The harmonic history of Black culture and art in Harlem — as told by friends and neighbors — is explored in the new Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures exhibition. In one section, you'll find a maquette of Augusta Savage’s Lift Every Voice and Sing depicts singers performing the Black national anthem held by God’s hands. In another section, her student Norman Lewis captures the rhythm of 1940s Harlem jazz with abstract expressionist Street Music. But to tie the harmony together (literally and figuratively) is Romare Bearden.
Bearden’s collage Black Manhattan is a reflection on Harlem in the 1960s. However, the life of Bearden, a collaborator of Savage and Lewis and a friend to his contemporary luminaries (James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Jacob Lawrence, and Toni Morrison), is a testament to harmony and Black culture as much as his works.
“In everything he does, Bearden references Blackness — his work is a reflection of his life, of his culture, and his love for the people and places within it,” said Tammi Lawson, Curator of Art & Artifacts at the Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, which holds a collection of Bearden’s art including drawings, paintings, prints, and even tapestry.
Bearden’s Black Manhattan uses the perspectives of buildings, fire escapes, and art deco entryways to create dimension. The title may suggest all of Manhattan but Bearden signifies Harlem through neighbors peeking out of row-house buildings and seated congregations on the sidewalk. A bright, complementary palette of orange and blue recreates Harlem streets — much like 125th Street where Bearden’s studio was located.
The piece is one of Bearden’s many expressions of NYC, from capturing shopping scenes on 7th Avenue to the Harlem nightclub The Savoy.
“What Bearden wanted to do is show the beauty of the city. People looking out the window. The bustle of the streets. It’s a reflection of urban life,” said Lawson. “Bearden’s images reflect some of the elements of jazz with its interplay among the characters and improvisation of the materials used.”
Jazz, and Bearden’s talents as a polymath, are some of his greatest influences. He wrote songs for Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie and in the 1950s, his song “Seabreeze” became a hit recorded by Billy Eckstine and Tito Puente. Earlier in his life, he served as a veteran, activist, and social worker. He studied mathematics at NYU while contributing as a lead cartoonist and art editor for the school’s Eucleian Society journal.
Ralph Ellison, a friend of Bearden, recalled the artist’s diverse talents:
“I can remember visits to Romie’s 125th Street studio during which he stood at his easel sketching and explaining the perspectives of the Dutch and Italian masters,” he said. “Other times he played with the rhythms of Mondrian and related them to the structure of jazz.”
Romare Bearden dedicated himself to a lifelong study of art including explorations of French masters, African sculpture, Byzantine mosaics, Japanese prints, and Chinese landscape paintings. Black Manhattan is one of Bearden’s expressions of the urban and everyday turned fantastic from his global, cultural, and artistic influences.
“He is probably one of the most influential and innovative artists of the 20th century,” said Lawson. “And he was solid in his identity and his love of Black culture.”
In the course of his life, he would lead several successful exhibitions, receive Honorary Doctrines from at least 8 different universities and earn the presidential National Medal of Arts in 1987.
From his upbringing in the American South to his studies at the Sorbonne, Bearden’s most lauded works are the ones that turn the viewer into a voyeur of Black culture. Throughout his expressions, his many talents and interests would reverb through the work.
The artist would say himself: “Time is a pattern. You can come back to where you started from with added experience and you hope with more understanding. You leave and then return to the homeland of your imagination.”
This story is part of our partnership with the NYPL around the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, which showcases items spanning 4,000 years from the Library's research collections—we've been publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures. The Treasures exhibition is now open at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now available here.