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The Art of Romare Bearden

Creating a Geometry of Experience

Romare Bearden found his calling in collage-making in the 1960s at the age of 51, a venture that led to his indoctrination in the modern canon and boded a half-century of imitations and tributes. His collages present an exercise in attention and intellectual fortitude, placing spectators in a position where they are forced to reconstruct the artist's meandering fragments and convolutions into a coherent whole.

Stationed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Art of Romare Bearden highlights the artist's collages, photomontages, murals, book illustrations, album covers, and costume designs. Bearden's corpus of work is like a densely layered topography of memory, with all its sinuous curves and fuzzy horizons. The collages that encompass the majority of the exhibit are richly figured metaphors of assorted influences and experiences: Biblical tales, the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, jazz clubs, Bearden's childhood in the rural South, and the tumultuous 1960s. Lauded as the most comprehensive retrospective ever assembled, the exhibit was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and showcases over 100 works by Bearden, including minor cubist paintings and fêted pieces like "Berkeley- the City and its People."

A native of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Bearden's art was heavily influenced by his full-time job as a social worker. Indeed, Bearden can be described as an ethnographic artist, whose signature collages and visual accounts incisively probed the culture of the places in which he lived, from the rural South, to the creative breeding ground of Harlem, to the opulent Caribbean island of Saint Martin.

The first gallery of the exhibit includes Bearden's earlier pieces, deferential cubist homages to artists like Picasso and Chagall. While these works are vibrant and foretell Bearden's fixation on mythology and folk culture, they are little more than ersatz attempts at artistic self-definition, banal undertakings containing intimations of the artist's future mastery of forms and themes.

Utilizing clips from magazines, Bearden mapped his universe of borrowed images onto a sophisticated canvas already thickly slathered with an extensive knowledge of art history. (Bearden worked in several mediums and studied African tribal art, European painters, and Mexican muralists.) Bearden's essential technique involved the obsolete photostat machine, which churned out broken-up apparitions that run counter to the visual craving for a smooth, uninterrupted image.

Bearden's collages often depict the dystopic collision of different cultures. His "City of Brass" reflects the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and the changing geopolitical climate of the 1960s. The title comes from a pre-Biblical myth in which the inhabitants of a prosperous African city are besieged by a throng of greedy conquerors, who imprison their spirits in bottles. Much of Bearden's work, including his inventive "Odyssey" series, is colored by a mythic past, in which untrammeled privilege and riches precede disenfranchisement.

Bearden's series "Prevalence of Ritual" reflects a fascination with ancient mystery cults and the knowledge that is transmitted through an African heritage. "Tomorrow I May Be Far Away" is a blues-infused work of genius, charged with an ambiance of loss and dissolution. The piece is fluently assembled in charcoal and graphite. At the center is a man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he is swathed in a chaotic swirl of clouds, wood, grass and mud- both ravaged and propped up by this patchwork of elements.

"Berkeley- the City and Its People," is Bearden's mammoth monument, a 10 by 16 feet medley of photographs and colored paper on seven fiberboard panels. On view for the first time outside the Berkeley city council chambers, where it was installed in 1974, the mural is a complex tableau of the city's racial diversity and political proclivities. A cartoonish rainbow and cut-out doves linger in a placid sea at the top of the mural, these fantastical images ground the pictures of protesters and historical figures in a whimsical vision of hope.

Another suite in the exhibit is devoted to the woman as muse. Bearden continuously evoked the beauty of the black woman in works like "Reclining Nude" and his "Artist With Painting and Model." These particular pieces are endowed with a quiet intimacy that complements the frenzied mood of other works.

Bearden also credited jazz as an inspiration for his work. (An audio tour features the compositions of saxophonist Branford Marsalis, whose latest musical release, "Romare Bearden Revealed," was a response to Bearden's collage and painting style.) The syncopated rhythms of jazz were liberally inculcated in the artist's work, which proffered a similar call and response pattern- inviting active participation and holding to no predetermined arrangement.

According to Bearden, "The Negro experience is its own logic." Images that appear contradictory on first glance are, in fact, unified expressions of social change, history, mythology, personal loss, love, and hope. Bearden belonged to a group of African American artists who called themselves the Spiral. Provoked by the aims of the Civil Rights movement, the group sought to create a socially engaged aesthetic reflecting black culture and experience. The name of the group was inspired by the Archimedean spiral, which moves up and out in an eddy of movement. So too, Bearden moves up and out of all easy classifications (as an African American artist, as a jazz artist, as a civil rights artist etc.) and reveals a geometry of images and ideas staggering in its dimension

Note: The Art of Romare Bearden will be at the MOMA until May 16 and will then travel to the Dallas Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta on a touring schedule through April 2005.

Through May 16
The Art of Romare Bearden
151 Third Street (between Mission and Howard Streets)
San Francisco, CA 94103-3159
Telephone: 415.357.4000
Fax: 415.357.4037
Hours: Mon-Tues 11am-6pm; Thurs 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat 11am-6pm

Image: Romare Bearden, Berkeley –– The City and Its People, 1973, collage of various papers with paint, ink, and graphite on seven fiberboard panels, City of Berkeley, California, Public Art Collection, © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.