Romare Bearden’s Abstract Works

Eliza Lafferty, an intern with the Major Gifts and Director’s Office, discusses the abstract works of Romare Bearden, an artist featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, on view at The Phillips Collection through January 3, 2021. This post is based on a seminar paper with Professor Elizabeth Prelinger at Georgetown University and was awarded the Misty Dailey Award in Art, Diversity, and Healing.

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is highly acclaimed for his collages from the American Civil Rights movement. Although a celebrated African American artist, scholarship often forgets to account for the entirety of his art historical contributions—including his abstract works that do not directly engage his race. The omission of Bearden’s abstract paintings from the Western canon is a result of systemic racism in the art world; many abstract paintings by African American artists are forgotten, unsuccessful in the art market, or assumed to reference trauma and/or racial struggle. To combat the common erasure of abstract works by African American artists, scholarship must engage Bearden’s abstract works in conjunction with his collages.

Collages are Bearden’s signature style and elevated him to fame from 1963 and 1964. His use of the collage began simultaneously with his involvement in the Spiral group of African American artists operating during the Civil Rights Movement. Bearden’s collages address narratives surrounding Black movement, migration, and diaspora. Riffs displays two collages by the artist—Mecklenburg Autumn: Heat Lightning Eastward (1983) and Odysseus: Poseidon, The Sea God-Enemy of Odysseus (1977). Mecklenburg Autumn echoes Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1862) and depicts a black couple, with the woman’s face as an African mask, picnicking outside a Southern home.[1] Odysseus adapts Homer’s Odyssey to chronicle the Great Migration. Elements of the collages are abstract: in Mecklenburg Autumn, Bearden paints nebulous foliage in the background and simple blocks of gray and red to detail the house; Bearden also employs a variety of shapes and vibrant color blocks in Odysseus. Still, the figuration in the collages contrasts the purely abstract canvases Bearden painted earlier in his career.

(LEFT) Romare Bearden, Odysseus: Poseidon, The Sea God-Enemy of Odysseus, 1977, Collage on fiberboard, 43 3/8 x 31 3/8 in., The Thompson Collection, Indianapolis, IN; (RIGHT) Romare Bearden, Mecklenburg Autumn: Heat Lightning Eastward, 1983, Collage and oil on fiberboard, 31 x 40 in., Collection of Ginny and Conner Searcy

While scholarship aptly recognizes Bearden’s collages, it rarely acknowledges his work that does not engage identity, including his abstract creations from 1950-1964. Bearden’s Old Poem from 1960 divorces Black narratives and instead finds inspiration from Chinese Zen paintings. During an interview in 1972, Bearden remarked how he found inspiration in Chinese classical painters’ use of space to direct gazes across the canvas. He adopted the technique in Old Poem and provided vacant, warm, yellow space near the bottom horizontal line of the canvas.[2] Old Poem is one of Bearden’s many abstract pieces—all of which are moreover forgotten from public memory. In 2017, The Neuberger Museum of Art in New York hosted the first public showing of many of Bearden’s abstract watercolor paintings, mixed media collages, and stain paintings; prior to the exhibition, most paintings were in storage.[3] Bearden’s abstract works, which disengage his identity, should be absorbed into the greater conversation of his career.

Romare Bearden, Old Poem, 1960, Oil on linen, Private collection

Analysis of Bearden’s portfolio reveals the expectation for African American artists to create narrative, identity-specific pieces. His fame is predicated on attaching raced identity to artists, creating “African American Art.” While Bearden chose to engage and disengage his Blackness in certain works, we must seek to understand the whole artist—not just the parts that appeal to Western expectations. Modern scholars should address Bearden’s wide-ranging portfolio. Memory of Bearden’s work must not flatten his contributions but engage his dynamic shifts in style and inspiration, and in the process, reimagine the depths of his contributions to the Western artistic canon.


[1] Adrienne L. Childs, Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition (Washington, DC: The Phillips Collection; New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2020), 106.

[2] Mary Schmidt Campbell and Sharon F. Patton, Memory and Metaphor the Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987 (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1991), 36.

[3] Natalie Espinosa, “Romare Bearden: Abstraction,” American Federation of Arts, October 4, 2019,

Riffs and Relations: African Art and Modernism

While The Phillips Collection is closed, The Experiment Station will be sharing some of the great artwork featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, now on view through January 3, 2021.

