Nearly 40 years after its original exhibition, 20th century African American artist Romare Bearden’s profile series, “Something Over Something Else,” has made its way to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and I was there to capture it.
I visited the exhibit around lunchtime on a classically scorching Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. Missing the church/ brunch crowds was the way to go, as I was able to breeze through the entrance at 1 p.m. It took some searching, but I ultimately found the exhibit’s entrance tucked away on the second floor. I was met with a bright blue wall attracting me to its view.
Set up like a long pathway, I began observing the exhibit by walking into the first room to view Part I, The Twenties, which then led us to a second room containing Part II, The Thirties. The final third room contained a projected documentary about the exhibit, complete with old interview clips of Bearden himself interspersed with commentary from the curators.
Bearden, a self-taught artist, revolutionized painting through his expressive use of collage to illustrate stories chronicling his life. A Charlotte, North Carolina native coming up in the 1900s, he graduated from New York University in 1935 with a degree in Science and Education. His Harlem Renaissance-inspired artwork eventually
propelled him to become one of the most influential African American artists of the 20th century. Split into two parts, the series “begins with Bearden’s earliest memories as a boy in North Carolina in the 1910s and concludes with his life as a young artist in Harlem in the early 1940s,” according to the High Museum of Art. First exhibited in 1979 and 1981 at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York, the work originally featured Bearden’s handwritten captions directly on the gallery walls next to each painting, which the High Museum of Art similarly reflected in the “Something Over Something Else” exhibit.
Spurred from a profile written on Bearden for The New Yorker in 1977 by Calvin Tomkins, the biographical essay inspired the painter to create a series based on his experiences growing up. The name of the exhibit comes from a quote in the story, in which Bearden described the art of painting as “putting something over something else.” “Part I, The Twenties,” split into two sections titled “Mecklenburg County” and “Pittsburgh Memories,” covers his time as a boy in North Carolina in the 1910s and continues throughout his formative years spent living with his grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1920s.
Displayed in simple frames, the 28 pieces illustrate Bearden’s coming of age and reflect his maturation. Using expressive colors and shapes, the paintings evoke strong feelings of nostalgia. Creatively mixing collage, paint, and rough sketch, the work is meticulously detailed while also feeling wild and free. Although Bearden hasn’t been with us since his death in 1988, his presence was still felt in the room.
“What I love most about Part I is the textures. I mean, what he does with collage to give a three dimensionality to the work, just even in terms of the colors and the choice of paper… it gives it a life that shouldn’t be there when you think about just a flat surface,” Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American Collections at the Rose Library at Emory University, said about the series. “He’s very attached to the memories of his childhood and the people that they represent.”
“Profile/Part II, The Thirties,” stands alone. Featuring 19 works, the second part of the series reflects Bearden’s maturation into a young man living in New York in the age of the Harlem Renaissance. His love for music shines through, expressed through vibrant paintings of the jazz clubs he frequented during this time.
“I think it’s so important to understand that the artists are trying to trying to actually create a sense of space and place, and life,” McDaniels said about the series. “These feel so alive. I feel very much alive.” “Something Over Something Else” is on display at The High Museum of Art in Atlanta until February 2, 2020.