Tampa Museum of Art: Forward and back with Romare Bearden

At the TMA, two artists who translated past struggles into indelible art.

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click to enlarge TELLING THE STORY: Romare Bearden’s The Train (1974), collage on paper. - Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC/ Photography by David H. Ramsey
Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC/ Photography by David H. Ramsey
TELLING THE STORY: Romare Bearden’s The Train (1974), collage on paper.

The promise of the Tampa Museum of Art’s expansion and re-opening in February 2010 wasn’t just a sexy architectural addition to the city’s riverfront, but a major presence for modern and contemporary art downtown. Perhaps now more than at any moment over the past two years, TMA is making good on that promise in impressive fashion.

On tap at the museum, there’s a wealth of art from the second half of the 20th century: a participatory, sound and performance-based work by John Cage, paintings by William Pachner (about which more below), and Don Zanfagna’s cybernetic collages. With an exhibition of sculpture on loan from the Miami-based Margulies Collection set to open later in March, it’s a solid season for the museum.

The centerpiece of these great offerings is an exhibit of paintings and mixed-media works by Romare Bearden, an African-American artist active from the 1940s until his death in 1988. In the art world’s rearview mirror, Bearden’s work has come to look downright canonical — his collages in particular, from the 1960s on, fuse the best formal lessons of modernism with a postmodern quest to explore everyday life, identity and the politics of image-making. Today he stands as an important precursor to contemporary artists including Kara Walker and Carrie Mae Weems, whose works grapple with historical images of African Americans.

The TMA exhibit, which originated at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, invites a particular look at Bearden’s work from the perspective of his roots in the American South. Born near Charlotte, Bearden spent most of his life in New York City, where his parents — a white mother and an African-American father whose heritage blended races — relocated during his early childhood due to racism and Jim Crow laws. But Bearden returned often to North Carolina to visit and spend summers with his paternal grandparents, where his memory filled with the sights and sounds that would later populate his paintings and collages.

After graduating from NYU, Bearden studied at the Art Students League of New York with George Grosz, an influential member of the Berlin Dada group who pioneered the artistic practice of photomontage, along with Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, in the 1910s and ’20s. (Grosz had fled from Berlin to New York during the rise to power of Hitler’s Nazi party, who were known to persecute makers of what they called “degenerate art,” including Dada.) In Bearden’s hands, Grosz’s method became quintessentially American and, in many instances, indelibly linked to the South. Starting in the 1960s, he began to compose elaborate photo-based collages illustrating scenes from domestic life, the rhythms of urban and rural societies, and cultural spaces like jazz-filled music halls.

The artfulness of Bearden’s collages stems from his talent for proposing, visually, extraordinary relationships between disparate elements — crafting a family seated at a game of cards, or a couple reclining in bed, out of photographic scraps (hands and faces culled from magazines), pieces of color paper, a swatch of fabric and watercolor paint, for example.

A collage like The Train (1974) reveals the artist at the height of his abilities, improbably coaxing a complete narrative world out of fragments. In the image, a family sits clustered around a table inside a ramshackle house as a train lumbers by in the background. A motif often repeated in Bearden’s works, the passing train offers insight into what’s so striking about the artist’s oeuvre overall — though patently unreal (visibly clipped from a commercially printed source and pasted into the composition), the train, in Bearden’s hands, tells an indisputably authentic story.

Time is running out to see William Pachner: Works from the 1960s, another exhibition at TMA. The show includes about a dozen large, abstract canvases by Pachner, a painter who for several decades divided his time between upstate New York and the Bay area. His show closes on March 18; a concurrent exhibition at Brad Cooper Gallery in Ybor, also featuring paintings from the 1960s, runs through March 17.

Not unlike Bearden’s art, Pachner’s paintings reflect the fascinating times their maker had the blessing — or the curse, depending on your perspective — to live through. Czech by birth, Pachner came to the U.S. from Prague in 1939 on a work visa to pursue a career in magazine illustration, but within a week of his arrival Hitler’s army invaded the Czech capital, precipitating his permanent immigration. Many of Pachner’s family members, including his mother and brother, were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.

Amidst the horrors of war in Europe, Pachner unexpectedly found himself in New York City fulfilling a longtime dream to work for Esquire magazine — where he became art director — and meeting his future wife. By the 1950s, he felt a call to leave commercial artwork behind and make paintings in response to the tragedies of the prior decade and his own grief.

“I had to begin somehow to transform that interior experience into visual form,” Pachner says. “I felt that I had something to say about the time in which I lived, which is the artist’s task.”

At first glance, Pachner’s paintings appear completely abstract. Upon scrutiny, and in the light cast by their evocative titles, they evince a complex relationship to pictorial representation. Take The Sacrifice (1962), a painting that emits a spine-tingling cry (part scream, part aria) in pink, synesthetically speaking. Covered in energetic brushstrokes in shade-upon-shade of rose, peach and fuchsia, the painting might be a wounded, fleshy landscape. View from the River Sola makes a more concrete allusion to the river near Auschwitz where bodies were dumped as an S-curve of yellow, red, blue and green.

Pachner was first lured to Clearwater in the 1950s by an enthusiastic patron who persuaded him to spend part of the year teaching art in Florida in order to support his family. As a result his paintings have become part of collections at TMA, St. Pete’s Museum of Fine Arts, Florida Holocaust Museum, the Ringling Museum of Art and other Florida museums. Now 97 years old, Pachner lives in Woodstock, N.Y., where he no longer paints due to blindness but is still able to school a journalist (by phone) on art and the meaning of life.

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