Romantic and cinematic, the prints and collages in the retrospective “Impressions and Improvisations: The Prints of Romare Bearden,” (on display at the Taft Museum of Art through April 29, 2012) have a home-brewed flair matched with an aesthete’s precision. In each piece, Bearden seems to devote all his time and attention to grasping at the tenderness beneath the wear and tear of being alive.
The iconography is simple yet sophisticated and flashy enough to catch memories as they slide into mythology. Trains, jazz musicians, Jesus Christ, streetscapes, and bucolic outdoor scenes abound, but Bearden uses each trope and vignette as the beginning point of an overall obsession, as if he is trying to recreate moments that are about to outlive what they mean and blur into burnished emblematic dreams. The “12 Trains” suite (a series of hand-colored photo/collages) creates its own surrealism while solidly maintaining its status in the real world. Handsome and almost scary in its frankness, a 1974 installment of the suite, titled “Through Freight” is constructed atop a rugged wood background and depicts a fevered, moon-lit midnight supper scene that reads like a reinvention of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with boys posing and suffering in silence instead of girls. “12 Trains” repeats that same supper image in a variety of styles and techniques, blending Pop-Art irony with Folk-Art sincerity, nervy jazzy cacophony with R&B velvet.
The subject matter benefits from the eclectic style. Gruff yet clipped, each piece has a Matisse-colored delicacy matched with a Picasso-flavored punch as if Bearden is re-appropriating imagery and styles the great Modernist Masters were allowed to borrow for just a little while. 1972’s “Untitled (Street Scene)” has a muscularity and verve that out-Basquiats Basquiat, but the color and texture transform the lithograph into an urban psalm, Marvin Gaye daydreaming as he walks to the barbershop.
In fact, walking through the exhibit (which showcases more than 75 works), “Mercy Mercy Me” might just be the only reference point you need. Bluesy, smooth, and elegant, yet informed by hurt and wisdom, Bearden’s work is palliative. Elegance and rawness unite. Bearden, awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1987, was also a social-worker and writer. Born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, he passed away in New York City in 1988. His life seems to have been spent trying to merge style and substance into a body of work that never loses touch with its essential urges and inspirations. This is art made out of political necessity and yet completely pleasurable to be around.