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Artists Romare Bearden

Romare Bearden

American Painter and Collagist

Movements: Cubism, Collage, Harlem Renaissance

Born: September 2, 1911 - Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

Died: March 12, 1988 - New York, New York, USA

Quotes

"If you're any kind of artist, you make a miraculous journey, and you come back and make some statements in shapes and colors of where you were."
Romare Bearden
"You put down one color and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody."
Romare Bearden
"Artists have this desire for a vision of the world...There's some painting someplace that's not in a museum and it's your idea as a painter to put that one thing that is missing there."
Romare Bearden
"When I conjure these memories, they are of the present to me, because after all, the artist is a kind of enchanter in time."
Romare Bearden
"What I've attempted to do is establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic."
Romare Bearden
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Synopsis

A prominent American artist, Romare Bearden created dazzling work celebrating the black American experience, which he integrated into greater (predominantly white) American modernism. After working several decades as a painter, during the politically tumultuous 1960s Bearden found his own voice by creating collages made of cut and torn photographs found in popular magazines that he then reassembled into visually powerful statements on African-American life. The artist's subject matter encompassed the urban milieu of Harlem, traveling trains, migrants, spiritual "conjure" women, the rural South, jazz, and blues musicians, and African-American religion and spirituality. Late in his life, the artist established The Romare Bearden Foundation to aid in the education and training of talented art students. Bearden remains revered as a highly esteemed artist of the twentieth century.

Key Ideas

Although influenced by high modernists such as Henri Matisse, Bearden's collages also derived from African-American slave crafts such as patchwork quilts and the necessity of making artwork from whatever materials were available. This turn to quotidian materials helped break the divide between the fine and popular arts, enabling a greater number of cultures and people to participate in the creation of arts.
Through his culling of images from mainstream pictorial magazines such as Look and Life, and black magazines such as Ebony and Jet, Bearden inserted the African-American experience, its rich visual and musical production, and its contemporary racial strife and triumphs into his collages, thus expressing his belief in the connections between art and social reality.
Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso introduced collage into the modernist vocabulary. In it, Bearden located a methodology that allowed him to incorporate much of his life experience as an African American, from the rural South to the urban North and to Paris, into his work.

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Most Important Art

Folk Musicians (1941-42)
Three musicians, one with a guitar in hand, dominate this scene painted in rich browns and blues; Bearden's lavish use of the color blue, in fact, suggests the blues, the singular African-American folk music. Bearden was influenced by the Social Realists of the Great Depression, along with the Mexican Muralists such as Diego Rivera, who was well-established in New York City. The Social Realists, influenced by the art and politics of Soviet Russia, took as their subjects the working class, the poor, the masses, and folk culture, rendered in legible forms and compositions, seeking to ignite progressive social change on behalf of the workers of the world and to rectify social ills. Comparable to artist Ben Shahn, who was one of the premiere Social Realists of the 1930s, and Rivera, who lavishly painted murals of his country's folk and indigenous cultures, Bearden has turned to the folk music and Southern folk culture that he knew from his youth. Bearden has flattened the pictorial space and rendered the figures with Cubist block-like forms that overlap and are compressed within the shallow space, enlarging the trio's hands to indicate their humble working origins. The brick wall behind the blues musicians serves to move them into our picture plane, so that we can more closely observe their faces and other details. Decades later, author Ralph Ellison, one of America's premier novelists would single out and praise these early works of Bearden's for their honesty and directness.
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Biography

Romare Howard Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, into a college-educated and relatively financially successful middle-class African-American family, which was not ordinary for the time, especially in the Deep South. An only child, Bearden was born in the house of his great-grandfather. His father played the piano, and both his paternal grandfather and great-grandfather created paintings and drawings. Bearden's grandparents were property owners in Charlotte and in Pittsburgh. Despite the family's success, pervasive Southern racism set limits on their lives and livelihoods. With the installation of the Jim Crows Laws (1893, Plessey vs. Ferguson), which made racial segregation the law of the land, the Beardens and other African-American families were condemned to racial secondary social status. The Beardens relocated to the urban North along with hundreds of thousands of African Americans who likewise left the rural South behind for what they hoped would be racial equality and greater financial and educational opportunities. The Great Migration, as this mass movement of people was called, became an important subject for many African-American artists, most notably the painter Jacob Lawrence.

