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A large-scale touring show of Pittsburgh-tied artist Romare Bearden offers insight into his creative process. 

Bearden's strength was his ability to absorb, embrace and experiment with the many things that interested him and that shaped him.

click to enlarge Formally and conceptually complex: "The Family"
  • Formally and conceptually complex: "The Family"

"You ain't taking that piano out of my house," says Berniece, a character in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. This Pulitzer Prize-winning play was inspired by Romare Bearden's artwork of the same name. Bearden, like Wilson, had Pittsburgh roots, and so it is fitting that the August Wilson Center for African American Culture hosts an exhibition of his work.

Organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation and curated by its former program director, Pamela Ford, From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden examines the print work of this American master, best known for his collages. While "The Piano Lesson" is not in this exhibition, a lithograph called "Homage to Mary Lou" is. It's similar in structure and composition, and the title refers to jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was raised in East Liberty, where Bearden himself periodically lived with his grandmother until his graduation from Peabody High School. But Bearden lived most of his life elsewhere, and this exhibition is not much about Pittsburgh. Instead, it's about Bearden's process and the things that influenced him, including the sights and sounds of all the places he lived.

The exhibition presents prints that demonstrate Bearden's experiments, innovations and collaborations. In order to focus on process, the show is broken into sections, each with a panel explaining a particular printing technique. The best groupings within each section are those that display variations of the same piece. One example is "Out Chorus," a group of three prints that includes one working proof in black-and-white and one in color.  These small works depict a jazz band in Bearden's signature syncopated and improvisational style. They are hung with "Jamming at the Savoy," one of his most recognizable jazz images.

Jazz was a key theme for Bearden, as was everyday African-American family life.  One of his most ambitious prints is "The Family," here displayed with a version in sepia ink and with two working proofs. The grouping demonstrates how Bearden resolved areas in the final printing that he felt needed more or less pattern or definition. Typical of Bearden, this print is both formally and conceptually complex. Though it's seemingly simplistic, he plays with scale, color and texture to create a rhythm that borrows from many sources including popular magazines, German expressionism, fauvism, cubism and jazz. And the subject matter is both folksy and surreal.

Another in-depth study of his process involves "The Train" and six prints from the "12 Trains Suite," displayed with two copper plates. These provide further insight into Bearden's process, as do his Kodalith negatives, which unfortunately are hung in a different space. The placement makes it harder to understand Bearden's complex process: By collaging, photographing, cutting, reconfiguring, re-photographing and etching, he created plates that would give him a print with the texture and depth that he achieved so spectacularly in collage.

The show contains only one small collage, "Untitled (The Father Comes Home)." It was made as a costume illustration for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. This same image shows up in a later lithograph called "The Lantern." Repetition is typical of Bearden, whose oft-reused imagery was drawn from his personal experience. Trains, guitars and serpents show up as vestiges of his youth in North Carolina. Jazz and street scenes reflect his adult life in Harlem. Works such as "Before the First Whistle" were no doubt inspired by Pittsburgh and its steel mills. And the lush landscape of his second home in St. Martin infuses his later work. But Bearden was also interested in mythology, Biblical stories and ritual. The Annunciation, The Iliad, the conjure woman and Salome were subjects he worked and re-worked in various mediums.

Bearden's strength was his ability to absorb, embrace and experiment with the many things that interested him and shaped him. Included in the exhibition are three pages of his notes on various mediums and art styles. These are handwritten and illustrated with little doodles, such as a sketch of a Morris Louis painting or of various African sculptures. These provide additional insight into his versatility.

In Bearden's later years, photographer Frank Stewart captured the artist in both private and public moments. The accompanying exhibition Romare Bearden: The Last Years, Photography by Frank Stewart offers a glimpse into Bearden the man. The images show him in the studio, or lecturing, or surrounded by fellow artists, writers, family and friends. In one particularly compelling image, he converses with the artist Raymond Saunders. Saunders, incidentally, was born in Pittsburgh, and so we come full-circle back to this city, a perfect place to celebrate Bearden in what would have been his 100th year.

 

FROM PROCESS TO PRINT: GRAPHIC WORKS BY ROMARE BEARDEN continues through Sept. 12. Romare Bearden: The Last Years, Photography by Frank Stewart continues through Oct. 31. August Wilson Center for African American Culture, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-258-2700 or www.AugustWilsonCenter.org

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