HARLEM — The colorful collages of artist Romare Bearden are being celebrated in a set of stamps released Wednesday by the U.S. Postal Service.
The unveiling event, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, came as part of a year-long celebration of Bearden, who died in 1988 but would have been 100 years old this year.
"He told the story of not just African Americans, but all Americans," said Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, which Bearden was instrumental in founding.
"A stamp allows for his legacy and the power of his work to be out in the world."
In his 1988 obituary,The New York Times called Bearden one of this country's "pre-eminent artists" and its "foremost collagist."
In addition to the stamp unveiling, the Schomburg has an exhibit of Bearden's work. The Studio Museum in Harlem also has an exhibit of Bearden's work with a collective of artists he helped found that explored their role in the civil-rights movement.
The museum has also commissioned 100 artists to create pieces inspired by Bearden, whose work closely explored the spectrum of black life and culture and was influenced by everything from jazz and blues to the Bible and "The Illiad."
Bearden also painted in watercolors and oils, and was a published author and scholar. His work is in the collections of many prominent museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
"His body of work is almost unparalleled," said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg. "The stamps are an act of remembrance and give another group of Americans a chance to know his work."
Bearden was born in North Carolina but grew up in New York City. After college he worked as a social worker before joining the Army and eventually studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.
His early work explored his childhood in the South, but Bearden is best know for his collages, which used various materials such as magazine clippings, aluminum foil and fabric.
"When we put people on stamps, it's because they reflect America," said Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman.
The post office gets 40,000 recommendations each year for people to include on stamps, but Bearden's selection passed quickly through the committee that makes the final selections, said Stroman.
Afterward, those gathered at the Schomburg lined up to purchase the newly issued Bearden stamps.
"A lot of his work is in Harlem, but it's universal. I never thought of him as a black artist," said Daphne Davis, a retired school teacher who purchased Bearden stamps after the unveiling.
Stroman said the Bearden stamp has been very popular and will be an important source of revenue for the Postal Service, which is self-funded and struggling through revenue shortfalls.
The USPS announced plans to close 3,700 post offices throughout the country, including six in Manhattan. Eliminating a day or more of mail delivery has also been discussed.
Brandon Henderson, 12, a seventh-grader at St. Mark the Evangelist School in Harlem, said he loved Bearden's use of color.
"I think his art is really cool," he said. "There is history behind the pictures."
E.T. Williams, chairman of the board of directors of the Romare Bearden Foundation, said he expected the stamps to increase Bearden's profile even more.
"More people will see his images and be curious about him," he said. "Curators will see the stamp and say, 'We should have a show. This guy is important.'"