aving recently seen a retrospective of Romare Bearden’s artwork at Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C., his hometown, I wasn’t expecting the Taft Museum’s current and smaller Impressions and Improvisations: The Prints of Romare Bearden to be as impressive as it is.
After all, it would be devoid of the great African American artist’s stunning, inexhaustibly inventive collages, his finest achievement. Bearden was able to use colorful bits and pieces of collected material and imagery to create figures and scenes so evocatively expressive they register to our mind’s eye as natural, realistic representations of the world around him (and us).
But the surprise is on me. This exhibit at the Taft through April 29, organized by New York’s Romare Bearden Foundation, shows just how gifted and inquisitive he also was with the printing process.(Artist Terence Hammonds will discuss this, as well as Bearden’s career in general, at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Taft.)
As installed by the museum, the show doesn’t get bogged down in the technical aspects of printing. Instead, it uses the prints to tell the story of Bearden’s life and artistic concerns, providing a nice overview. It’s also, by the way, not really that small of a show, featuring 75 graphic works.
Born in North Carolina in 1911, Bearden moved with his family to New York and was exposed to the personages and ideas of the Harlem Renaissance. He also spent time in Pittsburgh, where his grandmother lived, before settling in New York to begin his artwork. (He also kept a day job with the city’s Department of Social Services.)
Like another great African-American artist of the period, Jacob Lawrence, Bearden became interested in how black life in the rural South was changing with Northern migration. But in his long life (he died in 1988), he also developed other interests — Blues and Jazz culture, urban life and domestic interiors and depictions of mythological and religious tales.
In portraying these subjects, he wasn’t content to just go for the flat, representational realism of a traditional painter — he wanted process, texture and color to match the richness and depth of his imagination. Like his influences — Matisse, the Cubists (especially Picasso), African art, folk-art traditions and more — he needed art to be life, not just depict it.
This show reveals just how much he was able to use printing to accomplish that. He worked with etchings and aquatints, photo projections, collographs, lithographs, screenprints and monotypes, and rigorously experimented with all of these approaches. The show is divided into sections by printing technique and includes short descriptions of each. But each section, as well as the show overall, is really about the artwork created by each printing process, and their thematic content.
It starts in a particularly attractive way. At the entrance, against a richly green wall, is a 1975 print — an etching and aquatint — called “The Train.” It offers an abstracted, Cubist view of several African-American women facing forward in a modest room and one’s green headscarf serves as a nice counterpoint to the gallery wall. As the viewer looks intently, details emerge.
And in the upper-left corner, out an open window, a train passes. Suddenly, you get the picture — a critical motif in Bearden’s work has been revealed. The train is the way out, the escape from the crushing poverty and prejudice of the South. But it also leaves people and memories behind. The show includes several more examples from this “Train” series, including the copper plate.
One photo projection in the show is fascinating for the way Bearden used this process to turn his smaller collages into large black-and-white murals. “Train Whistle II,” which appears to be set in a rural Blues club, offers a close-up of a man, cigarette dangling and holding a guitar, who looks like he knew, or was, Robert Johnson. The originally collaged image has been compiled from segmented pieces, which establishes a sense of distance and time passed, of history. Elsewhere in the print, a man plays a trumpet while faces surround him.
Bearden’s wife, Nanette, had a dance company which presented a work dedicated to the Jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and that inspired him to create an especially vivid and lovely 1984 lithograph, “Homage to Mary Lou.” As the museum’s wall panel explains, this has a pronounced Matisse influence — the room where one woman plays piano (while another stands over her shoulder) is aflame with colors and patterns, be it from their clothing or from a shaft of light reaching through an open window onto a wall. But besides Matisse, there’s also a van Gogh-like burst of ecstatic post-Impressionist feeling here. The room becomes a projection of the women’s (and Bearden’s) emotions; the piano is askew and tilted and has a life all its own.
Bearden also used screenprints to pursue literary and sacred themes, and the show has numerous examples. “Carolina Memory (Tidings),” from 1970-1972, presents the story of the Annunciation within the setting of black life in a small town. A train in the background connects it with themes in his other work and makes for a kind of folkloric religiosity.
“The Fall of Troy,” from 1979 and part of his Odysseus series, does have a somewhat commercially graphic look, with more orderliness, as he concentrates on showing all the action that was part of the Greek attack on Troy (including the Trojan horse). But you can still tell it’s Bearden from the bold use of color and the “cut” look that is so distinctive.
By the way, last year was the centennial of his birth and Cincinnati Art Museum celebrated by acquiring a wonderful collage, 1978’s “Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket (Pittsburgh Memories).” It was on display for a while but is off now. When it returns to the walls, hopefully people will have seen the Taft’s show and more will realize just what an important artist Bearden was. And they’ll respect “Mill Hand” as one of the treasures of this city’s permanent collections of art.
IMPRESSIONS AND IMPROVISATIONS: THE PRINTS OF ROMARE BEARDEN is on display at Taft Museum of Art through April 29.