March 4, 2010

Bearden, Driskell dazzle in celebration of color


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The Bowdoin College Art Museum and the Portland Museum of Art are now showing major exhibitions of prints by two important African-American artists: Romare Bearden and David Driskell.

Both exhibitions are extraordinary.

Driskell is one of Maine's own by iconography and geography. In 1953, he came to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and immediately fell in love with Maine. Driskell soon bought a small property in Falmouth, where he and his wife still spend much of the year.

When Bearden died in 1988, The New York Times called him one of the nation's ''pre-eminent artists'' and its ''foremost collagist.'' As far as African-American modern artists go, Bearden is probably second in stature only to Jacob Lawrence.

The Bearden show has a technical orientation that allows for insights about the artist's creative process that aren't completely steeped in either politics or race. While politics and race are critical to understanding Bearden's work, sometimes viewers have a hard time seeing past them to his artistic achievement.

From the first room of the Bearden exhibition, it is clear that printmaking is more of a creative process than a technical one. Six prints and two etching plates from ''The Train'' hang as a group. We see several black people waiting in a station: A train is visible through a window. The faces of the travelers are collaged from various photographic sources. The variety of color and effect among the prints is stunning.

Bearden, an accomplished musician, seems to have equated the print process with jazz. (He wrote Dizzy Gillespie's hit ''Sea Breeze''). Every version of a print was an opportunity for creative improvisation. Moreover, rhythm is fundamental to Bearden's compositions -- they are often syncopated and deeply complex. His pictures can be so dense with imagery they are impossible to memorize. Imagine watching a high-energy jazz performance: What you take away are the main tune and a few other bits of color, rhythm and tone. Your memory is of your own experience rather than the complete piece of music.

Memory is the key to the front door of Bearden's art.

A 1972 lithograph of a street scene is remarkable: A policeman with the collaged face of a black man, bits of images, textures, signage and the faces of other blacks have been torn from magazines to make up the picture. A collage of Jesus and a lamb marks an urban building as a church -- but it also marks Bearden's relationship to Matisse's late paper cutouts and Western art.

For Bearden, what people see is mediated by what they already know: A cop. A black man. Jesus. Matisse. Urban America. Art history. Bearden is saying our vision of any event is guided by the way memories are torn from various sources -- education, pop culture, history and so on.

Bearden studied philosophy at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill and was well aware of surrealism, cubism, Dada and other modernist thrusts. In his hands, collage was a powerful tool capable of stitching together issues of representation, history, politics and culture.

Bearden also acknowledged reality is often mystifyingly impenetrable.

Of the 89 works in the Bearden show, I think the most powerful is a small 1981 collage titled ''Mr. Blues Leaves a Calling Card.'' A skeleton is laid out on the street with a crowd of bystanders gathered around. The figures are all somehow compromised -- either obscured or partly removed by Bearden's electric eraser. Through an apartment window, we see a grief-stricken man bending over a stove. Something beginning with the letter ''B'' is scrawled in pencil on a central wall, but the words are illegible.

Bearden pulls you into this scene as a witness. You are one of those bystanders. His message is powerful: Because of what we see, we are all the performers of culture. History is not something lost in the faded past. It is where we live.


For Driskell, the challenge of making art is to see beyond what others can see and produce strong works of personal vision.

When interviewed, Driskell spoke of his work as an art historian as a ''revisionist injection'' but noted his art is ''a quiet attempt to interrupt the flow of things. The trick is to do that with meaning.'' His goal is to make excellent art since stronger works make more powerful vessels for the delivery of content.

One of my favorite pieces in ''Evolution'' is the 1957 serigraph ''Growing Things.'' It is a painterly and colorful image of a plant in a handsome cubist style. Driskell acknowledges this was a pivotal piece for him. From that point, he had the means to depict his beloved Maine pines.

Driskell's leitmotif of the African mask is notable considering his affinity to the cubism of Picasso and Braque -- and the fact that he is an African-American. Yet Driskell's explanation is elegantly simple: ''I am of African descent, but I grew up in America so the mask is not a ritual object for me -- it is just a symbol.''

Driskell's ''African Women, Windows'' is a single work that combines three matrices -- one linocut and two woodcuts. One is a round image of the artist's beloved Maine pines. The others are African figures. The black ink of the plates has been underlaid with Driskell's gorgeously saturated palette of reds, oranges, greens, blues and yellows. The color pulls seemingly disparate worlds together and imbues the whole piece with an exuberant life force.

The saturated palette is common for Driskell and fits his simple boldness. Just as common, however, are black-on-white prints that reveal a debt to Max Beckmann's woodcuts. (Whether Bearden, Rembrandt, Picasso, Matisse or the German expressionists, Driskell is not shy about influences.)

''Eve and the Apple'' is another strong woodcut with several variations in the show. The Picasso-esque woman contemplates an apple, but Driskell's Eve has learned that life cannot be some past ideal. It must be what we make of it -- starting now.

In a gutsy move by the PMA, the Driskell exhibition's walls have been painted bold greens, reds and yellows. It works.

Bearden at Bowdoin is a huge show in a large space, and it had a tremendous effect on me. I came away feeling like I had discovered something amazing.

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of these two shows. They are large, handsome and ambitious. They are also incredibly challenging and rewarding. Do not miss either.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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