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Exhibit focusing on artist Romare Bearden's activism comes to Pittsburgh

Many critics rank Romare Bearden among the most important American artists of the 20th century. A new touring exhibit coming to the Frick Pittsburgh explores his social activism and touches on his Pittsburgh connections.

Romare Bearden
Library of Congress
The Romare Bearden Foundation
Romare Bearden as photographed in the 1940s, during his time in the U.S. Army.

“Romare Bearden: Artist as Activist and Visionary” features 50 artworks from his half-century career, which stretched from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black arts movement and beyond. The artworks, prints, and archival materials include his early political cartoons as well as the vibrant collages for which he is best known, honoring Black people, history, and culture.

Bearden’s art didn’t often include overt political commentary. However, because of how he centered Black life, “His whole working method was in a way an act of resistance,” said Melanie Groves, the Frick’s manager of exhibitions. Many of the works in the show depict Bible stories (like the Annunciation) or episodes from literary classics, including the Odyssey, peopled with Black characters.

The show is organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation. One section is called Visualizing the African-American Landscape. Another focuses on Bearden’s depictions of women, who appear in his work as “healers, protectors, goddesses and conjurers.” A third section includes original illustrations in collage and watercolor from his posthumously published children’s book “Li’l Dan, The Drummer Boy: A Civil War story,” about “an enslaved drummer boy who uses his art to save a company of Union soldiers.”

Bearden was born in North Carolina, in 1911, but grew up partly in Pittsburgh, and at least one of his works, the 1984 mosaic mural “Pittsburgh Recollections,” is known to generations of local commuters from its place in the underground Gateway T Station, Downtown. (When the station was replaced, starting in 2009, the huge mural was painstakingly preserved and rebuilt.)

While no works in the touring exhibit explicitly depict Pittsburgh, Groves said Bearden’s frequent renderings of industrial workers reflect the Peabody High School graduate’s handful of years here, when he lived with his maternal grandparents at their Lawrenceville boarding house for mill workers.

“He absolutely is referencing his time spent in Pittsburgh in a lot of his work,” she said.

Romare Bearden's Piano Lesson
The Romare Bearden Foundation
Bearden's "Homage to Mary Lou (The Piano Lesson)" (1983)

Another work in the show has at least two Pittsburgh links: the original of Bearden’s collage “The Piano Lesson,” created to honor Pittsburgh-born jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and which later inspired famed Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. (Wilson often cited Bearden’s art as one of the key influences on his own work.)

Bearden grew up partly in Harlem, and his life and career are mostly associated with New York City, where for decades he was a caseworker with the New York City Department of Social Services. He was a founding member of the Spiral Group, which was dedicated to supporting emerging artists in the Black freedom movement. He died in 1988.

“Romare Bearden: Artist as Activist and Visionary” opens Sat., April 30, and continues through Sept. 18. More information is here.