Freedom of Expressionism

In its relatively short history, the Center for the Visual Arts, Metropolitan State College's gallery in LoDo, has celebrated the diversity of the art world. Sally Perisho, the center's founding director, has paid special attention to art by women, gays and ethnic minorities. And she has mixed things up: One show may highlight the accomplishments of local art students while the next features the work of an artist of national stature. From the latter group comes the current show, the spectacular traveling print exhibition Romare Bearden: A Graphic Odyssey.

The show includes more than 100 examples of the great mid-century modernist's work on paper and marks the first time that Bearden's prints have been assembled into an exhibition. Though curators Gail Gelburd and Alex Rosenberg did their best to track down every print Bearden made, the project was hampered by the fact that they didn't know exactly what they were looking for: Bearden, who died in 1988, never bothered to catalogue or otherwise record his work. And while the artist's widow and his longtime studio assistant were able to fill in many gaps, co-curator Gelburd points out in written remarks that "many of the prints were signed with different names" and that "many images were re-created or slightly varied in different mediums." As a result, Gelburd cautions that this exhibit should not be seen as a catalogue raissone of Bearden's prints.

Bearden was born in 1912 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and went with his family to Harlem when he was only three years old. He moved around a lot as a child, living at times back in Charlotte, in Pittsburgh and in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. But Harlem, where he returned repeatedly, would remain with him, as revealed in his prints, for the rest of his life. In the 1930s Bearden attended Pennsylvania's historically black Lincoln University and went on to study at mostly white institutions such as Boston University and New York University, from which he received his degree. Bearden spent his free time playing semi-pro Negro League baseball and penning cartoons that were first published in the Baltimore Afro-American and later in the likes of Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post.

Also at this time, Bearden took both a scholarly interest and an activist role in the then-emerging African-American art scene centered in Harlem. In his essay "The Negro Artist and Modern Art," Bearden criticized some of his fellow artists for lacking inspiration. But he joined up with Jacob Lawrence and others whose work he did respect in the "306 Group," an informal organization of African-American artists based in New York. Like many of the 306 artists, Bearden took art classes at New York's Art Students League, where he studied with German expressionist master George Grosz. At the time, Grosz was living in this country in exile, having narrowly escaped the Nazis, who had declared his work "degenerate."

Bearden's early work combined geometric and figural elements to create his characteristic abstract style. His breakout opportunity came in 1945, when he premiered a painting series called "The Passion of Christ." New York's Museum of Modern Art purchased one painting in the series, and Bearden's career as a famous artist was launched. While not formally a part of the Metro State show, an oil on paper from "The Passion of Christ" is included in the exhibit courtesy of the Denver gallery Mosadi's Collections. That gallery is now featuring a number of the prints that appear in the Metro show; but unlike those at Metro State, the prints at Mosadi's are available for purchase.

Though Bearden is chiefly remembered for the abstract-expressionist paintings he created from the mid-1950s into the early 1960s and for his 1960s collages, he later in life turned to printmaking, a medium he had addressed casually since the 1940s. Since printmaking is all about creating multiples, this really got Bearden's work around, and the ready sale of the prints during the art boom of the 1980s also made the artist rich before he died--and good for him.

The Bearden prints at Metro include several early works, such as the cubist "Interior," a collagraph from the late 1940s. But the mainstay of the show is the material from his printmaking days of the 1970s and 1980s. "The Train," a 1974 print that combines photoengraving, etching and aquatinting, is one of several that are essentially subtle reworkings of the same topic and images. These related prints have the look of photo montages. The same pop-art approach is also seen in "Family," a photoengraving and aquatint.

One of the biggest surprises of the show is Bearden's ability to pursue different stylistic directions simultaneously. In the 1979 lithograph "Brass Section (Jamming at Minton's)," Bearden looks to neo-expressionism. Yet in "Siren's Song," a serigraph created the same year, one sees the very different influences of his colleague Lawrence and his mentor Stuart Davis--and, just for good measure, the simple and colorful representational approach seen in modern Haitian paintings.

The Bearden show at Metro follows last year's exhibit of Lawrence's renowned "Migration Series" at the Denver Art Museum and the Longmont Museum's show earlier this year of Elizabeth Catlett's prints from the 1920s to the 1940s. That means that, for those willing to make the effort, there's been a primer out there on twentieth-century African-American art. If you made the mistake of missing the shows devoted to Lawrence and Catlett, make a point of boning up on Bearden.

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