Early in the 20th century, African art, displayed at ethnographic museums in Europe and circulated in publications, came to the attention of artists as source material for new and exciting possibilities. Yet the objects that arrived in Europe by way of colonialism were interpreted mainly through visual cues and without proper context. This set up an uneven power dynamic and a false dichotomy between “civilized” European and “primitive” African cultures. The European fascination with the art of Africans and other non-Western cultures became known as “Modernist Primitivism.”

In the 1920s and 30s, Harlem Renaissance cultural leader Alain Locke advised in The New Negro and other writings that African American artists draw upon European aesthetic models (including Cubism and German Expressionism) indebted to African art. He also encouraged artists to learn more about Africa to help define their modern identity. In their studies, they looked to photographs of African art featured in Locke’s publications and others and attended exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art’s 1935 African Negro Art, which encompassed over 600 objects primarily from European and American collections. Winold Reiss and Aaron Douglas were among the many artists who engaged with African art in their own work.

Winold Reiss, African Phantasy: Awakening, c. 1925, Ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper, 19 3/4 x 14 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Museum purchase

An immigrant from Germany, artist and illustrator Winold Reiss made a great impact on the visual culture of the Harlem Renaissance. Reiss illustrated Alain Locke’s The New Negro, a publication in which modern black identities were explored and imagined. Reiss’s 1920s modernist style was inflected with the latest Art Deco trends as well as the European modernist vogue for African art. African Phantasy: Awakening was published in the first edition of The New Negro. In an imaginative African setting, Reiss depicts a black couple dancing among patterns and symbols that recall a mythical African past. In spite of some stereotypical aspects, Reiss’s Jazz Age fantasy was of its time. His illustrations in numerous publications had an indelible influence on the development on African American modernists, especially his student Aaron Douglas.

Aaron Douglas, The Negro in an African Setting (later variant of panel 1 of Aspects of Negro Life), 1954, Oil on canvas board, 20 x 24 in., Collection of Steven L. Jones, Philadelphia and Chicago

The early works of Aaron Douglas (b. 1899, Topeka, KS; d. 1979, Nashville, TN) defined the images of the New Negro movement. By synthesizing Alain Locke’s charge to combine African arts and modernist style, he created a new idiom through which African American stories could be told. His aesthetic was heavily influenced by his teacher German modernist Winold Reiss who also advised him to study the arts of Africa.

Douglas is highly regarded for his epic four-panel mural cycle, Aspects of Negro Life (1934), commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Adopting aspects of Cubism, he employed his signature aesthetic to chronicle the movement of African Americans from an African setting through slavery and Reconstruction to the vagaries of modern identity. The Negro in an African Setting, a variant of the first panel in the mural cycle, features many of the same elements of the original mural—men and women dancing and playing instruments, an African styled sculpture, and a border of lush foliage—all animated by concentric circles that radiate outward. New to the scene is a lone female observing from the margins.

Riffs and Relations: Ayana V. Jackson

Artist Ayana V. Jackson discusses her work Judgment of Paris, which premiered in Riffs in Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, now at The Phillips Collection.

Ayana V. Jackson, Judgment of Paris, 2018, Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 40 × 60 in., Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Chicago

Judgment of Paris was produced in 2017 as part of Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment, a series that looks at the black body in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In general, my work looks at the way the black body, in particular the black woman’s body, has been represented in the history of art and popular culture as well as how it is regarded within the collective memory. Within Intimate Justice, I consider misrepresentation, absence, and exclusion. I look at what is lacking in the representation of the range of possibilities for that body. Using my body, I perform new narratives to reflect the dynamism of the black woman’s experience during that period. Obviously, if we’re talking about the 1800s and 1900s, whether it be in the Americas or other parts of the world, we are likely talking about an enslaved or colonized body, or a body in servitude. That notwithstanding, what is often left out of that frame are other modes of existence that are operating parallel to or at the very least simultaneously.

With regard to the black body in Europe and the Americas, I think it’s important for us to be very careful with the origin stories we tell and the narratives we use to associate with those bodies in that period. One can at once be enslaved and also be a mother, a sister, a lover, an idealist, a dreamer, an inventor, an engineer. These are all selves that the black body and the black woman’s body also occupied in that period of time. To this end, works like Judgment of Paris are my way of portraying the body at leisure as a counterweight to the overrepresentation of black bodies as suffering bodies in pain. It is important to consider that at any given moment, one can choose to embrace another aspect of the self.

