Born Fred Howard Romare Bearden in Charlotte, North Carolina, he grew up primarily in the Harlem district of New York City. His mother’s work as New York editor for the Chicago Defender newspaper and as a social activist brought Bearden into contact with the writers, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, a high point of black intellectual life during the 1920s. Bearden’s life-long interest in African American art and in jazz and blues music dates from this period. He studied at New York University, receiving his B.A. degree in 1935. While a student, he drew cartoons for the university’s humor magazine, Medley, and submitted political cartoons and drawings to such publications as the Baltimore Afro-American, Collier’s Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. In the late 1930s Bearden attended the Art Students League where he worked with German-American expressionist artist George Grosz. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Bearden began experimenting with abstraction. His technique involved applying broad areas of color in various thicknesses on rice paper and then gluing the painted papers on canvas, usually in several layers. He then tore sections of the paper away and added more paper until a motif or image presented itself. He completed the work by painting additional elements. Bearden produced some of his most innovative works in the late 1960s. Often incorporating life-sized imagery, these works combine collage with acrylics, oils, mosaics, and black and white photographs. During the 1970s and 1980s his subject matter continued to emphasize both African American myth and everyday experience. The small collage Family (1988) served as the model for a much larger piece made of ceramic tiles, which is displayed at the Joseph P. Addabbo Federal building in the New York City borough of Queens. Bearden’s long-term association with the island of Saint Martin in the West Indies, where his wife had family, can be seen in works throughout his career. Pepper Jelly Lady (1980), a colorful lithograph, depicts a woman selling her pepper jelly in front of a walled estate. A wide border of single-color line drawings sets off the vibrant central image. Bearden coauthored several books on African-American artists including Six Black Masters of American Art (1972) and A History of African-American Artists (1992). In 1987, a year before his death; Bearden was awarded the National Medal of Arts by United States president Ronald Reagan. His paintings and collages show many aspects of the Black experience. Bearden experimented with a variety of forms and styles over the years, and his work reflects his interest in the 20th-century art movements of cubism, social realism, and abstraction.
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