Bearden created the visual equivalent of jazz

Music - particularly jazz, the blues, folk - was a persistent theme in the life and art of African-American artist Romare Bearden. Jazz musicians were among his close friends. He wrote lyrics to supplement his meager income in the early 1950s. Many of his paintings are named after songs.

Paintings throughout Bearden's career don't merely depict musicians and bands. They explore ways in which color and form might visually express something parallel to the audible fluidity, improvisation, structure, stir, and atmosphere experienced when one listens to, or plays, music.

Ruth Fine writes, in "The Art of Romare Bearden" (published in connection with a major exhibition of Bearden's work organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on Oct. 14): "The 'call and response' aspect of jazz is essential to Bearden's practice in that his spontaneous approach required each move in his making of a work to determine subsequent actions. Likewise, the jazz practice of 'call and recall' is embedded in his repetition of motifs, always with variation...."

Bearden himself, who often discussed with his artist friends the relationship between his art and jazz, stressed the highly "structured" nature of jazz "at its best." And although he made some freely painted sketches and monotypes of jazz musicians, collage was evidently his preferred medium for this theme. Collage - the building up of an image using cut or torn fragments of paper stuck to a flat surface - is by its nature structural and structured. Collage had been part of cubism, which proved to be a reverberating influence throughout the 20th century. Bearden was acutely aware of all kinds of contemporary art. His collage "Thank you ... for F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life)" (part of the upcoming exhibition at the Whitney Museum) was made as a record jacket for the musician Donald Byrd. It shows how Bearden adapted the cutouts of Matisse, in particular, where strong colors are made to delineate forms and spaces by cutting around and into sheets of colored paper.

You can almost hear the music through the color.

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