Happy Birthday to a pioneer of African-American art, Romare Bearden: http://bit.ly/2bIASO2
I wrote about him back in May, 2011: http://cheznamastenancy.blogspot.com/2011/05/romare-bearden-at-museum-of-african.html
From the NY Times, 1997: COLLAGE is the most important innovation in art of the 20th century, and this can be said with confidence because there is nothing parochial about the medium. It has attracted international artists and has been adapted to all styles of two-dimensional work. Some artists, of course, have used it only occasionally, but one master of collage who relied on it was Romare Bearden (1912-1988).
Back in 1997, the Whitney Museum's branch in Stamford exhibited some of Bearden's small collages, as precursors of a fascinating and little-known development, a series of 28 black and white ''photomontage projections'' that Bearden made in 1964.
The collages that are the seeds of the projections are compositions of paper, photographs and paint put on boards measuring 8 1/2x11 inches. The imagery was then fixed with an emulsion applied with a handroller. After drying, the collages were simply enlarged photographically in black and white, and mounted on Masonite.
Because they are photographs they don't have edges or seams that distinguish collage, but they retain its disparate quality. Some are big enough to put a viewer in mind of murals; the dimensions of one are 4x6 feet. It's a simple process but has wide ramifications.
As many advertisers recognize nowadays, simple black and white can have real punch and urgency. Viewers are not beguiled by tints and hues so are likely to pay attention. Perhaps that's why Picasso painted ''Guernica'' without color.
Bearden's achievement was likewise born of a sense of immediacy, and of electricity in the air. When he conceived his series, the civil rights movement had just gained strong impetus from the civil rights march on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the summer of 1963. In her essay for the show's catalogue, Gail Gelburd notes that the event was seen flickering on countless black and white television sets.
The march inspired black intellectuals, writers and artists to form a group called Spiral; Bearden was elected secretary. Spiral aimed to recreate the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's, but the members didn't want to be viewed merely as black artists. As Ms. Gelburd writes, ''They sought acceptance within the mainstream while paying respect to their heritage.''
This mandate was well-suited to Bearden. His biography recites a dizzying list of accomplishments. For instance, while in college at Boston University he played baseball in the Negro League and then earned a degree in mathematics from New York University.
He began his art career as a political cartoonist while also being employed as a social worker. After serving in the Army during World War II, he studied philosophy in Paris on the G.I. Bill. He returned to the United States in the early 1950's and after a brief career as a writer of popular songs he turned to painting in the Abstract Expressionist mode.
Many things displayed in the photomontage projections might be accounted for in this list: Bearden had an intense interest in people, including the teeming masses, and the works at the Whitney are chock full of humanity.
His Abstract Expressionist period, from 1954 through 1962, no doubt fixed in him the predilection to mix things up, to make bumptious compositions and to alter scale to his own expressive purposes. At the same time, Bearden's understanding of mathematics might have played some part in the preciseness, the just-right quality, that underlies the visual welter of a given work.
Influenced and inspired by these experiences and occupations, not to mention friendships with many cultural giants including Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Bearden could enter sentimental territory and not get caught in it.
Two projections in which he recalls his origins --''Mysteries,'' set in North Carolina, and ''Pittsburgh Memories,'' the city where he spent his boyhood -- are distinguished by extreme close-ups of faces that carry the drama. The faceting, the geometric break-up of the faces of the two boys who confront the viewer in ''Pittsburgh Memories,'' is inspired by African masks and what is described as primitive art in general.
Bearden incorporates such references with great sophistication and a range of meaning. The visual jumble of each of the protagonists' faces is much like extreme scarring, and reflects a rough and dangerous growing up.
Perhaps the key to what Bearden accomplished in the projections is that, while they can allude to folk art, and familiar allusions can draw a viewer into a work, they are not folk art. Bearden's friend, the writer Albert Murray, says tantalizingly in an interview in the catalogue: ''Bearden's very special awareness of the ritualistic dimension of stylization saved him from genre, from just being provincial.'' ''When you turn the raw experience into a style, the style becomes the statement.''
If viewers accept that style is the key, they can appreciate its varieties: the rhythmic angles, for example, that dominate ''Spring Street'' and bring Analytical Cubism and Stuart Davis to mind, versus the seeming chaos of ''The Dove,'' in which the bird, once found, is the composition's calm center.
The photomontage projections may have been a brief chapter in Bearden's career, but they led to the large-scale collages that he made for the rest of his life and for which he is becoming widely recognized.
William Zimmer, 1996, NY Times