This small-focus show from the Museum's permanent collection features the 1971 mural-size collage The Block by Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), as well as a dozen of his preliminary sketches and photographs, which were recently given to the Museum and are being shown for the first time. As a group, they reveal the artist's creative process whereby he literally and figuratively "collages" different images and experiences from reality and from his memory and imagination into a tableau that transcends the limitations of a fixed time and place, even as it pays homage to a specific street in Harlem, the New York City neighborhood that inspired so much of Bearden's work.
Beginning with quick line drawings of architectural details and more general overviews of the street's layout, Bearden envisioned the overall design of The Block as a series of small vignettes (simultaneously public and private, secular and spiritual, real and imagined) that one might encounter while walking the length of its eighteen-foot span. Outside on the sidewalk, and inside every building (seen through windows and imaginary cutaways in the walls), people of all ages go about their daily routines and rituals. While the finished collage contains moments of levity, enhanced by its bright colors and unexpected imagery and juxtapositions, it also acknowledges some of the harsher realities of living in an urban setting.
At the time of its completion in 1971, The Block was Bearden's largest collage, and it was included in his first retrospective exhibition, which opened the same year at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (March 25–June 7, 1971), and subsequently traveled to four additional venues. The Block was lent to that show by Samuel Shore of Shorewood Publishers (a collector of Bearden's work and the publisher of a number of his photolithographs), who later donated it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1978). Almost thirty years later, the Met received eleven preliminary drawings for The Block (some with sketches on both sides) and two related photographs by Albert Murray from the bequest of William S. Lieberman, former chairman of the Museum's Modern Art department.