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The Art of Experience

Romare Bearden’s Works Reflect His Eclectic Life

For Romare Bearden, the jazz of life was everywhere: in the faces of men sitting on city stoops, cigarettes slanted from their mouths, in the sanguineous glow of an evening at the Savoy, and in the clack of trains rolling through a rural North Carolina outpost.

And why not? From his early days growing up in Manhattan, the black artist’s world was populated by the giants of the Harlem Renaissance. Duke Ellington was a family friend, as was “Fats” Waller, Langston Hughes, W.E. Du Bois and actor/activist Paul Robeson. His mother wrote for the prominent black newspaper the Chicago Defender; his father played piano in his spare time.

Caught in the nexus of such explosive creativity, Bearden’s trajectory, it seems, had a touch of predestination to it. In his 50-some year career, Bearden intrepidly captured aspects of the black experience, often through the geographic lens of the places that defined him: the rural South of his birth, the northern cities where he would spend much of his life after his family’s migration, and the Caribbean landscapes he turned to in his later years. His varied, multimedia oeuvre, now the subject of a major retrospective —“The Art of Romare Bearden” — which opens this Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, bears testament to this pursuit. Here is a man expanding outward, layering his art with the world as he encountered it.

Bearden Beginnings

At its most fundamental level, Bearden’s work, like his life, defies easy categorization. (Not even his birthday, believed to be Sept. 2, 1911, is known with absolute certainty.)

For much of his career, Bearden, like his father, practiced his art after-hours, working days at the New York City Department of Social Services. He took classes at the Art Students League under the eye of the great Dadaist George Grosz, and by the mid-1930s, his eerily prescient political cartoons (one dealt with the defection of black voters from the Republican Party) were being published in Baltimore’s Afro-American. His first solo exhibit — in 1940 at New York’s 306 studio — did not come until he was nearly 30 years old.

Bearden’s aesthetic struggle between figurative representation and abstraction — a theme present in many of the 130 works in this exhibit — begins to emerge almost from the exhibit’s get-go. Two standouts from this period — a painting inspired by the poetry of Spanish writer Frederico García Lorca titled “Now the Dove and the Leopard Wrestle” and a collage of a fractured Harlequin doll — hark back to the cubism of Picasso without losing their narrative punch.

But it was the early 1960s that were cardinal for Bearden both politically and artistically. These were the heady years of the civil rights movement, where Bearden met with a group of black colleagues — known as the Spiral — to plot how to lift the “omission and oppression” of black artists, according to former member Richard Mayhew. (Bearden would later found Cinque Gallery aimed at young, minority artists.)

At the same time, his work begin to focus nearly totally on collage, and snippets from Life and Ebony magazines found new expression in the scrambled images he crafted. There are a million things happening in these pictures. A black family sits down to a slick meal of turkey, gravy and spaghetti harvested from the glossy pages of a Madison Avenue advertisement, no doubt. In others, the figures play cards in tenement housing or toil against a sun-seared landscape.

There are touches of ironic humor, too. In Bearden’s “Expulsion from Paradise,” bliss seems to be represented by a cute blond in her skivvies or a comfortable, 24-hour bra, depending on one’s outlook.

During this period Bearden also briefly experimented with photostat, taking photographs of his collages, which were then enlarged into what he called “projections.” The black and white product of this technique effects a double layer of removal from the work, obscuring aspects of the collages to the point that they really do appear as distinct creations, alienated from their point of origin.

Bearden’s talent for compressing the activity of the diurnal is particularly arresting when he turns his attention to the city street. Stretching across the expanse of an entire wall, the 10-foot-by-16-foot collage “Berkeley — The City and Its People” takes in the various rhythms of one of America’s most revolutionary centers. In another collage, “The Street,” a blue lightbulb casts a shadow over the gritty realities of smoking, music-making and lovemaking in a Harlem microcosm.

Other Influences

Through it all, Bearden’s love of music percolates. (Bearden, who enjoyed close friendships with several jazz musicians, scored a couple of minor musical hits in the 1950s, but was advised by the philosopher Hannah Arendt to stick to his painting.)

The “finger-snapping, head-shaking enjoyment” he attributed to jazz takes form in blocks of color, paint and even fabric incorporated into his collages from the mid-1960s onward. Echoing the “call and response” technique germane to America’s only indigenous art form, Bearden once declared of his work, “You put down one color and it calls for another.” Such sentiments are evident in pieces like “Of the Blues: At the Savoy” and “J Mood,” where the energy is so kinetic the images alone make you want to get up and dance.

Stories — mythic, religious and historical — also inform his work. A luminous series of painted collages following the journeys of the legendary Greek hero Odysseus is downright Matissean, invoking all the sensual curves of the French painter’s famous Blue Nudes. While a simple sculpture of a helmet resting on chunks of wood invokes the memory of the slain Christian warrior Mauritius, martyred for his refusal to worship Roman gods.

By the 1970s, Bearden and his wife, Nanette, had taken up a second residence on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Accordingly, many of his later works appear as mind-dizzying tropical conflations. Prominent among these is his phantasmagorical “Birds in Paradise,” where a solitary native woman bathes against a colorful backdrop of throbbing flora and fauna.

Over the course of his career, Bearden produced some 2,000 pieces of art — all of this from a man who didn’t officially give up his day job until 1969. When he died in 1988, Bearden left behind not just a catalog of the human experience, but a collection of pictorial melodies sure to ring in the eyes of generations to come.

“The Art of Romare Bearden” runs from Sept. 14 to Jan. 4, 2004, at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. This Sunday, the National Gallery will host a lecture, discussion and catalog signing from 2 to 4 p.m. in the East Building Large Auditorium. For more information on this and other events associated with the exhibit, go to www.nga.gov.

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