Jazz on paper

Romare Bearden's improv collage
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  October 21, 2009

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“THE FAMILY” Etching and aquatint, edition 175, by Romare Bearden, 1975.

A gem of a show, two shows really, has quietly appeared at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. A traveling exhibit of the graphic works of the late Romare Bearden has been augmented by the museum with a number of his collages.

I had occasionally encountered Bearden's work in my early days in New York but wasn't able at that time in my life to really see it, engrossed as I was in pure abstraction. But that was long ago, and, as has been said elsewhere, I was older then and younger than that now; for me this show was a quiet revelation. His work is stunning, visually coherent, and intellectually rigorous. He was able use modernist methods to express his engagement with the African-American social condition with clarity and strength.

Romare Bearden was a complex person with an interesting history. Born in North Carolina in 1911, he studied science and education at New York University, art with George Grosz at the Art Students League, and philosophy at the Sorbonne. His education was interrupted to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues, and he refused an offer to play in the majors on the condition that he "pass for white." He was a soldier in World War II, worked as a social worker in New York City, wrote jazz songs that were recorded, designed theater sets, illustrated books, and wrote books and articles. He died in 1988.

He worked mostly in collage after about 1950, and the graphics work in this show is a direct extension of collage. He created images and collected photos, then mixed and matched them in ways that were both disciplined and intuitive. He sought, and achieved, a visual poetry that is akin to song. There is definite content that is embedded in, and buoyed along by, the richness of his visual decisions.

Bearden was close to jazz, and these works are jazz-like in the way the improvisation is based on a complex internal structure. There are no real rules that dictate why he puts things where they are or gives them the color they have, but there are distinct and important reasons.

In the collage "Pittsburgh Memory" the faces of two men are made from cubist-like shards of photographs to build composites from pieces of other faces. The eyes and other features are more or less where they appear in life but seem to be almost breaking apart -- you see them as faces but need to mentally reassemble them. Behind them bits of stairs and parts of buildings place theme in a gritty urban context. The overall feeling is an admixture of strength and confusion, resignation and acceptance.

The etching and aquatint "The Train" has five faces in the middle over an irregularly patterned, nearly abstract background that contains, among many other things, a small side view of a locomotive. It's a complex work that calls to mind, as also suggested by the title, the great Billy Strayhorn song "Take the 'A' Train." Like the song, the work has an intricate underlying structure that supports a much simpler and direct theme presented by the faces. Also like the song, there's a tinge of melancholy that lies under the existential directness of people's gaze, blended with a sense of expectation and even a little joy.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , New York University, New York University, Visual Arts,  More more >
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