By the time of his death at age 76 in 1988, Romare Bearden was an acclaimed African-American artist widely known for his large-scale public murals and collages that reflected the Black experience in America.
Mary Schmidt Campbell’s definitive and immersive biography — “An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden (Oxford University Press; $34.95)” — explores the artist’s relationship between art and race which was central to his life and work. Campbell, who met Bearden in the 1970s, was among the first to compile a catalog of his works.
“I can remember as if it were yesterday when I first met him,” Campbell recalled during a recent visit to the Philadelphia Library. “I had been trying to see an example of his work and had gone to every museum I could possibly think of in New York: The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney and the Guggenheim. Finally, in exasperation, I just went to a pay phone (they had public phones on the streets in those days) and opened up the directory and his name was in there so I called him and asked if I could come to his studio to see some work of his. He said yes. So, my husband and I traveled down to Chinatown, that’s where he lived at 357 Canal Street. I remember ringing the doorbell and he buzzed us. He lived on the fifth floor of a walkup, so we walked up these narrow steps and he was at the top of the steps, standing there, smiling at us as if we were old friends. That was such a vivid memory — I hadn’t met him before in my life and he didn’t know who I was and there he was standing at the top of the stairs smiling at us. My last image of him is very, very sad. I had learned that he was very sick and I’d gone to New York Hospital and got just a glimpse of him. He was sleeping, kind of groggy and suffering from bone cancer and just a shadow of himself. It was very clear that we were going to lose him, and that was my last image of him.”
Campbell, a graduate of Philadelphia High School for Girls, is president of Spelman College and dean emerita of the Tisch School of the Arts. She served as the vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under former President Barack Obama.
“Through her long association with Romare Bearden and his work, Mary Schmidt Campbell possesses a rare understanding of his life and artistry,” noted Harvard University scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr. “In this beautifully written volume, she sensitively illuminates his biography and comprehensively traces the trajectory of his career. By brilliantly interweaving the political history of African Americans throughout the 20th century with the emergence of one our foremost artists, she has written a book that speaks to anyone who is interested in American history, art, and culture.”
The impact Bearden made upon the world is reflected as Campbell offers a vivid portrait of a working artist — his years in Harlem (his studio was above the Apollo theater), to his travels and commissions, along with an analysis of his career. In 1987, Bearden was awarded the National Medal of Arts and was described as “the nation’s foremost collagist” by The New York Times.
“My personal mission to terms of this book was too get his personal story right and really tell the story of how he struggled with his artwork and the role of being an artist versus being a Black artist,” Campbell continued. “How he struggled to get to collage, which became his medium. That mission was very important to me, but also in telling his story I also wanted to tell the story of the period in which he lived. He was born during the Jim Crow era, grew up in the Depression, was in the Army during WWII and his life and his art really came to life during the civil rights Movement. It was my mission to really get the full flavor of each of those historical eras that he passed through.”
The African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) and the Literary Café will present a conversation and book signing with author and Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell and moderated by journalist and media personality Renee Chenault-Fattah on Jan. 31 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for a wine and cheese reception.For more information, visit aampmuseum.org or call (215) 878-BOOK.