Maine is not only white with snow this time of year, racially it is also one of the whitest states in the nation with close to 98% of its residents identifying themselves as Caucasian. So any opportunity for exposure to cultural diversity is both welcome and needed in the Pine Tree State. The conjunction of major exhibitions of two of America’s most important African-American artists is one of those opportunities not to be missed.
From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick (through January 3) is a retrospective of prints in a range of media (etchings, aquatints, collagraphs, lithographs, silkscreens, monotypes) by Romare Bearden (1911-1988), one the leading American artists of the 20th century and one who brought Modernism to bear on the African-American experience.
The Bearden print show is complemented at Bowdoin by a smaller concurrent exhibition (through December 20) of the collages for which Bearden is best known and it is amplified at Portland Museum of Art by Evolution: Five Decades of Printmaking by David C. Driskell (through January 17. Driskell, a Maine summer resident, is not only an authority on African-American art, an art historian, an emeritus professor of art at the University of Maryland and curator of the Bill and Camille Cosby collection, he is a fine artist in his own right and his work owes a clear aesthetic debt to that of Bearden.
There is no such thing as an African-American aesthetic. The satirical silhouette cutouts of Kara Walker, the abstract sculptural constructions of Martin Puryear, and the text-based images of Glenn Ligon are as different as they can be – contemporary art first, Black art second. Still, there was a certain look to Black art coming out of the Harlem Renaissance that is identifiable and both Bearden and Driskell do riffs on it.
Romare Bearden and his contemporary Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), both Southerners displaced to Harlem, evolved an aesthetic that corresponded to American jazz even as it evolved visually from the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, especially Picasso’s appropriation of African imagery. It is an art characterized by bold color, dramatic shifts in scale, the daring piecing together of imagery, and subject matter drawn straight from the street life and personal lives of the Black community. It’s like Bebop in two dimensions, a lively, fast-paced, up-tempo visual rhythm. Lawrence played the black keys, creating his jumpy rhythms with strong black outlines. Bearden played the white keys, syncopating his collages and prints with a cut-and-paste sense of composition that seemed capable of shattering glass.
David Driskell plays a quieter, more reflective tune, thoughtfully borrowing from the masters Lawrence and Bearden while adopting a more mainstream Modernist aesthetic. His subjects are more apt to be the traditional conventions of portraiture, self-portraiture, still-life, and landscape than they are the funky social scenes of his more street-wise predecessors. The family resemblance is obvious, however, making the coincidence of big print shows by Bearden and Driskell most instructive.
From Process to Print was organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation. Bowdoin College Museum of Art is the first stop on a national tour. Evolution was organized by the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland. The Portland Museum of Art is the last stop on its national tour.
[Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME. 207-725-3275. Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, ME. 207-775-6148.]