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.

Across town in Cherry Creek, Elizabeth Schlosser Fine Art is presenting Morgan Wagner, an exhibit devoted to the work of an artist associated with the glory days of the Broadmoor Academy. Like Bearden, Wagner came to prominence in the 1940s after studying with Grosz at the Art Students League. But unlike the well-remembered Bearden, Wagner has been all but forgotten. In fact, before the current Schlosser show, Wagner's work hadn't been on public display in more than forty years. Given how wonderful these modestly scaled oil paintings are, it's a pity.

While at the Broadmoor Academy, Wagner studied with Boardman Robinson, a master of American scene painting and longtime director and guiding light of the Broadmoor school. But while Robinson was chiefly interested in the depiction of social action, Wagner turned to landscapes--and, to a lesser extent, idyllic, almost neoclassical depictions of bathers, horses and cowboys. One of his great paintings is "Cole's Meadow, Boulder" an oil on board from the 1940s that is pure Broadmoor Academy style, a mixture of regionalism and post-impressionism. Wagner uses smeary and smudgy brushwork, employing almost-dry pigments to convey a fuzzy row of trees. His palette, like his stylistic approach, reveals his debt to his teachers at the Broadmoor Academy.

The influence of the painting style associated with the academy, especially that of Kansas artist Birger Sandzen, who taught there, is also seen in Steve Walker: Views of the Front Range, a strong show of contemporary paintings at the tiny M-Art Gallery on the city's west side. Walker, a Boulder artist who has been a presence on the Denver art scene since his emergence in the mid-1980s as one of the region's pre-eminent neo-expressionists, presents work that is a continuation of his earlier style. However, because of a new subject--the Western landscape--the results are clearly distinct from his earlier and more familiar figural paintings.

The rediscovery of the artists associated with the Broadmoor Academy is obviously in full swing. But the Denver Art Museum needed to borrow works by many Broadmoor veterans to fill out its portion of the Real West show, including examples by Sandzen, Ernest Lawson, Arnold Blanch and Peppino Mangravite. And the Broadmoor resurgence has only underscored the unwise nature of a number of hasty deaccessioning decisions by the DAM itself. Among the material liquidated at the on-premises auction conducted by Christie's late last year were pieces by Broadmoor Academy artists who are looking more and more significant with every passing day, including Mangravite, Rico LeBrun, Mary Chenoweth and Edgar Britton.

Those mistakes were for the most part made by the Painting and Sculpture department. But not to be outdone, the Modern and Contemporary department takes the cake for the most questionable recent deaccessioning decision. Remember how all this cleaning out of the basements was supposed to improve the quality of the DAM's collection? Why, then, did the museum part with a 1968 untitled Donald Judd sculpture, an enamel-on-rolled-steel minimalist work that was sold for more than $400,000--an auction record for the artist--a couple of weeks ago at Christie's in New York? The record price reveals through the crude workings of the art market that the piece is perceived to be an example of Judd at the top of his form.

The official line from the DAM, which should be red-faced about the boo-boo, is that since there's another more significant Judd in its collection--also from 1968 and also untitled--the one that was sold was "redundant." One might hope that from now on the powers that be at the DAM will understand that masterpieces, by their very nature, defy redundancy.

Romare Bearden: A Graphic Odyssey, through June 21 at the Center for the Visual Arts, 1701 Wazee Street, 294-5207.

Morgan Wagner, through June 15 at Elizabeth Schlosser Fine Art, 311 Detroit Street, 321-4786.

Steve Walker: Views of the Front Range, extended through June 15 at M-Art Gallery, 2900 West 25th Avenue, 377-4978.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia