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ART REVIEW : A 'Graphic Odyssey' Reveals an Innovative Spirit of Hope : LACMA's Romare Bearden exhibition is a telling showcase of more than 100 lithographs, monoprints, collagraphs, screenprints and etchings.


Romare Bearden is certainly the most renowned African American artist of his generation and that's wrong. Wrong because there are not more of them, worse because no artist's gifts should be confined or promoted within a category of race.

Bearden was one of the best artists of his generation, period. Further evidence of this comes with the L.A. County Museum of Art's newly opened exhibition, "A Graphic Odyssey: Romare Bearden as Printmaker."

Consisting of more than 100 lithographs, monoprints, collagraphs, screenprints and etchings, it is the most comprehensive show of his graphic work to date. It was organized and circulated by the Council for Creative Projects, New York, and coordinated here by LACMA curator Bruce Davis.

The show proves the artist a graphic innovator possessed of a thoughtful, cultivated humanistic sensibility. He studied at Boston University, Columbia and the Sorbonne. He started in math, went on to cartooning and got hooked on modernism in Paris, where he met Brancusi and Braque, among others. One of his influential teachers was the satirical German Expressionist master George Grosz. Bearden shared his realism but not his bile.

His work makes him look like a contemporary of such artists as Ben Shahn and Stuart Davis, combining the social conscience of the one with the jazzy modernism of the other. Davis was a friend and mentor who, rather paradoxically, furthered Bearden's love of jazz by urging him to listen to "the silences between the notes," a poetic concept that nudged Bearden further along toward an interest in Zen. Actually Bearden was younger, outliving both of them by nearly two decades. He was 76 when he died in 1988.

Closer in age to the Abstract Expressionists, Bearden first exhibited alongside Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb. He admired their work but was determined to make art that mirrored the experience of black Americans. That put him out of mainstream fashion and slowed his recognition. Significantly, during the lean years he made ends meet as a social worker.

His trademark images came to be collages of unsettling expressive power. Photographic heads and other details give meaning to shapes in cut and torn paper that would appear purely decorative and abstract out of context. If anything his prints improve on this technique by unifying the inevitable scrappiness of pure paste-up.

His range was remarkable. Many of these images are based on childhood memories of his birthplace in North Carolina, where black people then lived in cabins by the railroad tracks. Trains haunt his work with poignant implications. They symbolize the power to take a man away from his home or bring him to a promised land. The pain of separation resonates in a scene of lovers parting at dawn in "Before the First Whistle." Bearden's tendency to rumination reflects in "The Trains." Some 10 color variations on heads of women in front of a locomotive confirm his power as master of moody orchestration of hue.

His reverie is haunted by women dressed in long colorful skirts and heads tied in bandannas. Bravery is bespoken by the contrast between ramshackle surroundings and cheerful dress. The "Girl in the Garden" wears watermelon-pink gingham. "Pepper Jelly Lady" contrasts its own sonorous palette with a beautiful monochrome hand-drawn frame. A monumental female figure takes back some of the power of indigenous African art appropriated by Picasso.

Like the great Catalan, Bearden extended his range to classic myth. He made Odysseus a black hero and equated his wanderings with the Diaspora of Africans taken by the slave trade. He was good at this, but his thoughts ever came home to Manhattan where he mainly lived. He participated in the pan-artistic Harlem Renaissance. The superiority of his own poetry and prose put him at ease with writers. His understanding of abstract orchestration opened friendships with great jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Earl (Fatha) Hines.

His jazz-inspired imagery, unlike Davis' terse abstraction, never lost sight of the guys playing the music. Occasionally he'd do a witty stylization like the Cuboid "Alto Saxophone," but usually he stayed funky. In "Jazz II" a pianist leers merrily at the crowd with a big cigarette stuck in the corner of his smile. Reminds you of Stuart Davis' story about jazz clubs so tough they had to put barbed wire around the piano.

Bearden was never barbed. His art knew the pain of the blues, but, he said, "Even though you go through these terrible experiences, you come out feeling good. That's what the blues say and that's what I believe--life will prevail."

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., through Sept. 11. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Information: (213) 857-6000.

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