full of revelations and insight. But this isn’t an overly simplified, clickbaity story of recovering long-lost paintings for the world to see for the first time. Bearden actually exhibited and sold quite a few of them in the 1950s and ‘60s. 

So, if Bearden was finding success with these paintings, why did he abandon them in 1963? 

Keenly interested in the civil rights debates that were thundering across the nation, Bearden was critical of the tendency to stereotype and generalize the experiences of African Americans. Along with his friend William Baldwin, Bearden felt that the specificity and individuality of the diverse lives of Black people must be acknowledged. For Bearden, the language of abstraction couldn’t say what needed to be said. 

A museum wall panel quotes Bearden as saying, “I did the new work out of a response and need to redefine the image of man in the term of the Negro experience I know best. I felt that the Negro was becoming too much of an abstraction, rather than the reality that art can give a subject.”

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And so Bearden turned toward recognizable figures and stories, using collage to construct scenes drawn from his own and others’ experiences. But the lessons he learned during his decade of painterly experimentation are clear in these collages. While there are detailed allusions to places and stories, there is an overall, formally abstract approach to the way the backgrounds and figures are assembled from simplified shapes and excerpted materials. In fact, Bearden recycled some of his older works, cutting up painted or photocopied paper to use as foundational elements. 

What he attempted to do, he said, was to “establish a world through art” in which the validity of his African American experience “could live and make its own logic.” Bearden’s previous exploration of material, technique and composition led to this logic, a system for constructing form and story that validated and celebrated life.

“Romare Bearden: Abstraction”

Through Sept. 18; Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; free; 206-622-9250, fryemuseum.org

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