In November 1976, Atlanta’s daily newspaper featured an article by W.C. Burnett Jr. headlined Atlanta Claims Bearden As Her Own. The article included a photograph of the prolific American artist Romare Bearden and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson in front of the Kutz Building mural downtown. Long since demolished, the Bearden mural depicted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a family and a church in a cut piece, Kente style.
The mural was commissioned to honor King through the Urban Walls Project, similar to today’s Living Walls, the City Speaks program. All that remains of the mural today are studies for it that reside in collections at Clark Atlanta University and the High Museum of Art. “We are grateful for these symbols,” Coretta Scott King said at the time, calling the mural “a fulfillment of [King’s] dream through an understanding of his legacy.”
Bearden (1911–1988) is counted among the greatest of modern American artists. His legacy continues in the canons of art history and African American studies. He was a cartoonist, a painter, a muralist, a collagist, a musician and, for most of his life, a social worker. Though born in North Carolina and raised in New York City, he made a profound impression on Atlanta, so profound that his presence is still felt three decades after his death.
Two new exhibitions — Something Over Something Else: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series at the High Museum of Art (opening Saturday and continuing through February 2, 2020) and a companion show at Alan Avery Art Company (September 27—November 9) — prompt the question: What is it about Bearden that continues to resonate so with Atlantans?
Bearden and Atlanta
“His legacy demonstrates the breadth of black creativity and a lifetime of artistic exploration,” says Nzinga Simmons, who’s curating Unbound, an upcoming exhibition on black abstraction at Kennesaw State University’s Zuckerman Museum (January 25—May 20, 2020). Simmons is using Bearden’s abstract painting Snow Morning to begin a conversation on the complex relationship between African American artists, racial responsibilities and artistic freedom.
Bearden’s practice morphed throughout his career, responding to the moment in history. Returning from World War II, he was concerned with being seen as an artist, unhindered by race. He was concerned with depicting humanity through abstract expressionism and worked toward the universal. “Bearden challenged parameters that sought to confine a black artist in the 20th century,” Simmons says, “and championed the acuity of abstraction to contend with life.”
“There is so much nuance and complexity in the work,” Mary Schmidt Campbell, Spelman College president and the author of An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden (Oxford University Press, 2018), told ArtsATL. “He shows how complicated an artist can be in developing a vision.” Campbell’s rich and comprehensive text details Bearden’s life and the historical context that shaped his ideological understanding of art and his art practice.
“Bearden spent 20 years resisting being grouped in with other black artists and being labeled a ‘black artist,’” Campbell says. “His relationship was oppositional to Atlanta. It wasn’t until after the Civil Rights Movement that the connection becomes strong.”
Thus, Bearden’s work became increasingly figurative as he responded to the violence and politics of his day. He used collage to push beyond his figurative works.”
W.E.B. Du Bois used myth in his 1903 text The Souls of Black Folk to convey his feelings on Atlanta. He compared the post-slavery strivings of the city to the myth of Atalanta, a figure in Greek mythology bested in a race due to her greed. Du Bois used the fleet-footed goddess to comment on how greed and ignorance, among other things, were hindering Atlanta’s growth and delaying prosperity for all. Bearden, in his own way, also functioned as a scholar and myth maker.
The myths of Atlanta
What may appeal most to Atlanta art lovers is Bearden’s command of reality and myth. Collage, the medium for which he is most known, weds the freedom of abstraction with the weight of reality. Using collage, Bearden could take the face of an unnamed woman from a magazine and capture a glimpse of reality in her eyes. Through a layering process, he’d then build upon the image and obscure the reality until it became universal. Through color, form and material, Bearden created an image that no longer depicted reality but still maintained its essence of truth. Beyond his train motifs, his retellings of the Great Migration and his depictions of the pictorial rural South, Bearden narrated the black American experience from what we have come to understand as collective memory.
This may be best illustrated in his Profile/Part I and II series, which provides an autobiographical narrative with as much truth as myth. The two collage series were inspired by a 1977 profile of Bearden in The New Yorker magazine titled “Something Over Something Else.” In the Profile series, Bearden details significant moments in his life. The moments are autobiographical but don’t focus on Bearden or his family. Instead, the collages depict peripheral memories of Bearden’s neighbors, his community and American history. He mixes real images of black bodies with abstraction, bringing together scattered pieces of memory, beliefs and traditions.
The title Something Over Something Else could just as easily describe Atlanta. It connotes the layering of Bearden’s collages, just as Atlanta layers one development project on top of another. There’s a new layer atop his downtown mural from the 1970s, a layer over the Neighborhood Arts Center where he’d meet with Atlanta artists and a layer over the history of segregation that kept African American artists like Bearden out of the High Museum for decades.
In his life and in his abstract and figurative works, Bearden was striving toward something just beyond reality. Unlike the mythical Atalanta who reminds us not to let greed hinder us, Bearden reminds us that nothing is permanent. Fueled by the pervading myths of the South, myths of the black mecca and myths of urban revitalization, Atlanta continues to develop. Regardless of the ramifications, Atlanta continues putting something over something else in the hope of creating a city that may never be reality but through myth still feels true.