The Spiral Group understood that answers could be found in the amplification of a multitude of voices from all walks of life. As a microcosm of Black America, the members of the group offered diverse perspectives that alternately reinforced, contradicted, and expanded the paradigms they proposed. The group adopted an inclusive ethos, embracing a wide array of formal approaches rather than advocating for a common style as artist collectives often do. They sought a visual equivalent to jazz music that would reveal the inherent Blackness of their work. In doing so, the Spiral Group would help encapsulate the extraordinary breadth of expression by Black artists in the mid-1960s.
As leaders, Lewis and Bearden occupied different poles. Lewis, a radical with an FBI file detailing his communist sympathies, pushed for the political power of abstraction. Meanwhile, Bearden, who had explored abstraction in the 1950s, began reintroducing figurative elements to his work by 1961. Bearden also began experimenting with collage during his time with the Spiral Group. His embrace of the medium happened almost incidentally when he brought in a pile of magazine and newspaper clippings to a Spiral Group meeting with the intention of having members participate in what he imagined to be a collective action with political overtones.
“I remember, where [Bearden] had been cutting out these magazine pieces and he brought them to a meeting and he wanted everybody to work on them together,” Emma Amos told bell hooks in her 1993 book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. “He wanted everybody to make clippings, and somehow or other, nobody wanted to do it. I don’t remember Norman’s words, but I remember his attitude was, ‘I don’t want to do what you want to do. If you want to do that, go off and do it.’ And Bearden went off and did it by himself.”
From these early efforts, Bearden produced Prevalence of Ritual: Mysteries, a 1964 collage depicting country life in the South. The work was also an extension of his ongoing efforts to choreograph and preserve expressions of Black life in works of art. Encouraged by his gallerist Arne Ekstrom, Bearden produced a series of these collages for a solo exhibition titled “Projections” at Cordier & Ekstrom in New York. Bearden’s experiments were extremely well received.
In a catalogue essay for the 1971 exhibition “Romare Bearden: the prevalence of ritual” at the Museum of Modern Art
, curator Carroll Greene recalled Bearden’s sudden shift in medium. “When asked why he departed from abstract painting and chose the collage,” wrote Greene, “Bearden said simply, ‘You can’t always do things the same way.’” This ethos of adaptation and constant change was one he applied to the Spiral Group, contributing an early collage to the collective’s first and only exhibition, “First Group Showing: Works in Black and White,” held in 1965, from May 14th to June 24th, at the collective’s Christopher Street locale.
The genesis for the exhibition was conceived the year before and originally titled “Mississippi 64” or “Mississippi USA.” For the members of Spiral, themselves either first-generation Northerners or active participants in the Great Migration, the South was their ancestral home, a mythic land haunted by the horrors of the present and the past, a place and a culture wholly unlike New York. While the city afforded opportunities unavailable anywhere else, it also kept the doors of access firmly closed to Black Americans.
Just as de facto segregation ran rampant in housing, employment, education, and healthcare, white-owned institutions in the art world made it impossible for most Black artists to secure representation with galleries and access to collectors, while museums and philanthropic organizations used them merely as tokens, if at all. In the North, the systems of apartheid remained ever present, albeit seemingly invisible and therefore far more insidious that the de jure segregation of the South.