The Bearden family made its new home in New York City as of 1914. The artist's father, Howard, was a sanitation inspector for the New York Health Department and was a renowned storyteller as well as an accomplished pianist, which influenced Romare's lifelong love of music. Bearden's mother, Bessye, was a social and political activist, as well as the New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, a regional African-American newspaper, and also the first president of the Negro Women's Democratic Association. Uptown in Harlem, the Bearden household became a meeting place for artists, intellectuals, and political activists of the Harlem Renaissance. Among regular visitors to the home were poet Countee Cullen, musician Duke Ellington (who was also a cousin), and the actor and political activist Paul Robeson. As a teenager, Bearden spent summers with his maternal grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she ran a boarding house serving steel mill workers; many of these men were working-class African-American migrants from the South. Bearden would listen to their stories told around the kitchen table, which later found form in his collages.

Early Training

In the 1920s, the Bearden family relocated from Manhattan to Pittsburgh. Upon graduating high school, Bearden was not that interested in art and instead played semiprofessional baseball in the Negro Leagues for a short time in Boston. It was as a college student that Bearden developed an interest in art, in particular cartooning, while studying at the prominent Lincoln University, the country's first Historically Black College and University (HBUC, established in 1854), located in Pennsylvania. Originally, he aspired to be a cartoonist. The young artist transferred to Boston University where he served as the director of the college humor magazine. Later, while at New York University, Bearden became more committed to his artistic studies and worked as the lead cartoonist and art editor for the school's student magazine; he graduated in 1935. Bearden went on to study mathematics at New York's Columbia University. Primarily a self-taught artist, Bearden briefly studied between 1936 and 1937 at the Arts Students League under German exile George Grosz whose pedagogical methods included the intensive study of the Old Masters. During the Weimer-era, prior to seeking asylum in the United States from the Nazis, Grosz created harsh social commentary in collage. The younger artist later commended Grosz for making him "realize the artistic possibilities of the American Negro subject matter." Bearden was particularly interested in Cubism, Futurism, Post-Impressionism, and Surrealism. While studying at the Arts Students League he exhibited early figurative paintings at the Harlem YMCA and the Harlem Art Workshop.

Concurrently, while a college student, Bearden earned his livelihood as a political cartoonist for several African-American publications including W.E.B. DuBois's The Crisis. Bearden was a cofounder of the Harlem Artists Guild in the 1930s, which was a key social and advocacy group for black artists and was also active with the artists' collective Group 306 along with such luminaries as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. Because his family was relatively financially sound, unlike most of his contemporaries, Bearden did not qualify for the WPA federal art patronage programs, and so he continued to work on his art while juggling several jobs. His studies were interrupted when he was drafted into in the US Armed Services, where he served as an army sergeant from 1942 to 1945 in the 372nd Infantry Regiment, which was a racially segregated unit. Upon his return to America, the artist worked as a case worker for the New York City Department of Social Services. He remained in this position until 1969 when his artwork alone supported him and his wife, Nanette Rohan, a dancer who was the organizer of the New York Chamber Dance Company; the couple did not have any children.

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Romare Bearden Biography Continues

Mature Work and Late Period

Romare Bearde Biography

Bearden launched his career in 1940 with a solo exhibition of his paintings in Harlem, which was well received. Five years later, the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC hosted a one-man exhibition that brought great praise to the painter. These early exhibitions were waylaid by his tour of military duty. After the Army, the artist resumed painting with oils and watercolors. He turned his attention to religious subject matter, which, in part, testified to the importance of the black Church in American life. The artist exhibited his series, The Passion of Christ (1945) at the important Samuel M. Kootz Gallery in New York City, which also represented many Abstract Expressionists. Bearden's exhibition was a critical, as well as a financial, success. The Museum of Modern Art purchased He is Arisen (1945) from the Passion of Christ series (1945), which was the first Bearden work to enter the museum's collection, as well as the first ever museum purchase for the artist. In 1947, Bearden was one of only four African-American artists who had a solo exhibition in midtown Manhattan blue-chip galleries; Lawrence was another. By the following year, Bearden was among the most discussed American modernists and had exhibited several times at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In the 1950s, alienated from American society due the country's pervasive racism, with funds from the G.I. Bill, Bearden returned to Paris to study art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne for two years. He associated with and befriended such leading modernists as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, and Constantin Brancusi. The artist soon became a central figure within Paris's black, expatriate community, and the Negritude movement. Bearden also formed important bonds with such key intellectuals as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

When he originally returned to New York, the artist gave up painting and devoted himself to making music. Like his friend the artist Stuart Davis, Bearden was knowledgeable and passionate about jazz and composed several jazz tunes. He co-wrote the hit song "Sea Breeze," which Dizzy Gillespie recorded. It is thought by some that Bearden might have suffered a nervous breakdown at this time. By studying and copying the works of Old Masters, as well as such modern figures as Matisse and Picasso, he worked his way back into painting and health. Still, because he did not keep up with changing styles and trends in the mid-1950s, the Kootz Gallery dropped Bearden from its stable of artists because his work was not sufficiently abstract by contemporary standards. It 1954, Bearden took a studio above the famed Apollo Theater, where he painted abstract canvases heavily influenced by Chinese painting. In the 1950s, Bearden relocated his studio to downtown New York; Harlem still remained vital to his life and to his art.

