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New York Celebrates African-American Artist Romare Bearden

New York City is celebrating one of the 20th century's most illustrious artists, African-American painter Romare Bearden. The seven-month long tribute is a salute to Bearden's vast legacy in the worlds of art, music and academia.

The citywide festival coincides with the arrival at the Whitney Museum of Art of a traveling show of the most comprehensive exhibition of Bearden's work ever assembled. Whitney director Adam Weinberg calls the retrospective a homecoming.

"It was here in New York that Bearden found his voice. It is clearly one of the most eloquent and profound voices in post-war American art," he said.

Bearden was already a successful cartoonist when his paintings began to attract critical attention in the 1940s. Using the lives of his grandparents in rural North Carolina and the sophisticated life of his parents during the so-called Harlem Renaissance, when the New York City neighborhood was at its peak as a center of African-American culture, he documented the joys and struggles of the African-American experience in bold colors and semi-abstract dreamscapes.

Bearden's work was influenced by his study of the old masters, African art, Asian prints and Byzantine mosaics. He was one of the first major American artists to adopt the experiments of color and form that Matisse and Picasso had pioneered to change 20th century art.

But it was in the mid-1960s that he came into his own when he began making collages with magazine and newspaper clippings. Ruth Fine originally organized the exhibition for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The show opens with Bearden's early collages.

"They tended to be small and they tend to use only magazine cuttings with a little bit of detail in them," said Ruth Fine. They were the works that put him on the more national map at the time of the civil rights movement when a group of African-American artists got together and wanted to find ways that they as artists could make a statement as part of the movement."

Bearden, who died in 1988 at the age of 76, spent the rest of his life making collages. Ms. Fine says his work evolved significantly over time as he added new materials, including wallpaper and foil, to the collages.

"He started using paint. He started adding dramatically to the kinds of material he used going from magazine cuttings to a wide range of papers to spray paint to fabric. And he used all of these materials in a very inventive way," she explained.

Bearden's innovations grew and his materials expanded, but his themes remained the same, his childhood in rural North Carolina, big city life, trains as a symbol of African-American migration from the south to the north, and music, especially jazz and the blues. His art was often narrative, based on stories from the Bible and Greek mythology.

Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell says the current that runs through all of his work throughout his five-decade-long career is optimism.

"He was an artist who was willing to look at the hardships and the struggles of the African American community and come out, without ignoring it, with an optimistic celebratory view of the possibilities of the human condition," she added.

Bearden is best known as a visual artist, but he also left his mark on other disciplines. He designed costumes and sets for his wife's dance company, taught at major universities, and authored three books on art, including a groundbreaking volume on African American art.

Robert O'Meally is an English literature professor at Columbia University, where he also heads the center for jazz studies.

"He also was a very good baseball player, so good that he was invited to join the major leagues on the condition that he would pass for white," said Professor O'Meally. "Bearden was light skinned enough for that to be possible. For a while he thought that since painting was not making him any money he would try his hand at songwriting and he wrote a series of songs that were published and performed. One of them, called "Sea Breeze," became a hit for the singer Billy Eckstine in the early 1950s. He seemed to be able to do anything he turned his mind to."

Professor O'Meally says Romare Bearden was well known in the art world and the African American community for his generosity, giving time, money and advice. Early in Professor O'Meally's career, Bearden advised him to encourage his literature students to study Ernest Hemingway.

"Bearden took my notebook that I always keep with me, and made a drawing of a house and a pathway and some tress and said 'You know there is house and a pathway and the shadow of the leaves across the walk' and I was so excited that Bearden was drawing in my little notebook. And then he said 'Those are the first words of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. Think what that kind of writing would mean for a visual artist where the writing is so vivid and pictorial. Your students are going to be able to see it as well as react to it as words on a page.' He was taking time to teach me something," recalled Professor O'Meally.

Museums and galleries, concert halls and classrooms, and dance companies and research centers across New York City are celebrating Romare Bearden's life and work through March of next year.