Albert Murray, Robert Penn Warren, and the artist, Romare Bearden at The Academy of
Arts and Letters, May 22, 1974. Photograph by Jill Krementz.
Romare Bearden's The Block and Related Drawings
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, 1st Floor
January 15th-Spring 2010
There will be a Gallery Talk at 6 pm on Friday, February 26th
Romare Bearden (1911-1988) has always been one of my favorite painters. An African-American, Bearden became well known to the American public because Bill Cosby was one of his most ardent collectors. Cosby displayed many of Bearden's paintings on the walls of the “Huxtable house” on the Cosby Show, one of TV's longest running sitcoms. So you are probably more familiar with Bearden's work than you might imagine.
The Block consists of six paintings-collages really — depicting a single block in Harlem, the New York neighborhood that nurtured and inspired so much of Bearden's work. Bearden was a keen observer, peeking into windows, listening to sounds, noticing small details. Harlem was a center for the arts and a crowded, interesting place to be an observer. Bearden was also drawn to the musical styles that surrounded him, especially jazz, but also blues and gospel.
These six magnificent “vignettes” were originally exhibited in Bearden's first major show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. This masterpiece is now owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Associate Curator Lisa Messinger has added eleven of Bearden's preliminary drawings to what is called a “small-focus” show. Also included, two photographs of the block taken by Bearden's close friend, writer Albert Murray.
The Block, 1971: An 18-foot-long collage in six parts.
Cut and pasted printed, colored and metallic papers, photostats, pencil, ink marker, gouache, watercolor and pen and ink on masonite.
"I was intrigued by the series of houses I could see from the windows. Their colors, their forms, and the lives they contained within their walls fascinated me. When I sketched this block, I was looking at a particular street, Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Street), but as I translated it into visual form it became something else. I lost the literalness and moved into where my imagination took me."
— Romare Bearden
Panel I: A Liquor Store.
Bearden's collage technique -- a mixture of bold colors, large and small shapes, and diverse patterns -- captures the energy of city life. Above the activities at street level, Harlem's residents are shown in more private moments, through windows and in cutaway wall views that Bearden referred to as "look-ins."
Panel I detail: Collage of children and a mousetrap in window on upper floor of Liquor Store building.
Details of Part 1 Panel: Harlem residents milling around on sidewalk in lower left hand corner.
Man sitting on stairway in building adjacent to Liquor Store.
Panel II: A Funeral Parlor (procession in progress).
In addition to encompassing bold colors, and black and white motifs, Bearden felt that sound was integral to his work. The original installation was accompanied by recordings of street noise, news broadcasts, and church music.
Details from Panel II.
Detail of hearse in front of Funeral home.
Details from Panel III. The faces of the two children are collaged with pieces of brown paper.
Panel IV - An Evangelical Church.
Detail from Panel IV (on left): The entrance to the Evangelical Church.
Detail from Panel IV (on right): A man sits on a chair with his arms around a young boy and a young girl stands beside them. Behind them you can see a street person sleeping on the sidewalk. Both men are wearing hats.
Details of two different windows in the building housing Evangelical Church.
Details from Panel V: Pigeons on the roof, a couple making love with fluttering curtain, another couple staring out their window beneath a half-drawn shade.
Panel VI: A Barbershop.
Details from Panel VI: Bearden often incorporated photographs into his collages.
Detail, Panel VI.
Detail, Panel VI.
On view: several preliminary studies for The Block, ca. 1971, ink marker and pencil on paper ...
In this gallery, on view to the public for the first time, are some of Bearden's preliminary sketches for The Block, which reveal his close attention to architectural detail and human gesture, as well as his overarching interest in the spatial relationship between individual buildings and between the buildings and the street. None of these sketches is directly quoted in the finished collage, but they share many of the same subjects and served as the foundation for Bearden's final, more imaginative interpretation of the scene.
"I do not need to go looking for 'happenings,' the absurd, or the surreal, because I have seen all these things out of my studio window on 125th Street."
— Romare Bearden
Also on display are two photographs of Lenox Avenue, taken in about 1971 by Bearden's friend, the writer Albert Murray. The drawings and photographs were part of the 2005 bequest of William S. Lieberman (1923-2005), former chairman of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of
Writer Albert Murray sitting in his apartment on 132nd Street. Mr. Murray and Mr. Bearden were very close friends. Murray owns 15 works by the artist, including the sketch that you can see hanging on the wall in his office, April 18, 1995. "Romy is too consistent with all of this stuff not to know precisely what he is doing, and it's the literary man that has to come to terms with what he's doing. It's his consistency which makes it possible to say this is a Bearden. What is 'a Bearden'? A Bearden statement. That's always the whole thing. Now, he might deal with a 'chapter,' he might deal with a sequence, or he might deal with just a detail, but it will all go together ultimately because there's a consistency in the way his sensibility works. And the literary legend-maker, as it were, tries to find clues to that consistency."
— Albert Murray talking about his friend, Romare Bearden