The Block

Artist: Romare Bearden (American, Charlotte, North Carolina 1911–1988 New York)

Date: 1971

Medium: Cut and pasted printed, colored and metallic papers, photostats, graphite, ink marker, gouache, watercolor, and ink on Masonite

Dimensions: 48 x 216 in. (121.9 x 548.6 cm)

Classification: Drawings

Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Shore, 1978

Accession Number: 1978.61.1-.6

Rights and Reproduction: Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


In 1969, Bearden published an article in which he wrote of "painting the life of my people as I know it-as passionately and dispassionately as Brueghel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day." Expansive in scale, narrative detail, and conception, The Block celebrates a Harlem neighborhood in a dynamic, affirmative spirit. The collage is organized in six panels that together measure eighteen feet. Dense incident drawn from an almost journalistic reporting of everyday activity is coupled with imagery from an inner world of fantasy and pure imagination. The reportorial and the fantastic are conjoined here in a scene emblematic of the African-American experience-at epic scale.

The composition is structured by a row of storefronts with residential apartments above. Among the neighborhood institutions, Bearden includes a liquor store, a funeral parlor (procession in progress), an Evangelical church, a barbershop, and a corner grocery. Sidewalk activity is richly depicted in vignettes: children play with pets, pedestrians hurry by, a street person is shown on the sidewalk, and myriad details of people alone and together make a comprehensive analysis of the daily routines of everyday life in one particular neighborhood. Bearden's magical vantage point lets us see indoor and outdoor scenes simultaneously, a unique view of public and private life. Among the private moments are people shown in conversation or watching television and a couple making love. Bearden moves beyond documenting everyday life into other realms, too: there's an Annunciation scene in one panel and an Angel ascending to heaven in another.

Whether we are seeing public, private, inner, or spiritual worlds, Bearden uses disjunctions of scale within the various vignettes to drive home emotional or narrative points. Other devices, too, carry the expression; color plays a huge role, as do sensitive transitions from black and white motifs to full spectrum. Sound was integral to the work as well: the original installation was accompanied by recordings of street noise, news broadcasts, and church music.

Bearden was inspired by music. The Block's dynamic visual rhythms have their counterparts in jazz principles, such as "call and response" (where each move determines the next) or "call and recall" (repetition of motifs with variations). The artist described his process: "I listened for hours to recordings of Earl Hines at the piano. Finally, I was able to block out the melody and concentrate on the silences between the notes. I found this was very helpful to me in the placement of objects in my paintings and collages. Jazz has shown me ways of achieving artistic structures that are personal to me."