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Metropolitan Museum displays Romare Bearden’s The Block for centennial tribute to the artist

September 1, 2011

Romare Bearden, The Block (detail), 1971. Cut and pasted printed, colored and metallic papers, photostats, pencil, ink marker, gouache, watercolor, and pen and ink on Masonite, 48 x 216 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Shore, 1978 (1978.61.1-6) © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Romare Bearden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will display Bearden’s The Block, a six-panel tableau that portrays one city block of the Harlem neighborhood that nurtured his career. On view at the Metropolitan Museum from August 30, 2011, through January 2, 2012, Romare Bearden (1911-1988): A Centennial Celebration is presented in conjunction with a multi-city centennial tribute to the life and work of this great American artist.

Romare Bearden’s embrace of an unusual medium—paper collage—set him apart as an artist. Jazzy, syncopated compositions, made with found materials such as magazine clippings, old photographs, and colored papers elevated the medium to a major art form for storytelling. In The Block (1971), Bearden used the collage medium to present a montage of images in shifting scales and perspectives that alternate between fantasy and reality. It is a world that is at once eminently recognizable and wholly unique.

The Block depicts Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd streets, in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Bearden created a colorful scene filled with human activity, much of it taking place on the street. Churches, stores, and apartment buildings provide the backdrop for various scenarios, including a funeral, children playing, a homeless man sleeping, and groups of teens and seniors socializing on the sidewalk. What goes on behind closed doors is revealed through windows and cut-aways in the walls that Bearden called “look-ins.”

Bearden’s images are both simple and complex, and layered with meanings that can be inferred from his references to other art and cultures—Renaissance painting, modern art, African tribal sculpture, and Christian iconography. In 1977 his friend the novelist Ralph Ellison wrote that Bearden’s collages created “a place composed of visual puns and artistic allusions…where the sacred and the profane, reality and dream, are ambiguously mingled.”

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