Romare Bearden, Celebrated Black Artist, Dead at 75

Times Staff Writer

Romare Bearden, whose striking collages of urban and rural black life earned him renown as one of the foremost contemporary American artists, died of cancer Saturday in New York. He was 75.

Because he was highly successful early in his career, he became a totem in the black art world and often used his influence to help younger black artists. His works are in the collections of virtually every major museum in the country. Last year, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Reagan.

“He was one of the most outstanding of black American artists,” said Stephanie Barron, curator of 20th-Century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “The way he combined very bright colors . . . within a folk tradition to create something uniquely his own--it’s always difficult to mistake his work for anyone else’s.”


Though he began his 50-year artistic career as a painter, he was best known for his collages: tapestries of black life fashioned from scraps of photographs, cloth, colored paper and paint. For images, he frequently turned to women, birds, factories, jazz musicians and trains, as well as certain religious themes, such as baptism.

Though Bearden chose as his favorite subject matter the black world, he resisted the notion that there was such a thing as “black” art and “white” art.

“It would be highly artificial for the Negro artist to attempt a resurrection of African culture in America. . . . Culture is not a biologically inherited phenomenon,” he wrote in 1946. “The critic asks that the Negro stay away from the white man’s art. But the true artist feels that there is only one art and that it belongs to all mankind.”

Born in Charlotte, N.C., of middle-class parents, he moved to New York City when he was young and grew up in Harlem and Pittsburgh. He majored in mathematics at New York University and, at his mother’s insistence, planned to go to medical school. Not until he did cartoons for a college magazine did he grow interested in art and drop his plans to become a doctor.

During the Depression, he studied with the satiric German master George Grosz at the Art Students League in New York City. He became associated with the 306 Group, an informal organization of Harlem artists, the best known of whom was Jacob Lawrence.

Statements From His Past

His first exhibited paintings were mostly simple, stylized statements that drew from his childhood memories in the South and were well-received. But his career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the all-black 372nd Infantry Regiment.

After the war, he studied Cubism and early abstract Expressionists, and held three solo exhibitions in 1945. Feeling the need for more formal study, he went to Paris in the early 1950s, meeting Picasso, Braque and other painters of the time.

His determination to learn from the masters gave him a formal strength that set him apart from some of his contemporaries. His inspirations came from sources as diverse as the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” to Chinese line drawings and Matisse.

With the growth of the civil rights movement, Bearden began refocusing more on his experiences as a black man in America. Black artists who called themselves the Spiral Group began meeting at his studio, discussing their problems as black artists and the struggle for social, as well as artistic, equality.

Without being overtly political or sentimental, Bearden began portraying more intensely the disjointed rhythms of life in Harlem tenements and the communal rhythms of black families he recalled from his childhood days in the South.

Behind his art, there always seemed to be a story begging to be told. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson was so inspired by a Bearden painting titled “Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket” that he wrote a play about it called “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

“There is a man coming down the stairs reaching for a lunch bucket,” Wilson said. “There is a painting of a woman in a white dress. There is another man. . . . They’re going to leave this man standing alone when all he needs is human contact. All these characters in the painting became characters in the play.”

Bearden was also a songwriter who composed the music for the hit song “Sea Breeze” and about 20 other songs in the 1950s. As a youth, he pitched for the Boston Tigers, an all-black baseball team. He also illustrated covers for magazines in the 1960s and ‘70s, including TV Guide, and designed sets for the Harlem-based Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

A large man whose modest, easy-going manner made him as appealing personally as he was artistically, he lived part-time in New York City and in St. Martin in the Caribbean. His wife, Nanette, who survives him, is from St. Martin.