In 1962, along with Charles Alston and Norman Lewis, Bearden founded the Spiral Group, an African-American artists' collective that explored the ways artists could contribute to the ongoing Freedom Movement, which met at Bearden's Greenwich Village studio. As a group they attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963). Bearden suggested to the Spiral artists that they collaborate on a collective work by making a large-format collage. When the artists rejected this invitation, Bearden began to pursue the idea alone. In 1963, Bearden found his unique voice with his turn to collage and photomontage, which he called his early works, in Projections, a series that encompassed both photojournalism and Pop art. The Projections consisted of scenes of Pittsburgh and Harlem but mostly Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was born. Bearden would continue with collage through the remainder of his career. Bearden often made prints and Photostats of his collages, which compromised the idea of the original, a key feature of high art and modernism.

In the late 1960s, Bearden and others formed the Cinque Gallery of New York in part to protest the Metropolitan Museum of Art's infamous exhibition Harlem on My Mind (1969), which excluded black artists from contributing. Cinque solely represented African-American artists. Bearden was also a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Until 1969, Bearden was employed at New York City's Department of Social Services, making art just on weekends and in the evenings.

Romare Bearde Photo

The 1970s were a productive and positive period for the artist. With his wife, he spent a great deal of time on the Caribbean island of St. Martin where Nanette's ancestors had lived; in 1973, they build an island retreat there. At this time, Caribbean influences and images asserted themselves in his work, as he intensely studied the customs and spirituality brought over from Africa during the slave trade. Increasingly, Bearden's collages of the 1970s took on musical themes, from the urban blues of Kansas City and Harlem nightclubs, to the blues and church music of Mecklenburg, North Carolina. Bearden also began to design costumes and theatrical sets for his wife's dance troupe and for the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, bringing together the visual arts, dance, and music in one art form.

Towards the end of his life, Bearden received numerous prestigious awards including election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1966, honorary doctoral degrees, and the President's National Medal of the Arts in 1987. President Jimmy Carter hosted a White House reception for the artist in 1980. Both the National Urban League and the NAACP awarded him great honors. By 1982, Bearden's health had become compromised, yet he kept working up until his death. Bearden succumbed to bone cancer in a New York hospital on March 12, 1988. His ashes were taken to property on St. Martin, as the French West Indies had been the subject of later works.


Legacy

Perhaps Bearden's greatest legacy is as a role model for all artists in trusting one's own vision. When Abstract Expressionism was "the" artistic movement to engage with, Bearden forged his own path and began making collages specific to his experiences as an African American man. This inclination to mine the Southern black experience and that of the urban North still influences artists who find their bearings in art of their own heritage and locale. Finally, Bearden's importance is in revising the art of collage for the American story.

Bearden's fame and artistic influence has grown exponentially since the 1980s. With the greater inclusiveness of African American art within traditional, predominantly white mainstream survey texts and college classes, Bearden is no longer isolated on the margins of art history. This greater exposure is mirrored in museum collecting practices and major exhibitions of which Bearden has had many over the past 2 decades. Additionally, the establishment of the Romare Bearden Foundation has helped not only to grow his name and public awareness, but also, to encourage and foster the growth of untold numbers of artists in the present day.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Romare Bearden
Interactive chart with Romare Bearden's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Pablo Picasso
George Grosz
Diego Rivera

Friends

Stuart Davis
Ad Reinhardt
Duke Ellington
Ralph Ellison
Jacob Lawrence

Movements

Folk Art
Cubism
Social Realism
Abstract Expressionism
Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden
Years Worked: 1935 - 1988

Artists

Emma Amos
David Hammons
August Wilson

Friends

Robert Blackburn
Harry Henderson
Charles Alston
Jacob Lawrence

Movements

Harlem Renaissance
Social Realism
Abstract Expressionism



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Useful Resources on Romare Bearden

Videos
Books
Websites
Articles
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Romare Bearden

