Now, six years after he died, the Arvada Center — working together with Bernier’s representative, Walker Fine Art — is taking a fresh look at his conceptual work in a major exhibit, Roland Bernier: In Other Words. The show reveals that Bernier’s vision is still as crisp and cutting-edge as ever. It’s hard to believe that everything on display isn’t brand-new instead of being years, sometimes decades, old.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1932, Bernier grew up in poverty, quitting school when he was sixteen to take a job designing jewelry — already an artist as a kid. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and wound up stationed near Austin, Texas. After being discharged, he used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the University of Texas, completing a BFA degree there and going on to earn an MFA in 1960 at the University of Southern California. After moving back to Texas for a short time, he relocated to New York in 1966 when his first marriage fizzled out, then briefly lived in Baltimore, hometown of his second wife, Marilyn. The couple set off to find themselves in 1972 and headed west. They wound up in Denver with no intention of staying permanently, but they were out of money, so Bernier found a job teaching art at the Park Avenue Center. This allowed them to permanently settle here, and the rest is Denver art history.
A few years ago, Collin Parson, the Arvada Center’s gallery director, began planning a major presentation of Bernier’s oeuvre scheduled for January 2021. But when the center was closed for months in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Parson needed to push back the date.
Nearly all of the pieces included in the Arvada show come from these final stages of Bernier’s career, though Parson has included some related material dating back as far as the 1960s that anticipates the later works. I understand why Parson zeroed in exclusively on the word-based pieces, and showcasing those is surely the call that Bernier himself, who turned his back on his earlier techniques, would have made. Nonetheless, I was sorry to see that Bernier’s elegant abstracts and marvelous “Graffiti” works that he’d done in the 1980s had been left out.
Appropriately enough, Roland Bernier: In Other Words starts off with a group of those ’60s drawings that have a neo-Dada feeling in which abstract shapes in watercolors and inks are juxtaposed with words and letters done with transfers arranged into off-kilter arrays. In one, various shapes hang below an arcing line above which the title, “Just about now,” is spelled out in a simple black typeface. In “567 See,” three open-ended outlined shapes are accented by letters and numbers, and across the bottom center is the word “bed.”
The show then fast-forwards a quarter of a century to a gallery full of the much larger and more ambitious “Arty-Fax” paintings and works on paper, along with related pieces from the 1990s. This is where the show really gets off the ground.
For a large five-by-ten-foot diptych, one panel is predominantly gray over a field of red and yellow, and the other is in blue with dark over lighter shades. Using stencils, the gray has been employed on one panel to spell out the word “TRUE” repeatedly in an all-over pattern; on the other, in dark blue, the word “BLUE” is handled in the same way — hence the title, “TRUE BLUE.” A striking element of the painting is a compass-like circular form pierced by jagged yellow arrows trimmed in red-orange that anchors the blue panel.
As viewers proceed through the show, with one standout after another, they'll notice that although Bernier never wavered from his interest in the formal power of printed words, he explored the idea in a range of ways. In some, he takes a minimalist direction, draining the color and using black and white only, such as in “Ready, Aim, Fire,” or even more strikingly in another black and white painting, “Duck Soup,” wherein the words are essentially completely hidden beneath the paint, so that it reads like a two-tone color field. In other cases, sculptural shapes or figurative images are used. A good example of this is “Death in Venice,” a row of five identical shovels covered in prints of white type on black grounds. Elsewhere, in “Soap Opera,” Bernier has covered letters in color photocopies of detergent packages.
Roland Bernier: In Other Words opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m., Friday, September 17, and will run through November 14 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada. Reservations and face masks are required. Visit the Arvada Center online for more information.