FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS, “Three Folk Musicians” by Romare Bearden (1911-1988) has appeared in major exhibitions of the artist’s work hosted by the nation’s top-tier museums. One of his most renowned and recognizable individual works, the 1967 collage painting was presented in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1971 exhibition “Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual.” Thereafter, the show hit the road, traveling to the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. (now Smithsonian American Art Museum), University of California Art Museum in Berkeley, Pasadena Art Museum, High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
In 1991, “Three Folk Musicians” was on view in “Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden 1940-1987,” a major retrospective of nearly 150 Bearden works organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem. The artist had died a few years earlier and it was the first full survey of his work since the MoMA-organized show. Through 1993, “Memory and Metaphor was presented in five additional venues—Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Wight Gallery in Los Angeles, High Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and National Museum of American Art in Washington D.C. (now Smithsonian American Art Museum).
Later that decade, a detail of the Bearden collage was featured on the cover of Sharon F. Patton’s “African-American Art,” a 1998 volume published as part of the Oxford History of Art series. The painting was also on view in “The Art of Romare Bearden,” a comprehensive retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art in 2003, the Washington, D.C., museum’s first major solo show dedicated to an African American artist. “The Art of Romare Bearden” traveled through 2005 to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and High Museum.
On each occasion, the collage was generously loaned or permission for use was granted by a private collector. The highly prized painting would be a landmark addition to any museum’s holdings. After two generations in private hands, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond announced it had acquired Bearden’s “Three Folk Musicians.”
In the announcement, Alex Nyerges, director of VMFA, described the Bearden collage as “monumental.” He added: “’Three Folk Musicians’ bolsters our effort to represent a diverse range of cultures in our galleries and allows us to explore a full range of American stories with rich context and a broad eye.”
“’Three Folk Musicians’ bolsters our effort to represent a diverse range of cultures in our galleries and allows us to explore a full range of American stories with rich context and a broad eye.”
— Alex Nyerges, Director of VMFA
This isn’t just any Romare Bearden,” Michael R. Taylor, chief curator and deputy director for art and education, told Virginia Public Radio. “This has long been considered one of the icons of African American art.”
THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the Bearden acquisition comes on the occasion of Black History Month. To celebrate, throughout its second floor galleries, VMFA has installed about 35 works from its collection by African American artists. The selection spanning the 1800s to 2000s includes the Bearden collage and works by Edward Bannister, Henry O. Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Beauford Delaney, Norman Lewis, Eldzier Cortor, Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, Mickalene Thomas, Julie Mehretu, Theaster Gates, and Titus Kaphar, among others.
The Bearden collage was acquired in December and debuted Feb. 1 in the museum’s Mid to Late 20th-Century Galleries. The work is on view for a limited time through March 6, 2017.
“Three Folk Musicians,” depicts two guitar players and a single banjo player. The large-scale work combines layers of hand-painted papers with photographs from magazines. It’s a sophisticated composition of colors influenced by Cubist collage.
According to VMFA, “After working in mixed media in the 1940s, Bearden started experimenting with collage techniques in the late 1950s, but he did not begin making the brightly colored compositions depicting African American life, for which he has become best known, until 1963.” That year he co-founded Spiral, the short-lived collective of important African American artists, formed in advance of the March on Washington, to explore their role in the Civil Rights Movement.
American painter and collage artist Romare Bearden talks on the telephone in his studio, New York, N.Y., 1976. | Photo by Adger Cowans, Getty Images
When Carroll Greene was organizing “The Prevalence of Ritual” at MoMA, she spent countless hours with Bearden discussing his life and work. In the exhibition catalog, she thanked him for taking the time. An image of “Three Folk Musicians” in the catalog is captioned in Bearden’s own words: “In the 1920s, during the time of the great migration of Negroes from the South to the big cities, my grandmother ran a boarding house in Pittsburgh. Her house fronted Penn Avenue; to the rear was an alley called Spring Way. After supper the boarders would sit in front of the house and talk, or play checkers, or plunk out ‘down home’ music on their guitars. 1966”
“In the 1920s, during the time of the great migration of Negroes from the South to the big cities, my grandmother ran a boarding house in Pittsburgh. …After supper the boarders would sit in front of the house and talk, or play checkers, or plunk out ‘down home’ music on their guitars.”
— Romare Bearden
“Three Folk Musicians is as culturally relevant as it is formally beguiling,” said Leo G. Mazow, VMFA curator of American art. “It appeals to us for aesthetic reasons, as well as its connection to cultural and social issues.”
MAZOW AND SARAH ECKHARDT, VMFA associate curator of modern and contemporary art, proposed the Bearden acquisition. The curators described locating the collage and the fortuitous time of its availability to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“When Sarah texted me a picture from a New York gallery, I couldn’t believe my eyes. If we wanted to buy a Bearden collage, ‘Three Folk Musicians’ is what I would envision. … Bearden himself held the work in great esteem. … It’s very rare that you have an opportunity to buy the best or one of the best works by an artist,” Mazow told the local newspaper.
“When Sarah texted me a picture from a New York gallery, I couldn’t believe my eyes. If we wanted to buy a Bearden collage, ‘Three Folk Musicians’ is what I would envision. …Bearden himself held the work in great esteem.” — Leo G. Mazow, VMFA Curator of American Art
“We were putting our feelers out there. When this one came up, the conversation was over,” Taylor added. “The fact that the family hadn’t sold the work earlier probably meant they were waiting for a museum.”
The provenance of an artwork always adds to the arc of its narrative. When the Bearden collage was featured in MoMA’s 1974 show, “The Prevalence of Ritual,” it was displayed prominently on the wall facing visitors as they entered the exhibition, which was on view alongside Richard Hunt’s sculptures. The exhibition checklist, made available last September when MoMA digitized its archives and opened access to the public, cited Dr. and Mrs. Jerry Solin of Englewood, N.J., as the lenders of the painting. In subsequent instances, the ownership of “Three Folk Musicians” simply referenced a “private collection” (Patton’s book) or “anonymous lender” (National Gallery of Art exhibition).
Dr. Solin practiced dentistry in New York and New Jersey for 60 years. He died in June 2016 and is survived by family, including his wife of 59 years, artist Trudy Solin, according to Legacy.com. Solin is described as a collector and authority on jazz in his obituary. In his memory, contributions to Jazz at Lincoln Center were suggested.
It is common for survivors to sell long-held art when the collector in the family passes away. Solin’s passion for jazz coincides with the themes of the Bearden collage.
“’Three Folk Musicians’ demonstrates how Bearden created visual correspondence for rhythm, syncopation, improvisation, and other musical sensibilities,” Taylor noted in the museum’s announcement. “It thus honors the jazz and blues music that inspired African American artists—and modernists in general.” CT
TOP IMAGE: ROMARE BEARDEN, “Three Folk Musicians,” 1967 (collage of various papers with paint and graphite on canvas). 50 x 60 in. | © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: Travis Fullerton ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Browse the catalog for the MoMA exhibition “Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual” (1971) here. Also check out Sharon F. Patton’s volume, “African-American Art (Oxford History of Art),” featuring a detail of Romare Bearden’s “Three Folk Musicians” collage painting on the cover. And for a comprehensive documentation of Bearden’s work, consider “The Art of Romare Bearden,” which accompanied the survey organized by the National Gallery of Art.