- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2003

Black artist Romare Bearden exploded onto the American arts scene in 1963 with a series of collages and photo montages that established him as a major artist of the 20th Century. He went on to glue and paint even larger and more complex scenes of life around him. Mr. Bearden (1914 - 1918) even ventured into all cloth images that echo the quilt-making traditions of his ancestors.

Yet, his art in the form of a major museum show never made it into the National Gallery of Art. Fortunately, the museum is now doing just that with “The Art of Romare Bearden,” and it’s about time. He’s the first black artist accorded a major National Gallery retrospective on the scale of other post-World War II artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Claes Oldenburg. I felt I was taking Duke Ellington’s “A Train” in traveling through the large and varied show (the artist and musician were good friends). It was like the kaleidoscopic flash of images from an express train when I looked at the mid-1960s smaller collages. The throb of an imagined train is strongest with these collages. His genius with fractured textures and expressively enlarged faces and hands will stay with anyone who sees them. My imagined train slowed down a bit in the next exhibit section called “Mecklenburg Memories,” in which he visually returned to Charlotte, N.C., and began creating huge, iconic works — still fractured, but with a deeper breadth of feeling. The beat of the exhibit revs up with Mr. Bearden’s collages, which were either inspired by, or about, jazz and blues music. His superb talents in paint-collage and as an active storyteller help to round out the exhibit. Both real and imaginary trains, especially their energies and rhythms, were crucial in Mr. Bearden’s art. He focused on them as symbolic, miraculous carriers of his slave ancestors through the Underground Railroad. Trains transported him and his family from Charlotte, where his grandmother lived, to New York’s Harlem, where he was raised. Three superb collages of trains are tucked in a corner of the “Circa 1964” exhibit gallery. One of these, “Watching the Good Trains Go By,” in which he lined up figures observing an imaginary locomotive, is autobiographical. Charlotte was a railroad center, and he could easily have been part of the throng as a child — or even as a grown-up. Mr. Bearden continued to travel frequently by train back to his grandmother’s house there. “Watching” is also metaphorical. The sad look of the straw-hatted man in the picture is unforgettable. It’s as if he wanted to board the train and go to better places, but he couldn’t. The straw-hatted man has a woman’s dress glued to him. Dislocation of figures and scenery adds to the collage’s emotive power. Men and women stand in outlandish poses, unrelated to one another. Some heads are big, others small. A diminutive man strums a guitar in front of the collage. The collage’s neighbors, “Train Whistle Blues I” and “Train Whistle Blues II,” continue the guitar and blues music motif. Three musicians, painted at askew angles, play piano, guitar and harmonica in “Blues II.” By contrast, Mr. Bearden placed a large guitar-strumming black man center-stage, cigarette dangling from his mouth, in “Blues I.” These were the people of the artist’s Harlem. His father, Howard Bearden, worked for the New York Health Department. His mother, Bessye, was a social and political activist and journalist. During the 1920s, the Bearden home became a gathering place for the famous, and not-so-famous, of the Harlem Renaissance. Writer Langston Hughes, painter Aaron Douglas and musician Duke Ellington were regular visitors. It was a rich background for the bright, talented boy. After studying math and science, he trained at New York’s Art Students League. His teacher, emigre painter George Grosz, may have introduced him to the collage technique, but the artist couldn’t have missed out on its possibilities after seeing those of Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and the black artist Betty Saar. It’s easy to see that Mr. Bearden carried collage much farther. His work opened up with larger patterns and scale, as well as with more brilliant color, in his fabric collages of the “Mecklenburg Memories.” The artist achieved monumental heights with “Conjunction” — created with fabrics, crayon and charcoal on canvas, in 1971. Three huge, sparely designed black women could be African princesses. In other “Memories” images, he breaks up the surfaces of collages like “Three Men” and “Three Folk Musicians” into hundreds of broken, almost mirror-like, pieces. Of course, there’s much more. In his jazz-inspired pieces, Mr. Bearden said he laid down a piece of collage paper, then “echoed” it with another paper just as jazz musicians improvise. Then look at his storytelling in the “Odysseus” series where he puts a new twist on the old Greek legends. In “Odysseus: Poseidon, the Sea God — Enemy of Poseidon,” Mr. Bearden depicted the deity with an African face mask and headdress. His brilliant-colored monotypes — not usually displayed — made me jump as I exited the show. The exhibit came about almost as an accident. In the early 1990s, Mr. Bearden’s widow, Nanette, came to the gallery to seek advice about preserving her husband’s work. She talked with Ruth Fine, an expert on papers at the gallery. Miss Fine, the show’s curator and an artist herself, says she became interested in the work because she liked to see how the collages were put together. After Mrs. Bearden died in 1996, the Romare Bearden Foundation, chaired by her nephew, Tallal ElBoushi, continued working with the gallery to bring the exhibit to fruition. It’s a loan show from many lenders that travels to four other museums that are honoring this artist, as well. However, it shouldn’t be left to providence that a major museum such as the National Gallery give such black artists as Romare Bearden their due. There are hundreds of black artists today who the gallery could show. It’s time they did so. WHAT: “The Art of Romare Bearden” WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 4 TICKETS: Free PHONE: 202/737-4215

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