New York

Romare Bearden

Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery

Another place where text isn’t necessary to flesh out the artist’s intentions, but functions as an enhancing motif, is in titling and captioning. Romare Bearden’s collages are accompanied by captions chalked on the gallery walls. Bearden’s words don’t suggest meaning in the work that isn’t manifestly there; rather, they present witty takes on the story-in-progress.

The 28 collages on view tell the story of Bearden’s early years. Called “Profile/Part I: The Twenties,” it’s a first installment of a projected pictorial autobiography. What better medium than collage to express the accumulation of memories? And isn’t collage the emblematic medium of the century? Collagists are collectors and juxtaposers of wildly disparate material; they take bits of chaos to create their own order. Collagists are art’s archivists: they investigate, organize and present evidence of the activity of a culture—what the found objects and photographs of a specific era look like.

Bearden’s collages are a cheerful agglomeration of the graphic and fine arts of this century. The so-called elevation of collage from a crafts strategy—quilts, valentines, journals—to an art is generally attributed to the Cubists, but Bearden’s work acknowledges the vitality of the American crafts tradition of quiltmaking, rug-looping and decoration that was a lively art before the appropriation of its ideas by the Cubists. Bearden’s most stunning images are his collages-within-collages: Mamie Singleton’s Quilt, for one, and his depiction of a brothel, Mamie Cole’s Living Room, with its intricately collaged and painted renditions of carpet, wallpaper and appointments.

The lovable element of Bearden’s work is that it engages on so many levels. The saga of his move from Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, to Pittsburgh is a paradigm of American migration this century—from rural town to urban center. It’s also representative of the occupational and regional shift of the black populous: Bearden’s story begins in the Southern cotton field and travels north to the steel mills of Pittsburgh. As Bearden tells his story of life in the U.S., he’s also the chronicler of art in the U.S.—his collages knowingly embrace every influential art movement of the century. The accomplished cut paper forms evoke Matisse, the unsubtle juxtaposition of screwball images hilariously recalls Richard Hamilton, his autobiographical underpinning echoes the structure of so much contemporary art.

Bearden, however, is more than a synthesizer of different art modes. The richness of his collages is not the result of a “more is more” esthetic; he’s utterly aware when the marriage of fabric and photograph will be to his advantage, when an expressionist sunset with its overweening sentimentality can dominate a collage. This sensibility is generally called a “touch,” and the X-quantity of Bearden’s touch is that he can be wittily trenchant without being heavy-handed or a flibbertigibbet. His subject matter, the intensity of the all-work struggle in which he was reared, could be maudlin material but for his sensualist’s eye for texture, which dialectically poses hard facts with soft fantasies. The cutting edge of each memoir is swathed with luscious color, the embroidery of recollection. This doesn’t have the effect of sugarcoating a bitter pill, but effectively betrays the mixed emotions of memory.

Captions aren’t necessary as the connective tissue of these 28 collages, but do project Bearden’s attitude toward his past. In this Proustian expression Bearden presents the parallel narratives of his mind’s eye and his mind’s tongue. His abundant humor is infectious: a collage that apparently represents the Expulsion From Paradise is captioned, “The Church was always filled when people knew Reverend Russell was going to preach about Adam & Eve and the Apple.” The first installment of Bearden’s autobiography, while not exactly a cliffhanger, provokes eagerness for what’s to come.

Carrie Rickey