|Groundbreaking artist, intellectual, and activist Romare Bearden (September 2, 1911 – March 12, 1988) was born in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina. When Bearden was about 3 years old, his parents Bessye Johnson Banks Bearden and Richard Howard Bearden moved the family to Harlem in search of a better life as so many other southern African Americans did during the first wave of the Great Migration, and it’s with Harlem that Bearden is most closely associated. While Bearden’s childhood and early career in Harlem greatly influenced his art, his art practice and signature style only reached its pinnacle after he moved downtown, where he produced his most famous works of art and helped define a black artistic community and vision.
Bearden’s first studio downtown was located in a loft in SoHo at 357 Canal Street starting in 1956, From his SoHo studio, Bearden along with Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Felrath Hines, and Richard Mayhew formed Spiral, a group of New York-based African American artists, in July 1963 to explore the question “What is Black art?” Soon, the group found a permanent space at 147 Christopher Street where they met weekly and held their only exhibition until the group disbanded in 1966. Once more, downtown, its culture, and its built environment proved to be the perfect place to build an artistic movement.
Romare Bearden is most well known for his refined collage technique that expertly blended contemporary images with African art and seamlessly rendered the southern and urban African American experience in parallel. While Bearden first began experimenting with collage in the late 1940s, it was not until his work with Spiral that he truly uncovered the medium’s ability to render the intricacies of the Black experience in the United States. Bearden first exhibited his Projections, enlarged black-and-white photostats of his collages, at Arne Ekstrom’s gallery in 1964. The exhibition was so successful that the following year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., organized a second “Projections” show, Bearden’s first one-man museum exhibition. The success of these exhibitions allowed Bearden to retire from his day job in 1966 and become a full-time artist.
With Bearden’s artistic legacy established, he along with Ernest Crichlow and Norman Lewis established the Cinque Gallery in 1969 to “provide a place where the works of unknown, and neglected artists of talent…” primarily minority artists “would not only be shown but nurtured and developed.” Relying on a series of volunteers, Cinque Gallery hosted solo, group, and touring exhibitions, presenting artwork by approximately 450 artists, including Emma Amos, Dawoud Bey, Sam Gilliam, and Whitfield Lovell, in its 35-year history. Named after Joseph Cinqué, the leader of the Amistad slave ship mutiny of the 1830s, the Gallery was initially located in a space offered by Joseph Papp’s New York Public Theatre. Cinque bounced to various locations, including 2 Astor Place and 442 Lafayette, before finally re-locating in 1988 to 560 Broadway in SoHo, where it remained until its closing in 2004.
Romare Bearden’s creative and artistic practice flourished throughout the years he spent below 14th Street. Whether he was working in SoHo, NoHo, the West Village, the East Village, or even around Washington Square Park during his days as a student at NYU in the 1930s, the cultural life of the Village and surrounding neighborhoods invigorated his art. With the formation of Cinque Gallery in NoHo and later in SoHo, Bearden nurtured the next generation of African American artists immersed in the same dynamic context.