WCMA: Romare Bearden’s provocative collages admirable in range, impact

With the acclaimed “Graphic Design in Mechanical Age” exhibit on its way to New York City, the Williams College Museum of Art has a couple of galleries to fill and a tough act to follow. Enter “Romare Bearden in Black and White: Photomontage Projections, 1964.” Showing through January 24 in one of the galleries vacated by the departed “Design,” the new exhibit offers an enlightening sample of the defining works of an underrated and important 20th century artist.

Throughout his career, Bearden maintained a keen interest not just in the art he created, but in the broader implications it could address. He was among the founders and leaders of Spiral, a collective of African-American artists formed in 1963 to lend its support to the civil rights movement. Eventually, Spiral came to focus its attention on issues of African-American identity and how they could be expressed in art. Disbanded three years after its conception, Spiral nevertheless survived long enough to make a lasting impact on the African-American art scene.

Even after Spiral broke up, Bearden remained committed to education and unification. His penchant for lecturing brought him to Williams in 1969; the following year he taught a Winter Study course focusing on African-American art. In fact, one piece, The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism was purchased by WCMA during Bearden’s initial appearance on campus.

Although his academic and social contributions to the art world are enthusiastically acknowledged, and rightly so, Bearden’s own artwork can be overlooked as a result. Bearden works in collage reminiscent of both Rauschenberg’s seminal material and dadaist abstractions of the earlier 20th century. In fact it’s possible toview his works as attempts to socially validate the more nebulously conceptual absrtactions of the Abstract Expressionist and Dada movements. Still, it is essential to note that Bearden has a vision of his own: h emakes a few vital alterations to the equation.

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable feature of Bearden’s art is its surprising size. Unlike most previous collage artists, Bearden’s figures appear not in the size of the photograph from which the come, but are blown up considerably. In works such as Preservance of Ritual: Baptism and Pittsburgh Memories, the relatively large human features and figures seem strikingly confrontational and direct, evoking a sense of near sublimity not through panoramic landscape but extreme proximity. Howver, in several other contexts – a series of pieces depicting jazz shows, for example – size represents not confrontation but celebration.

The contrast points to an important quality of Bearden’s body of work: while his formal tendencies remain remarkably similar, his leitmotifs are very diverse. Bearden examines Biblical themes in Walls of Jericho and Explusion from Paradise, his own youth in Pittsburgh Memories and Evening, 9:10, 461 Lenox Ave., jazz in the Train Whistle Blues and Jazz series and city life in Spring Way and Uptown Looking Downtown.

Bearden’s most impressive skill is his ability to pull off these varying themes with effectiveness and clarity. The artist renders each of his motifs distinct and fully-formed not by toying with his own style but by making subtle changes in its implications. When Bearden depicts rural scenes, for example, in works such as Cotton, he leaves his figures natural and disordered. In the cityscape Uptown Looking Downtown, on the other hand, the artist creates a claustrophobic sense of order through rigidly vertical figures and buildings.

And while works ostensibly dealing with Bearden’s own experiences (especially the jazz portraits and Evening, 9:10, 461 Lenox Ave.) focus on largely intact characters, the more political pieces (such as Walls of Jericho and In That Number) more resemble Rauschenberg’s nearly incongruous abstractions. It’s a tribute to the artist that both work: Evening, 9:10 and The Street exude a vaguely nostalgic slice-of-life quality just as convincingly as In That Number disturbs with phallic imagery and Walls of Jericho rummages for cultural debris. At their best, Bearden’s pieces play off of each other, evoking “documentary photographs while simultaneously instilling them with a sense of. . .fragmented reality,” according to the museum.

In the end, though, Bearden’s body of work is unified by its sincerity and perception, particularly with regard to the African-American experience in both art and America. These confident collages from the 1960s remain emotionally powerful in their direct, sympathetic portrayals of human nature. And they remain instructive even as some might be inclined to think that their time has passed.