Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco is pleased to present Romare Bearden: Storyteller, opening Thursday, April 3 with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30pm, and running through June 21, 2014. The exhibition features collages, watercolors, and prints from the 1970s and 1980s by Romare Bearden, a descendant of the Harlem Renaissance, a great storyteller, and a master colorist.
Romare Bearden (1911-1988), an author, visual artist, songwriter, and jazz aficionado, is recognized as one the most creative and important artists of the 20th century, even spurring a centennial celebration at dozens of national museum including the Studio Museum in Harlem. Migrating from Charlotte, North Carolina to New York when he was a toddler, Bearden quickly became part of the cultural fabric of New York City. His family’s house was a meeting place for major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including writer and social activist Langston Hughes and Bearden’s second cousin and early patron Duke Ellington. A member of the Harlem Artist Guild and founding member of the civil rights group The Spiral, as well as of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Romare Bearden played a key role in the evolution of black arts and culture throughout the 20th century.
Bearden’s collages in Storyteller — including mural maquettes, an Olympic poster, and a book jacket for a collection of poems by African writers — highlight the artist’s mastery of the medium for which he is most remembered. Intended for public spaces and distribution, these collages symbolize the reach of Bearden’s artwork and his legacy. His approach to collage, as seen in this exhibition, was improvisational, intuitive, and inventive, not unlike the creative process of jazz and blues that tends to evolve somewhat spontaneously. Bearden considered his collages to be paintings and once said of them that “any reproduction will suit my purpose, because, like the ancient makers of mosaics, I’m really drawing and painting with…paper.”
In addition to collage, Storyteller features watercolors, monotypes, and prints. His watercolors are abstracted with colors and brush strokes mimicking the rhythm and energy of the city, and evoking the music that permeated Bearden’s life and art. Densely packed buildings stretch from the sky to the river, where boats steam their way along the city’s edge suggest industry and working-class aspects of Manhattan in the late 70s and early 80s. These watercolors were originally commissioned for the opening titles of the 1980 film Gloria. Coinciding with the vitality of New York are monotypes of jazz musicians. Created in a loose and spontaneous manner, the colors Bearden used suggest fiery cords, sultry blues, and blaring trumpets. Contrasting to the modernity of the city are depictions of Martinique and St. Martin, his wife Nanette’s ancestral home, where they bought a house in the early 1970s. The lush landscape and lifestyles of the inhabitants, particularly fishing, Obeah rituals, and the catharsis of carnival inspired Bearden.
Prints based on his collages are showcased in his Odyssey series, which illustrates Homer’s epic poem; the series seemingly departs from his best-known work of edgy urban and jazz scenes or his depictions of African American life in the rural South. Yet, because Bearden depicts these Greek mythological figures as black, he invites a comparison between classical myth and African American culture. Viewers may liken the Greek king Odysseus’ arduous and heroic ten-year search for home after the Trojan War to African American struggles. Replacing white characters with black figures, Bearden attempts to defeat the rigidness of racial roles and stereotypes and open up the possibilities and potentials of blacks. Bearden says about this series and his work in general, "What I tried to do is take the elements of African American life….and place it in a universal framework."
Romare Bearden: Storyteller’s collages, watercolors, and prints from late in the artist’s life showcase the artist’s command over innovative techniques and approaches to exploring modernity, humanity, and the African American experience in the places where he lived and worked.
Bearden's work is included in many significant public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Studio Museum in Harlem, among others. He has had retrospectives at the Mint Museum of Art (1980), the Detroit Institute of the Arts (1986), as well as numerous posthumous retrospectives, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (1991) and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2003), which traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Throughout his lifetime, Bearden received numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from Pratt Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Davidson College, and Atlanta University. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Arts award. Bearden was also a respected writer on art and social issues and with Harry Henderson coauthored the book A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, and with Carl Holty co-authored The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting.