Leading light of city hip generation

5th December 2003 at 00:00
ROMARE BEARDEN: Collage of Memories. By Jan Greenberg. Abrams pound;12.95

The collage art and life of the black American painter Romare Bearden (1914-1988) is well-served in this large-format publication with large print to match for less-confident readers. It is a chronological account that makes an impact because it is free of irrelevant detail. Bearden's life was caught between turn-of-the-century North Carolina racism and post-war New York city hip. His experience of racism in the American South is explored in Jan Greenberg's account of his pale skin and the difficulties created by this in a culture of strict racial demarcation. The artist's interest in jazz and friendship with Duke Ellington add to the book's appeal and our appreciation of the richness of Bearden's life.

Bearden's collage pieces are beautifully reproduced in this book. From the early "projections" to the later images made on the Caribbean island of St Martin, his inventiveness and sense of play are apparent. They form a powerful body of work, providing a moving account of the experience of sections of the black community in the US in the 20th century.

The one blemish is the author's use of the term "native" with reference to the people of St Martin. It is a loaded term which signals primitivism and simplicity in black people and is inappropriate in what is otherwise an excellent book.

Children should benefit from reading Collage of Memories and absorbing Bearden's perspective on black people in the US. The book should promote the reputation of a figure who was undoubtedly one of the leading artists of his generation in the US. It would be suitable for children from upper primary to secondary art and design.

Paul S Dash lectures in art at Goldsmiths College, London

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