Critical Perspective

Romare Bearden and the Art of Collage 

By Paul Laster

No creative medium defines the 20th century better than collage, and few artists contributed as much to this brand of art making than Romare Bearden. The use of collage in modern art begins with the Cubists; was expanded by the Dadaists, Futurists, and Surrealists; became political in the war against Fascism; and continued to play a vital role in the shaping of art through the Abstract Expressionist, Pop, and Postmodernist movements.

The influence of the cut-and-paste method of combining disparate elements has been so great over the past hundred years that it has transcended two-dimensional artworks and become an intrinsic component in making films, sculptural assemblages, written texts, architectural structures, and design products—and, more recently, has determined our use of digital technology. Our mediated world is linked to methods of collage, montage, layering, and juxtapositions through a cut-and-paste—now, copy-and-paste—mentality.

While there are precursors in 19th century Folk Art, the earliest recognized use of collage in Modernism is Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, a 1911-12 still life utilizing a fragment of oil cloth that simulated chair caning, a rope for framing, and the letters JOU to reference the word journal, that signified a newspaper. Picasso, George Braque and other Cubists were interested in adding elements from daily life to their experimental art, while Futurists such as F. T. Marinetti and Carlo Carrà tried to illustrate the speed at which industrial society was moving and the Dadaists—including Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann—wanted to the reveal how chaotic modern life had become.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, avant-garde filmmakers like Abel Gance and Sergei Eisenstein used rapid cutting to heighten the drama of their films, while Man Ray and Luis Bunuel used montage in their movies to create jarring, dreamlike narratives. Meanwhile, the Surrealist painters Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Joan Miró used rubbings from floorboards, juxtaposed scenarios from daily life, and interpretations of found images to make work unlike anything that had been seen before.

Leading up to WWII, George Grosz and John Heartfield used collage to expose the decadence in German society and satirize the Nazi regime, but after the war the European masters like Henri Matisse and Alberto Burri more aesthetically used cut colored paper and bits of burlap bags to capture the spirit of jazz and existentialism of the Atomic Age. During that time, the art scene shifted from Europe to the US, where Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Robert Rauschenberg used cutout lips, found scraps of paper, and cultural artifacts from the streets to make expressionistic and Pop Art pieces.

Simultaneously Richard Stankiewicz and Jean Tinguely were forging industrial assemblages out of scrap metal and old motors and William Burroughs and Brion Gysin were writing essays and books with cut-up text. This is the history of collage leading up to Romare Bearden’s full fledge engagement of the medium. An accomplished political cartoonist in the 1930s and successful abstract painter since the ‘40s, Bearden came to collage in turbulent times and his radical new works confronted the era head on.

Inspired by the Civil Rights protests of 1963, Bearden answered an internal call for action and co-founded Spiral, a group of leading African-Amercan artists of the time that met at his Canal Street studio. Considering ways that they could work on a project together, Bearden assembled tear sheets from newspapers and magazines that could be used to make a communal collage in response to the issues of the day. His attempts at collaboration ultimately failed, but with materials at hand Bearden set out to construct a personal vision of what black art should be.

Although he had briefly incorporated collage techniques in his Abstract Expressionist paintings of the late ‘50s, Bearden’s new use of the medium was bold and timely. At the suggestion of another Spiral member, Bearden enlarged his collages photographically in black-and-white. Dissatisfied with the results, he put the works aside. However, New York art dealer Arne Eskstrom spotted them in the corner of his studio during a visit soon afterward and offered Bearden a show of the Projections at the prestigious Cordier & Ekstrom in 1964.

Buoyed by the popular response to the work, Bearden was liberated to reinvent himself as a mixed-media artist. While Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Tom Wesselman were mining American media for pop culture icons to use in their paintings, Bearden was finding new ways to express the essence of jazz, spiritually, movement, and the inner city in his hybrid works. He revisited previous motives in profound new ways and recalled his early life in the South and migration north through innovative and colorful means, which soon lead to a monumental, traveling show, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1971.

Bearden’s contribution to collage in the 1960s and ‘70s is historic. From 1964’s Watching the Good Trains Go By, Conjur Woman, and The Street to 1967’s Three Folk Musicians, 1970’s Patchwork Quilt and 1971’s The Block, the artist showed the world the power of black art in most inventive ways. Furthermore, his work from this period would itself become a precursor of the Postmodernist art that came to prominence in the 1970s and ‘80s. Bearden’s Projections anticipate Barbara Kruger’s enlarged and collaged images of feminist angst by nearly two decades and Prevalence of Ritual works precede Richard Prince’s controversial Canal Zone paintings, which layer blown-up photos of nudes in puddles of paint, by more than 30 years.

Bearden’s work with collage is also a touchstone for a younger group of African-American artists that are turning heads today. Wangechi Mutu mixes magazine cutouts of eyes, lips, and other body parts with alluring, painted animalistic forms to express women’s power, while Mickalene Thomas make collages of sexually charged women in texture-rich interiors and landscapes that most often get blown-up into jewel encrusted paintings. Both artists enchantingly embrace a creative comment that Bearden once said: “You must become a blues singer—only you sing on the canvas. You improvise—you find the rhythm and catch it good and structure as you go along—then the song is you.”


“Working and reworking his motifs and materials in ways at once extravagant and economic, Bearden synthesized not only his own visual and lived experience but also great chunks of 20th-century art and the cultures that fed it. His collages point to our present, and beyond, in ways that still, 23 years after his death, we barely know.” – Roberta Smith, The New York Times

“Bearden was not a great black artist; he was a great artist, who wove his own life and the lives of other blacks into collages, a distinction that needs restating. His genius… was to see collage as an inherent social metaphor…” – Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times

”Bearden was such a natural artist that he could make a masterpiece drawing with a stick in the sand.” – William Zimmer, The New York Times

“What I didn’t know in 1977 was that Bearden had already created his most ambitious foray into patchwork Cubist collage in an astounding mural [“Berkeley: The City and Its People”], that measures 10 by 16 feet… [It’s] without doubt one of the most successful achievements in public art in this country in the 20th century.” – Hilton Kramer, The New York Observer

“The consciousness of exile… represents Bearden’s core empathy, that supernaturally resilient humanism. [He] sees an African American’s tale of exile and return as the human condition.” – John Haber, Haber’s Art Reviews

“I don’t know of any other medium that captured the fractured reality of black America in the 1960s as well as Bearden’s montaged clips of photographic imagery, borrowed from every kind of popular publication, then reworked and manipulated into engrossing compositions.” – Blake Gopnik, The Washington Post

“[The art of Romare Bearden] was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.” – August Wilson, playwright

“What first seems an explosion of images quickly settles into a meaningful evocation of place. Bearden’s faces catch your eye and won’t let you look away.” – Neda Ulaby, NPR

“In the advanced stages of cancer by the fall of 1987, Mr. Bearden insisted on continuing to create. He resisted taking painkillers for fear they would dull his touch. As Bearden lost precise control of his right arm, he trained himself to draw with his left.” – Samuel G. Freedman, The New York Times

“Whether in the bleeding clarity of his watercolors or the completeness of collage, Bearden captured the universal while presenting the unique. He proved that what is perceived as mundane can be exemplary.” – Brian Keith Jackson, The New York Times


Bearden working in his studio, early 1980s. Bearden Foundation.
Photo: Frank StewartABOUT_BEARDEN_CRITICAL_PERSPECTIVES_portrait_frank_stewart

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