Finding the Tone:
Romare Bearden’s Monotypes and Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop

Lori Bookstein Fine Art through March 25

Anyone who admires the work of Romare Bearden and thinks that they know it, has to stop up at Lori Bookstein’s. Here is work we do not get to see very often: Bearden’s sparsely exhibited, unique achievement in monotype. It was accomplished in collaboration with New York’s own Robert Blackburn, Master Printer and influential contributor to the graphics Renaissance of the 1960’s.

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 Bearden’s 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 artist.

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 Dizzy Gillespie.

Bearden’s 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 1930’s, 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. Blackburn’s 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 Blackburn’s 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 tone—as 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 along—then the song is you."

Despite specific reference to blues, Bearden’s comment is a modern statement of an old Scholastic principle: that the virtue of art must seize not only the artist’s— painter, poet, musician—faculties 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. Cullen’s commentary steers clear of any reductionist hint of a "Black Aesthetic" while it gives necessary weight to Bearden’s—and Blackburn’s—cultural heritage. It is a gracious piece of writing, art talk at its best.


March 2000

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