Romare Bearden – ‘How do you organise chaos?’

Black and white collage

^ Romare Bearden Train Whistle Blues No. 1 1964

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) used Dada collage techniques developed while studying with George Grosz at NYC’s Arts Student League to create groundbreaking collages that led him to be hailed as one of America’s greatest 20th century’s artists. His work mixes scenes of everyday life for African Americans in mid-century USA with mythological and pastoral imagery and scenes of religious ritual. For Bearden, collage symbolised ‘the coming together of tradition and communities’.

Inspired also by Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, Bearden brought communal spirit to his compositions. It was during the Civil Rights Movement that Bearden’s collages found an intersection between activism, community and current events. He saw collage as a socially responsible mouthpiece where he could transmute news and magazine coverage into political statements. Much like the Pop Artists and Dadaists, he was a pioneer in using popular and everyday materials – in this case glossy magazines – in order to make larger comments.

The artist confronts chaos. The whole thing of art is, how do you organize chaos?

Romare Bearden

The contemporary moment was also rendered through Classical allegory, as hew would recast the likes of Odysseus as African-American, drawing a through-line of the universal into the stories he told. The power of collage and photomontage is its ability to collapse time and space, telling new stories from old materials, which Bearden took up as a challenge to connect real life with the abstract.

Romare Bearden, Spring Way, 1964, collage on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design, 1999.9

All images shared here in fair use for educational purposes.
Romare Bearden, “Profile/Part I, The Twenties, Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene” (1978), collage on board. Private collection.
Romare Bearden “Profile/Part I, TheTwenties, PittsburghMemories, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket” (1978), collage of cut paper and fabric with watercolor, graphite pencil, gouache, and felt-tip pen on Masonite. Cincinnati Art Museum, Museum Purchase: The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial and the John J.Emery Endowment, 2011.
‘Patchwork Quilt’, cut-and-pasted cloth and paper with synthetic polymer paint on composition board by Romare Bearden, 1970, Museum of Modern Art
Romare Bearden, Pepper Jelly Lady, 1980, color lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Democratic National Committee, 1981.174.2, © 1980, Estate of Romare Bearden

Further Reading: