At the height of the 1960s civil rights movement, when "an overwhelmingly white art world ... tended to regard blacks as a social abstraction" (in the typically sharp words of critic Robert Hughes), Romare Bearden helped open eyes and minds with works of striking communication, beauty and power.
The North Carolina-born Bearden strove to create a kind of art, as he put it, "in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic." Out of that goal came the collages for which he would gain great fame and that continue to represent some of the finest American - not just African-American - art of the past 50 years.
Lesser known, but no less substantial, are Bearden's creations in various print media, including his use of collagraph, the printmaking equivalent of collage.
More than 75 examples of Bearden's achievements in this field, from etchings and drypoints to lithographs and engravings, can be savored in an engrossing, rewarding exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture that fittingly opened on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. observances.
"From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden" is a touring show organized by the Bearden Foundation in New York. "This is the most comprehensive exhibition of his prints that has ever been," says Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in modern art at the National Gallery of Art.
"His prints play an enormous role in his work, so this is an important show," she says. "I can't wait to see it."
Fine, one of several people who can be heard offering insights on a cell phone audio tour created for the Lewis exhibit, curated a remarkable Bearden exhibit at the National Gallery in 2003, the first major show devoted to an African-American artist in that institution's long history.
(The Baltimore Museum of Art offered a large exhibit of Bearden prints in 1993.)
The National Gallery exhibit offered work in diverse media from throughout Bearden's career. The Lewis printmaking show focuses mostly on the artist's last few decades - he died in 1988 at 76 - but still has the effect of encompassing the man's whole creative life and ethos.
Significantly, one of the first things viewers will see is not an official part of "From Process to Print," but a small, welcome sidebar from the museum describing "Bearden's Baltimore."
Born in 1911 in Charlotte, N.C., Bearden spent some of his early years in Pittsburgh before settling in New York. He visited Baltimore often when he was young; his widowed grandmother married the Rev. H.C. Cummings, who led a Methodist church in Lutherville. And one of the first boosts to his career came in 1944, when his work was included in a "New Names in American Art" exhibit at the BMA.
While living in Harlem and attending college, Bearden submitted editorial cartoons to the Baltimore weekly Afro American, from 1935 to 1937.
One of those cartoons is included in the "Bearden's Baltimore" panel at the Lewis Museum - a striking image of a black man rolling up his sleeve, ready to battle an approaching throng of hooded figures holding banners that read "Inadequate housing," "Lynch justice," and "Segregation."
It's a sizable stylistic step from that cartoon to Bearden's mature work, but the vitality beneath it provides a common thread.
"Bearden's work held no trace of black cultural separatism: He abhorred the very idea," Hughes writes in his book "American Visions." "He was interested, not in making propaganda, but in declaring the nature of his own experience as a black American. ... The urge to tell a story was always uppermost in Bearden's mind."
This urge generated vibrant art right through the artist's last years (including his most tangible Baltimore connection, the jazzy mosaic that has adorned the Upton Metro station since 1983). And the animating force can be felt in print after print in the Lewis show, depicting urban and family life, the Old (and newer) South, iconic religious events and rituals, ancient myths and jazz.
"A lot of the themes are the same as in the collages," says Michelle Joan Wilkinson, director of collections and exhibitions at the museum. "And you can see the technique that goes into the process of creating them."
The show includes multiple examples of how Bearden tried out different angles and colors as he explored such favorite subjects as trains.
Among those train images, "Midnight Special" stands out. Human figures, suggesting negative photos, stare out hauntingly while, in the background, subtly, a train engine's smoke rises against a dark sky on one side, a small pale moon floats on the other.
The more abstract "Watching the Good Trains Go By" reveals thoughtful faces gradually through the vivid surface. "He is thinking of trains that take people to places they want to go," Wilkinson says.