In 1963, Bearden shifted to collage as his main vehicle of artistic expression, a medium particularly suited to his layered, elliptical narratives. Items of everyday life—scraps of newspaper, magazines, even bits of cloth—are assembled together with colored paper in compositions rich with personal, historical, and art historical allusions. It is a medium that allows an abundant inclusiveness, particularly appropriate for an artist drawn to diverse art historical and literary references. Asked in 1967 how he related to his collages, Bearden responded, “Not through any one particular incident, but through Art: Zurburan, African sculpture, Bosch, Jan Steen, Chinese calligraphy, Mondrian. As Malraux said, ‘art is made from art …’ I cannot deny that there is something transactional in these works.”
In the early 1960s, Bearden reflected on the role of the artist in a time of social turbulence, participating in a group called Spiral to explore the ways he and his colleagues could contribute to the Civil Rights movement. This alliance of artists aimed to “point to a broader purpose and never be led down a blind alley of frustration. Political and social aspects should not be the primary concern; aesthetic ideas should have preference.” There are many stories about an unrealized group project—a collage—initiated by Bearden, and it is possible that the debate within Spiral’s weekly meetings led to his new focus on the medium. In any case, collage proved to be an extraordinarily fruitful focus for him.
The Woodshed depicts a family in reduced circumstances. The scene reveals both inside and outside. In a stark interior lit by a bare bulb hanging from above, a mother stands next to a small table covered in images of foodstuffs taken from magazines. A toddler sits at the table eating. The mother holds a small baby in her enormous hands, a disjuncture of scale possible with collage that Bearden capitalizes upon so effectively for emotional resonance. Outside, a man stands beside a woodshed playing a saxophone, his head a blend of bits and pieces including African sculpture, body parts taken from photographic sources, and opaque colored paper. The structure of the composition and its geometric organizing principles seem to bracket the family members into isolated zones, reinforcing a mood of constraint and loneliness that permeates the entire scene.