Exhibitions“Something Over Something Else”: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series
Past Exhibition

“Something Over Something Else”: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series

September 14, 2019 – February 2, 2020

In 1978, Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988) launched an autobiographical project organized by the decades of his life. The Profile series begins with Bearden’s earliest memories as a boy in North Carolina in the 1910s and concludes with his life as a young artist in Harlem in the early 1940s.

This exhibition draws its title from the 1977 New Yorker article that spurred Bearden to create the Profile series. Authored by Calvin Tomkins for the magazine’s “Profiles” section, the biographical essay, “Putting Something over Something Else,” was titled after Bearden’s own words describing the creative process. The experience of being interviewed for this article, and recounting moments stretching back to childhood, inspired Bearden to create his own word-and-picture elaborations on the decades of his life.

Bearden exhibited the Profile series at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York—Part I in 1979 and Part II in 1981. For each collage, Bearden and his friend Albert Murray, an author and critic, cowrote titles and short statements about people and places from Bearden’s past. When first exhibiting the works, Bearden hand-wrote these captions onto the gallery walls next to each collage, giving the “feeling of traveling through a personal diary,” as one reviewer described it.

We often understand our past as a series of events strung together, with beginnings, climactic moments, and conclusions. Bearden offers an alternative. With Profile, memories become singular events: a funeral, a comedy show, a neighbor gardening, a train ride at sunset. Bearden layers these separate moments, one on top of another, creating a collage, rather than a story, of his life.

“Something Over Something Else”: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series is the first reassembling of the Profile exhibitions. A majority of works in the series are brought together in their original order and exhibited with the text as Bearden first intended.

Once it was mid September again, it was back to Miss Pinkney and books, black boards, rulers and fingernail inspection.

School Bell Time, 1978
Kingsborough Community College—The City University of New York

Born in 1911, Bearden spent his early childhood in the Charlotte, North Carolina, homeplace of his paternal grandparents. After moving with his parents to Harlem, Bearden often returned South for visits. In Profile/Part I, the artist drew on memories from these years in Mecklenburg County.

Bepr001 School Bell Time O41.jpg

I can still smell the flowers she used to give us and still taste the blackberries.

Maudell Sleet’s Magic Garden, 1978
Collection of Pearson C. Cummin III and Linda Forrest Cummin

Part I of the series begins, in Bearden’s words, at “about [age] six,” when “memory starts.” He offers impressions of daily life: the first day of school, his friend Liza, people on front porches, daily labor in the cotton fields at the edge of town. The accompanying titles and texts fill out the stories told in pictures: the taste of berries from a garden, church sermons and baptisms, musicians in the streets.

110 Jama Maudell Sleet Magic Garden Jaj140022fa O4.jpg

You could tell not only what train it was but also who the engineer was by the sound of the whistle.

Daybreak Express, 1978
Courtesy of the McConnell Family Trust

The pictures in this series are small, made deliberately so to convey the experience of an adult revisiting his childhood haunts, which Bearden did for the first time in 1976. “Although in your imagination everything looks so big to you when you’re a child,” he remarked, “when you go back you find that it’s only two or three strides, that it ain’t that big. So I felt more comfortable doing these things small.”

119 Daybreak Express O41.jpg

The mills went 24 hours a day with three 8-hour shifts.

Pittsburgh Memories, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, 1978
Cincinnati Art Museum, museum purchase, the Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial and the John J. Emery Endowment

As a child, Bearden often made summer visits to his maternal grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1927, Bearden left Harlem for Pittsburgh to attend high school, living with his grandmother in the boardinghouse she ran in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood. Like the Mecklenberg County collages, the four works that make up the Pittsburgh Memories section in Part I show domestic interiors and community gatherings.

125 Mill Hands Lunch Bucket Pittsburgh Memories 3268013 Bridgeman O4.jpg

The sporting people were allowed to come but they had to stand on the far right.

Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene, 1978
Private Collection

In Farewell Eugene, the final work in Part I, Bearden pays homage to his friend with a memory of his funeral. The picture shows a gathering of church people and “sporting people” (Eugene’s mother lived in a bordello), in addition to Bearden’s grandmother, who had taken in Eugene during the final months of his life. Eugene’s pigeons, which he had asked Bearden to release, fly overhead.

128 Bearden Farewelleugene Crp O41.jpg

The trains in the stories she told always ran North.

Pepper Jelly Lady, 1981
Collection of Joy and Larry Silverstein

Bearden presented Part II of Profile in the spring of 1981. The scale of works in this series is larger, the materials more varied, and the works fewer. Part II opens with a retrospective glance at Mecklenburg County and then jumps to Manhattan, where the artist is influenced by new scenes and people in his early adulthood.

204 Romare Bearden Pepper Jelly Lady Crp O4.jpg

He was my favorite of all the comedians. What Johnny Hudgins could do through mime on an empty stage helped show me how worlds were created on an empty canvas.

Johnny Hudgins Comes On, 1981
Seavest Collection of Contemporary Realism, White Plains, New York

The music scenes of 1920s and 1930s New York depicted here are particularly noteworthy, including theaters, a rehearsal hall, and Barron’s, where jazz musicians could hold down the house piano only for as long as they held the Harlem virtuosos’ attention.

214 Johnny Hudgins Comes On Crp O41.jpg

Every Friday Licia used to come to my studio to model for me upstairs above the Apollo Theater.

Artist with Painting and Model, 1981
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchased with funds from Alfred Austell Thornton in memory of Leila Austell Thornton and Albert Edward Thornton, Sr., and Sarah Miller Venable and William Hoyt Venable, Margaret and Terry Stent Endowment for the Acquisition of American Art, David C. Driskell African American Art Fund, Anonymous Donors, Sarah and Tim Kennedy, The Spray Foundation, Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell, Charlotte Garson, The Morgens West Foundation, Lauren Amos, Margaret and Scotty Greene, Harriet and Edus Warren, The European Art Foundation, Billye and Hank Aaron, Veronica and Franklin Biggins, Helen and Howard Elkins, Drs. Sivan and Jeff Hines, Brenda and Larry Thompson, and a gift to honor Howard Elkins from the Docents of the High Museum of Art, 2014.66

As in Part I, in this series Bearden shares his point of view but rarely a picture of himself—with one exception. Artist with Painting & Model shows Bearden at about age thirty, standing in his Harlem studio above the Apollo Theater, surrounded by his many muses: a model, reproductions of African and European artworks, references to jazz compositions, and (with his arm draped proudly atop it) his own work from this time, featured prominently upon the easel.

2014.66 Bearden Crop O2 1480x1173.jpg

I really think the art of painting is the art of putting something over something else. ⁠

Romare Bearden

About Romare Bearden (1911–1988)

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1911, Bearden spent his early childhood living with his mother and father in the home of his paternal grandparents. After his parents relocated to Harlem, he returned for visits.

As a child, Bearden often visited his maternal grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the summers. In 1927, Bearden left Harlem for Pittsburgh to attend high school, living with his grandmother in the boardinghouse she ran in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood.

Bearden’s early adult life was spent in Harlem, where he was influenced greatly by the music halls, the working girls, and famous acts at the Lafayette Theater. Jazz became an important influence for Bearden during these years.

“Something Over Something Else”: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Additional support is provided by the Andrew Wyeth Foundation for American Art.
This exhibition is made possible by

Major Funding

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor

Exhibition Series Sponsors

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

The Antinori Foundation
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporter

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation

Ambassador Exhibition Supporters

Tom and Susan Wardell
Rod Westmoreland

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters

Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
W. Daniel Ebersole and Sarah Eby-Ebersole
Peggy Foreman
Robin and Hilton Howell
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust

Generous support is also provided by

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.