Features

Walking Bearden’s Block

at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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  • Romare Bearden
    The Block (installation view), 1971
    Cut and pasted printed, colored and metallic papers, photostats, pencil, ink marker, gouache, watercolor, and pen and ink on Masonite, 48 x 216 in.
    Photo: Lauren Glaves.

  • Romare Bearden
    The Block (detail), 1971
    Photo: Lauren Glaves.

  • Romare Bearden
    The Block (detail), 1971
    Photo: Lauren Glaves.

Last seen in the spring of 2010, Romare Bearden’s The Block (1971) is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in celebration of the centennial of his birthday. On the eve of his first museum retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971, Bearden was seated in writer and close friend Albert Murray’s apartment, as he recorded the view of Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd streets in a series of sketches, which informed the process for the six paneled, 18 foot wide triumph, The Block.

At the heart of his city mosaic are the people, the characters populating this block such as children at play on the street, passersby exchanging greetings, and lovers tripping along the sidewalk. The residents’ private moments are revealed casually in brownstones’ window vignettes. In one window the Annunciation is quoted, and in another cutout a lone man is pictured brooding on the stairs as casual and deeper symbolic images are jutxtaposed with ease. The only architecture pictured are the apartment brownstones, and four businesses and meeting places: the church, funeral home, barbershop and liquor store. These locales comprise a greater nexus for the community, nourishing the neighborhood physically and spiritually. The scale of the figures is whimsically inconstant. For in one panel, a decoupage portion of a child’s face hovers at the seam between two buildings, and Christ and His angels press down on the rubble of a rooftop to regard the goings-on. Variation in sizes and forms are used symbolically to highlight deeper meaning about the cycle of life. And as the viewer, Bearden has deftly invited us into their world, so we do not stand outside of the picture frame but more closely on the other side of the street.

The excitement of seeing The Block is amplified by a quiet ensemble of six sketches, Six Studies for the Block, on view on the same wall. While the materials are more limited here – ink marker and graphite on paper – Bearden’s masterful restraint is evident as he manages to compact the view into playful reductions that undoubtedly served him well as he approached the larger panels. This dynamic, syncopated Harlem vista is a remarkable example of Bearden’s approach to art, and though the drawings and the panels were gifts from different collections, we can’t think of The Block without Six Studies any longer. There is a wonderful universality infused in every scene, and the more time you spend at the exhibition, the more you’ll understand and appreciate that the block is yours, ours and the world's.

"The Block" and the accompanying "Six Studies" are on view in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing on the first floor of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the remainder of the spring.

For more information about The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Let’s Walk the Block,” please click here.