Finding the Tone:
Romare Beardens Monotypes and Robert Blackburns
Lori Bookstein Fine Art through March
Anyone who admires the work of Romare Bearden and thinks
that they know it, has to stop up at Lori Booksteins.
Here is work we do not get to see very often: Beardens
sparsely exhibited, unique achievement in monotype. It was
accomplished in collaboration with New Yorks own Robert
Blackburn, Master Printer and influential contributor to the
graphics Renaissance of the 1960s.
Bearden is synonymous with collage. There is hardly an art
lover alive who, at the mention of his name, can not conjure
up a mental image of post-Cubist fractures and realignments
of cut-paper evocations of a Harlem street or everyday life
in rural North Carolina. We know Beardens mastery over
the flat architecture of controlled accretions of paper. We
know the singing color and vernacular power of his imagery.
We hardly recognize the Bearden we think we know in these
lovely, liquid testaments to his equal grace as a gestural
Certainly, the color and colloquial subjects are present.
It is the formal difference that comes as a surprise. His
touch, so deliberate in collage, is loose, playful, open to
accident in the prints. Fastidious juxtapositions give way
to an unrestrained medley of porous brushstrokes. The resulting
images are more open and abstract than we are accustomed to.
They breathe in ways collage cannot.
Bearden is as much a storyteller in monotype as in collage.
His attachment to a particular subject is fundamental to everything
he ever put his hand to. The ground of his imagery in these
prints is his own life as a musician. Not only did he love
the extemporaneity of jazz played in Harlem clubs, he made
friends with musicians and wrote music himself. In the years
after the Second world War, he wrote and published some 20
songs, several of them written for Billie Holiday. His biggest
hit, Seabreeze, was recorded by Billy Eckstein and
Beardens story is in the titles of these monotypes:
New Orleans Marching Band; Jazz Group, Ellington Sounds,
End of Show (The Apollo Theater). These are scenes of
music making. Monotype is particularly suited to miming the
effects of movement, whether of bodies or of sound vibrations.
The speed and fluidity of the medium ink and solvents
skidding across a plexiglass matrix before it is covered with
paper and run under an intaglio press provide visual
surrogate for the progression of sounds we see being played
but cannot hear. Thanks to inks well-thinned with solvent,
the beading and running of the colors makes these images percolate
to the surface from within the paper. Broken by blotches and
spatters, the color fizzes, keeps on moving. Overall effect
suggests the neon bubbles that circulate around an old jukebox.
The exhibition is a tribute to Robert Blackburn no less than
to Bearden. Friends since the mid 1930s, each of these
technically articulate, gifted men had a rigorous understanding
of their craft and of the longue durée of Western
pictorial traditions. They traveled in the same circles, knew
many of the same artists, writers and musicians and their
careers corresponded in crucial ways. Blackburn opened his
Printmaking Workshop in 1948, with help from Bearden and from
painter-printmaker Will Barnet. It stands today as the oldest
artist-run print shop in the country and serves as a model
for print shops around the world. Blackburns non-profit
workspace is renowned for democratically opening its doors
to all artists, professionals or novices. An heroic catalog
of artists have passed through its doors: Paul Resika, Maia
Lin, Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, Faith Ringold, Clare
Romano, among them. Blackburn was a major force in printing
the works of Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg,
Robert Motherwell, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and
a host of others.
Bearden worked at Blackburns Printmaking Workshop between
1974 and 1983., producing collographs, etchings, monotypes
and lithographs over the nine year span. This is Bearden singing
to himself, finding his toneas Blackburn phrased it.
Bearden described himself this way: "You must become
a blues singer only you sing on the canvas you find
the rhythm and catch it good and structure it as you go alongthen
the song is you."
Despite specific reference to blues, Beardens comment
is a modern statement of an old Scholastic principle: that
the virtue of art must seize not only the artists
painter, poet, musicianfaculties and imagination but
requires the whole of his passion and will. It is a principle
which Bearden had to have met. when he was a student of philosophy
at the Sorbonne in post-war Paris. It was at that time that
the contributions of French philosopher Jacques Maritain were
entering the canon of discourse about the arts. Maritain advanced
the same imperative, only phrasing it differently: "The
artist must be in love, must be in love with what he is
doing . . . so that beauty becomes connatural to him,
bedded in his being through affection, and his work proceeds
from his heart as from his lucid mind.. Such undeviating love
is the supreme rule."
And before that, the great riff improvisor and blues aesthetician
St. Augustine said it most succinctly: "Cantare amantis
est." Only the lover sings.
Bearden had been a passionate student of the Florentine masters,
of Rembrandt, Picasso, Mondrian, Miró, and his own
contemporary Stuart Davis. The rich wellsprings of his sophistication
originate deep in Western tradition. They were as much his
own as the blues of Mecklenburg County and the jazz of Harlem.
The glory of fine blues is its power to communicate across
racial lines.The same can be said for the art of Romare Bearden.
His gestation in the long continuities of art history reverberates
in the work. The lasting achievement of both of these men,
Blackburn no less than Bearden, lies in their freedom from
any view of culture built on some irreducible ethnic identity.
Be sure to pick up the brochure. It contains a very fine
essay by Deborah Cullen,Curator of El Museo del Barrio, and
a lively, useful interview with Robert Blackburn. Cullens
commentary steers clear of any reductionist hint of a "Black
Aesthetic" while it gives necessary weight to Beardensand
Blackburnscultural heritage. It is a gracious
piece of writing, art talk at its best.