Judgment of Paris was selected for the exhibition because it refers to modernism. It references Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, an important piece of Impressionist painting made by Édouard Manet in 1863. It may be known to many that his depiction of two dressed males and two nude and semi-nude females was quite scandalous at the time. As a result, it was rejected from the Paris Salon of 1863, though it was later included in the Salon des Refusés which was commissioned by Edward Napoleon the III.

Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, Oil on canvas, 82 x 104 in., Musée d’Orsay, Paris

I submitted this work to the exhibition not only because of its modernist reference, but more importantly because the “original” itself is a “riff.” To some it is probably unknown that Manet was referring and perhaps sending a nod to an engraving done in the 16th century by a printmaker named Marcantonio Raimondi. This particular engraving, created in conversation with Raphael, depicts the events leading up to the Trojan War. The section that is sampled, riffed, or excerpted by Manet is found in the lower right edge of that print. There are three seated figures—two males and one female seated with her elbow on her knee.

Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael, Judgment of Paris, c. 1515

Manet adopts this piece for Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. I thought it would be interesting to use this work for Riffs and Relations, and initially for Intimate Justice, because Judgment of Paris—the original piece—presents Paris, the mythological character, choosing between three beauties: Juno, Minerva, and Venus. Forced to determine who is the most beautiful he ultimately chooses Venus, as portrayed in the section where he offers the apple to Venus. In considering this scene, I thought it would be beautiful to remix these two narratives and place three black women in the frame.

Manet was quite scandalous for portraying regular woman in his paintings, even worse women believed to be prostitutes in stages of undress. However, the act of bringing the non ”elite” person into the frame is part of what makes that work particularly interesting. My Judgment of Paris seeks to do the same thing—it brings the black woman’s body into a space where it is usually excluded and asks the audience to address it, look at it, and contemplate the meaning of its existence in that context.

I chose not to portray the woman’s figure nude because I didn’t find it necessary; however, I do allow for the character with her elbow on the knee to return the gaze—to confront her audience. Through that confrontation, I’m asking you to not only see the woman but also to see her absence in the history of modernism.

To that point—the topic of erasure—another detail I’d like to point out as we consider my reference material is the story of Manet’s nude in Déjeuner. Victorine Meurent is the same model in his masterpiece Olympia and at least eight of his other major works. Not only that, she was also an artist working in Paris at the time. While this has been proven to be the case, her other “selves” have largely been forgotten in favor of this mode of her existence. And she is not alone in having her agency and her other selves painted over by the brush of history. Thanks to scholars like Dr. Denise Murell, more and more of the names of women working as models during this period are coming to light, particularly black models. For instance, alongside Meurent, the woman presenting the flowers is Laure, a highly sought after and highly coveted model working at the time. She is also featured in multiple masterpieces of the era.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 74 3/4 in., Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In thinking about Laure and Meurent, I am further convinced that it’s imperative for us to revisit artworks in the cannon. We should regularly reconsider how they’ve been discussed, what we focus on when we look at them, who gets to be considered. It is equally important to revisit the characters that are involved in their production and promotion. This is particularly important for those of us looking at these works from the point of view of a person who inhabits a marginalized body, a body that has been misrepresented or misjudged by history. It is incumbent upon us to judge the judges of history and reconsider their judgement. Even if it comes down through the celebrated Paris Salons of the 19th century which helped determine what is considered relevant.

Finally, I would like to add that I am super excited for the opportunity to participate in Riffs and Relations. I am incredibly grateful to Dr. Adrienne Childs for selecting me. It is not every day that an artist gets to hang alongside masters, mentors, friends, and peers. In this exhibition, Carrie Mae Weems and Renee Cox are presented—these are two women I know personally, but more importantly are artists I studied in my earliest years. Their work, as black women who work with photography and with their own bodies, has been incredibly influential. Their work on absence, their tireless placing of their bodies in spaces where it has been excluded is seminal—I learned to claim space through these two women. The opportunity to hang beside them is amazing. I am incredibly inspired by Elizabeth Catlett, and am also proud to hang alongside peers like Titus Kaphar and Hank Willis Thomas. I am perpetually in awe of their work. And, of course, it is an honor to be presented at The Phillips Collection. It is one of the most important collections in our country so to be asked to hang on their walls is a great accomplishment.

Installation view of Riffs and Relations, featuring (left to right) work by Elizabeth Catlett, Titus Kaphar, Ayana Jackson, Renee Cox, and Faith Ringgold

Lastly, I’d like to thank The Phillips Collection and its entire team for putting on this amazing exhibition, and to Dr. Adrienne Childs, I‘d like to express my deepest appreciation for her faith, confidence, and interest in my work.