On Sunday, a talented and well-established fellow traveler left town after a leisurely visit. “Romare Bearden: Artist as Activist and Visionary,” a retrospective on the late, great artist’s work, occupied a mid-sized wing of the Frick Pittsburgh in Point Breeze for four-and-a-half months.

Though steeped in the compositional strategies of American and European modernism, Bearden’s work is usually specific about the toil, trouble and triumph of the 20th-century African-American experience.

Gazing at Bearden’s paintings, lithographs and mixed media canvases is like looking into the face of a dear friend still capable of singing the blues and the old prison work songs with gusto. There’s a jazziness to everything Bearden ever created.

Though primarily a painter, Bearden was a historian on the canvas who saw parallels between The Great Migration and other voluntary and forced relocations throughout American and world history.

The exhibit at the Frick chronicled his fascination with rituals in both the religious and secular circles Black folks find themselves in. If there’s anything ritualistic about jazz clubs or cooking dinner, Bearden has probably painted it. Not much escaped his gaze.

Visitors at the Romare Bearden: Artist as Activist and Visionary exhibition at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze. Photo by Tony Norman.

His depictions of the Black body may have been graceful given the way he utilized abstractions reminiscent of Matisse, but he never lost sight of the cruel realities beneath the canvas’ formal beauty.

Pittsburgh once had a claim on Bearden that was reflected in both subtle and obvious ways at the Frick show. The artist, who died in 1988 at 77, spent a year at Peabody High School and lived with his grandparents in East Liberty during his years here.

Though born in rural North Carolina, Bearden came of age in Pittsburgh and Harlem, two renowned incubators of the Black artistic aesthetic in the early 20th century.

In 1984, Bearden, a lifelong fan of this city, unveiled a mural at the Gateway T station Downtown called “Pittsburgh Recollections” that paid tribute to the region’s blue-collar work ethic, which he never tired of romanticizing.

Though he had disdain for social realist art in many ways, his work always gave a shout-out to a social order that celebrated the primacy of the working classes. He saw Blacks as the natural recipients of the esteem that should flow to all those who kept civilization on track by the sweat of their brow.

“Factory Workers,” by Romare Bearden, 1942, at the Frick Art Museum. Photo by Tony Norman.
“Factory Workers,” by Romare Bearden, 1942, at the Frick Art Museum. Photo by Tony Norman.

“It is not my aim to paint about the Negro in America in terms of propaganda,” one of the explanatory panels quotes Bearden as saying in 1969. “It is precisely my awareness of the distortions required of the polemicist that has caused me to paint the life of my people as I know it — as passionately and dispassionately as Bruegel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day… my intention, however, is to reveal through pictorial complexities the richness of a life I know.”

Because he lived in Harlem for decades, New York obviously has a greater claim to him than Pittsburgh, but Bearden’s work inspired artists here to explore the world through a robust Romare Bearden frame. He wanted all artists to see the rhythms and rituals that undergird everything.

But it has never been a one-way street for the artist. Bearden was himself inspired by a notable Pittsburgh artist, a fellow emigre from the South named Mary Lou Williams, a jazz pianist of uncommon brilliance and improvisational power.

One of the highlights of the show was the 1984 lithograph, “Homage to Mary Lou (The Piano Lesson),” his tribute to her. The exhibition also featured the painting “The Piano Lesson,” the very painting that inspired August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play of the same name.

Wilson spoke of his debt to Bearden’s painting and how the artist’s fascination with “conjure women,” rituals and Black spirituality inspired several of his plays, including the magnificent and mysterious “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” a play that could easily be a Bearden painting come to life.

To write about an exhibition that is no longer around may seem perverse, but isn’t that how life often is? We mostly talk about things in the past tense. The Romare Bearden show has come and gone, but like most old friends, we know we’ll meet again someday.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.