January 26, 2010 / 4:16 PM / 9 years ago

Tableau at Met Museum portrays life of Harlem block

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A tableau by artist Romare Bearden on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates the life of a city block in Harlem where he spent part of his youth.

Along with the 18-foot-long (5.4 meter) collage called “The Block,” the exhibit that runs until Spring 2010 also includes pencil and marker sketches Bearden used to prepare it and photographs.

“The work portrays the energy of the city,” said Lisa Messinger, an associate curator of modern art at the museum.

“It recognizes the hardships that people may have to endure but also a sense of community. There’s survival and joy at the same time.”

Bearden, whose mother was a journalist and whose father was a civil servant, died in 1988. He was a very well educated man who had a great knowledge of modern art and art history, Messinger said.

“His work speaks to someone who is knowledgeable about art history, but also to someone who is just inspired by his cinematic, colorful view of city life, its private moments and its public moments,” she said.

In his long, successful career as an artist, Bearden is best known for the colorful, cut-paper collages he began making in the 1960s. Elaborate works such as The Block (1971) helped elevate the genre to a major art form.

In these collages, Bearden displays a modernist sensibility through unusual materials, expressionistic color, abstract forms, flattened shapes and spaces, and shifts in perspective and scale, while maintaining focus on the human narrative being told, according to Messinger.

On the block of low-rise buildings depicted in the work, Lenox Avenue between W. 132nd and W. 133rd Streets, there is a liquor store and a store-front Baptist church. A man dodges cars to cross in the middle of the street. Another man sits, in solitude, on a stoop, while other people interact with each other on the sidewalk.

In the tableau, windows, both real and imaginary, pull the curtain aside for glimpses of the vibrant lives carried on inside urban dwellings. A couple makes love on an upper floor of one of the apartment buildings while a coffin is carried in a funeral procession below.

The seemingly simple preliminary sketches that accompany the finished tableau - one is on lined yellow legal paper - examine the relationships among the buildings and between the buildings and the sidewalk and street below.

The sketches reveal Bearden’s close attention to architectural detail and human gesture, Messinger said.

A single city block forms a microcosm of modern life, making the tableau as contemporary as it was nearly 40 years ago, when “The Block” debuted in Bearden’s first major museum retrospective in 1971.

The last time the work was displayed at the museum was up to five years ago. The materials used in the collage are delicate and sensitive to light, according to the museum.

Bearden, who died in 1988, juxtaposes images so that the viewer looks into a window and also down the street, while also being defined by blocks of colors.

“It’s realism and imagination in one giant piece,” Messinger said. “There are different perspectives, but everyone has this common experience of meeting on the block.”

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