Romare Bearden, Mechanical Reproduction & Generative AI

Nettrice Gaskins
3 min readAug 31, 2023
Romare Bearden. The Dove. 1964. Cut-and-pasted printed paper, gouache, pencil, and colored pencil on board, 13 3/8 × 18 3/4" (33.8 × 47.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund

One of my recent book cover art commissions was released by the author on social media (see below) and someone commented/asked whether or not the original artists were credited since it’s “AI Art”. Part of my response was to ask this question: Did Romare Bearden credit the original photographers in his collage work?

Art Is Always Made from Other Art — Bearden via MoMA

Romare Bearden in Long Island City studio. c.1980s. Courtesy the Long Island Pulse

Since high school, I’ve taken inspiration from Romare Bearden to create collages. Bearden used Photostat machines and film projectors to make large-scale photo reproductions. Photostats, which were introduced in the early 1900s, makes copies of ‘graphic matter’ photographically on sensitized paper. Bearden made a practice of copying, redrawing, and reworking his images. Mechanical reproduction was a key stage of his process and today we use other kinds of machines: computers.

City of Winnipeg Archives. Photostat Camera and Operator, 1954 (A568 File 15 Item 6).

As you can see in the image above, Photostat machines were bulky and needing their own rooms to operate.

Romare Bearden. Prevalence of Ritual/Conjur Woman №1. 1964. Gelatin silver print (photostat), 36 5/8 × 28 3/8" (93 × 72.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
New book cover art

The other part of my response described my process, which included the use of collage as an image prompt. My current process typically begins with collage using imaging software, this includes the use of my prior artworks and photos but includes other sources. In Midjourney you can use images as part of a prompt to influence a job’s composition, style, and colors. Images prompts can be used alone or with text prompts. I upload my collages to Midjourney, and add text prompt that use descriptive words such as culturally diverse elements made of beads and yarn, multi-layered collages in the style of intricate psychedelic landscapes. This image (below) was created using the same text prompt as the book cover art.

Nettrice Gaskins + Midjourney

According to MoMA, Romare Bearden explored collage through mechanical reproduction to reflect the complex facets of Black life in America. Many artists make collages through mechanical means. Today, artists can apply collage through machine learning algorithms that source materials from billions of un-consented images. The machine or generator processes prompts and provides predictions of what is possible. The use of digital collage and computers and, more specifically, algorithms created by machines, to make art is in the same vein as what early collage artists did. However, I do not compare generative AI output to Photostat-based collage. The former is a new process and one that keeps me interested and motivated to explore current and future developments.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.