By Ruth Fine, Frank Stewart, Romare Bearden, and David C. Driskell

Romare Bearden: His Life and Art

By Myron Schwartzman and August Wilson

artwork
The Art of Romare Bearden

By Romare Bearden, Ruth E. Fine, and Mary Lee Corlett

Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections

By Carla M. Hanzal

More Interesting Books about Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden's 'Black Odyssey' Puts a Modern Harlem Twist on Classical Mythology

By Priscilla Frank
The Huffington Post
November 13, 2014

A Griot for a Global Village

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
December 8, 2011

Romare Bearden at 100

By David Yezzi
The New Criterion
May 2011

Visions of Life, Built from Bits and Pieces

By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
March 31, 2011

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey

Overview of the Travelling Exhibition Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey

Romare Bearden's Art and Music

Discussion of the Influence of Music on Romare Bearden's Work

Inside New York's Art World: Romare Bearden, 1979

Interview with Romare Bearden

Romare Bearden's Centennial Celebration

Program on the Life and Art of Romare Bearden

More Interesting Videos with Romare Bearden
in pop culture
Romare Bearden: Visual Jazz, 2009

Documentary on Romare Bearden

Romare Bearden Remixes

iPad App Based on Romare Bearden's Collages

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Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
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Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque
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Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
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Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence was a twentieth-century African-American painter and self-described "dynamic cubist." Lawrence's figurative paintings often depicted slices of African-American life and hardship.
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Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was the name given to the cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s. During this period Harlem was a cultural center, drawing black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars.
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George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz was a German Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit artist. He was enamored of America and highly critical of Weimar society. Grosz immigrated to the United States just as Hitler came to power and opened a private art school in Des Moines.
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Cubism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory: Cubism
Futurism
Futurism
Futurism
Futurism was the most influential Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
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Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
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Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
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Fernand Léger
Fernand Léger
Fernand Léger
Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the French painter Fernand Léger developed a unique style of Cubism using cylindrical and other geometric forms with mechanically smooth edges. Often colorful and punctuated by patterns, his paintings range from still lifes and figures to abstract compositions.
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Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
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Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was a twentieth-century French philosopher, public intellectual, playwright, activist, literary critic and novelist. His name has become synonymous with Existentialism, the modern philosophy he popularized throughout his career. Sartre's writings, while vast, are characterized by his intense focus on matters dealing with human behavior, the Ego and "the Other." In one of his most celebrated works, the play No Exit, one of Sartre's characters boasts the famous line, "Hell is other people."
Jean-Paul Sartre
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis Cubist-inspired, but American themes, and his visual manifestation of jazz music were important in the development of movements from Abstract Expressionism to Pop art. He was one of the youngest artists represented at the 1913 Armory Show and taught many young artists in New York City.
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Charles Alston
Charles Alston
Charles Alston
Charles Henry 'Spinky' Alston was an American artist, best known for his WPA murals, Social Realist paintings, and portraits. A significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Alston was an active member and collaborator in Harlem's early-twentieth-century artistic community, working with important creative initiatives such as the 306 Group, the Harlem Art Workshop, and the Harlem Artists Guild.
Charles Alston
Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis, a leading African-American painter, was an important member of the Abstract Expressionism movement, who also used representational strategies to focus on black urban life and his community's struggles. Lewis's work is characterized by the duality of abstraction and representation in the depiction of both the city and natural world, and expressing both righteous anger and joyous celebration.
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Pop Art
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
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Collage
Collage
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Collage
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera
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Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt
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Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
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Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison
Ralph Waldo Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer. He was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ellison is best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953.
Ralph Ellison
Folk Art
Folk Art
Folk Art
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Folk Art
Social Realism
Social Realism
Social Realism
Social Realism refers to a style of figurative art with social concerns - generally left-wing. Inspired in part by nineteenth-century Realism, it emerged in various forms in the twentieth century. Political radicalism prompted its emergence in 1930s America, while distaste for abstract art encouraged many in Europe to maintain the style into the 1950s.
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Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
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Emma Amos
Emma Amos
Emma Amos
Emma Amos is a postmodernist African-American painter and printmaker.
Emma Amos
David Hammons
David Hammons
David Hammons
David Hammons is an American installation and performance artist and sculptor especially known for his works in and around New York City and Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s.
David Hammons
August Wilson
August Wilson
August Wilson
August Wilson was an American playwright whose work included a series of ten plays, The Pittsburgh Cycle, for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
August Wilson
Robert Blackburn
Robert Blackburn
Robert Blackburn
Robert Hamilton Blackburn was an African American artist, teacher and printmaker.
Robert Blackburn
Harry Henderson
Harry Henderson
Harry Henderson
Harry Henderson was an author best known for his books on the history of African American art.
Harry Henderson
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