by Stephanie Heydt, Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art, High Museum of Art
In 1977, the New Yorker published a feature-length biography on the artist Romare Bearden (1911 – 1988) by Calvin Tomkins in the magazine’s “Profiles” section. This biographical essay, “Putting Something over Something Else,” was titled after Bearden’s own words describing the process of making art: “I really think the art of painting is the art of putting something over something else.” The experience of being interviewed for this article, and recounting memories from his life over the decades, inspired Bearden to create his own word-and-picture elaborations on his life. This project became Bearden’s first autobiographical body of work, which he called the Profile series.
“Something Over Something Else”: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series, on view this Saturday at the High Museum of Art, is the first reassembling of the Profile exhibitions—the exhibition offers a rare opportunity to experience this unique and dynamic project as Bearden originally intended it to be seen.
Organized by the decades of his life, the Profile 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. The series was exhibition in two parts at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York—Part I in 1979 and Part Ii in 1981. For each collage, Bearden and his friend Albert Murray, an author and critic, co-wrote titles and short statements about people and places from Bearden’s past. When first exhibiting the works, Bearden handwrote these captions onto the gallery walls next to each collage, giving the “feeling of traveling through a personal diary,” as one reviewer described it.
We often understand our past as a series of events strung together, with beginnings, high points and lows, and conclusions. Bearden offers an alternative. With Profile, memories become singular events: a funeral, a comedy show, a neighbor gardening, a train ride at sunset. Bearden layers these separate moments, one on top of another, creating a kaleidoscopic collage, rather than a story, of his life.
Part I of the series begins, in Bearden’s words, at “about [age] six,” when “memory starts.” He offers impressions of daily life: the first day of school, his friend Liza, people on front porches, daily labor in the cotton fields at the edge of town. The accompanying titles and texts fill out the stories told in pictures: the taste of berries from a garden, church sermons and baptisms, musicians in the streets.
Part II opens with a retrospective glance at Mecklenburg County and then jumps to Manhattan, where the artist is influenced by new scenes and people in his early adulthood. The music scenes of 1920s and ’30s New York depicted here are particularly noteworthy, including theaters, a rehearsal hall, and Barron’s, where jazz musicians could hold down the house piano only for as long as they held the Harlem virtuosos’ attention. In Part II, Bearden also gives space to the city’s quieter moments. Nights on the town are muted by a sunset subway ride uptown or an imagined view of a dancer returning home after her late-night shift.
The High Museum’s exhibition reunites a majority of works in the series and presents each work with the text written by Murray and Bearden, and sequenced in the order in which it was originally displayed. Titled after the New Yorker article that originally inspired the project, the High Museum’s exhibition features several rarely seen works in addition to archival film footage of Bearden reading the captions in the 1979 Profile exhibition. The exhibition is on view through February 2 at the High Museum of Art.