“I bet this dude owned slaves,” I think as I look at a portrait of 18th-century Irish playwright Sir Richard Brinsley Sheridan, part of the Frick’s permanent collection. (My superficial research revealed little on that front, but he was, apparently, a terrible dude nonetheless when it came to harassing and assaulting women.)
This odd juxtaposition defines only part of the temporary Bearden show now on view through Sept. 18. The museum pays significant tribute to the expansive career of an artist who, before his death in 1988, produced vibrant, captivating scenes of Black life, and translated his signature style into more commercial projects like poster designs and magazine covers.
Beyond giving viewers intimate access to a celebrated artist, the show also hones in on Bearden’s efforts as a champion of rights for Black Americans and workers, and his connection to Pittsburgh, where, as a press release explains, he “spent portions of his youth with his grandparents.”
Included in the show is a blown-up photo of “Pittsburgh Recollections,” a 1984 mosaic tiled mural Bearden installed at the Downtown Gateway T station, described as honoring “the city’s history and its residents’ work ethic.” The work “layers themes from art history, literature, and religion with everyday rituals like family dinners to create visual stories that depict and elevate the Black experience while agitating for social change.”
Looking at the collages, screenprints, and other works on display, the first word that comes to mind is “boundless.” Bearden clearly never felt the need to stick to one medium, trying his hand at everything from simple line drawing to political cartoons, as seen in four displayed pieces he produced for two Black publications, the Baltimore Afro-American and NAACP’s The Crisis magazine. He also wrote and illustrated a children’s book, the images from which can be seen in the exhibition’s Li’l Dan: the drummer boy, A Civil War Story series, used to tell the story of an enslaved drummer boy who uses his art to save a company of Union soldiers.
The sense of limitlessness extends to the array of themes found throughout Bearden’s work. While many of the pieces lovingly depict Black subjects working, playing piano, reading, or performing domestic chores, others stray into mythical and Biblical territory. Sprinkled throughout are scenes from The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as a watercolor and ink piece from his Passion of the Christ series, and a screenprint showing Noah as a Black figure floating on a multicolored, somewhat encaustic looking sea.
The museum invites viewers to compare these pieces to those that draw on Southern Black culture and folklore (Bearden grew up in North Carolina). Here, the Greek sorceress in Bearden’s “Circe Turns a Companion of Odysseus into Swine” hangs alongside “Conjur Woman,” an uncharacteristically black-and-white photolithograph honoring a Southern African American spirit figure.
“Conjur Woman” speaks to a key theme in the show, that of exalting Black women as powerful, as keepers of knowledge, healing, and creativity. This also plays into Frick’s continued mission of highlighting women in its exhibitions, including Sporting Fashion: Outdoor Girls 1800 to 1960 in 2021 and the 2020 decorative arts showcase Maker & Muse, as well as others.
But as the title suggests, the show mainly seeks to educate visitors about how Bearden used his talent and success to address racial and economic injustice in its many forms, with images of slave ships and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. displayed along with “Soup Kitchen,” a 1935 painting capturing the struggles of Depression-era America. These efforts extended into real-life action, as Bearden, who had a background in social work, sought to support emerging Black artists through the Spiral Group and the Cinque Gallery, both entities he helped found.
Artist as Activist and Visionary demonstrates that, while Bearden drew inspiration from artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, he was a singular, dynamic force in the art world, something he used to his advantage and the advantage of others. That it runs concurrently with SLAY: Artemisia Gentileschi & Kehinde Wiley and after Reckoning: Grief and Light, two other Frick shows dedicated to Black artists, points to a concerted effort by the museum to move beyond the old world whiteness of its permanent collection, finding new ways to embrace and celebrate those that world sought to ignore, exploit, or snuff out.
Romare Bearden: Artist as Activist and Visionary. Continues through Sept. 18. Frick Art Museum. 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. Free. Timed tickets encouraged. thefrickpittsburgh.org