BALTIMORE — The featured image on the website and press materials for the exhibition Richard Yarde: Beyond the Savoy is the watercolor painting “Dancing at the Savoy” (2007). This is also the image I’m immediately drawn to, though it is not necessarily representative of the show. The painting depicts a dark blue gridded wall composed of irregular squares, like a quilt slouching into the pull of gravity. The same uneven arrangement of color blocks permeates the entire work, including the bodies and clothing of the two dancers portrayed, and even the floor under their feet — making the man and woman a gestalt, intimately part of a scene, a moment.

It’s this moment of profligate pleasure and release that made me want to see this show. The woman has flung herself into the torso and bent-back hips of her partner, who grasps her outstretched right arm with his own straightened opposite arm. She is both falling into him and asking him to hold her up; he is both catching her weight and reveling in the audacity of her gesture. I imagine that if this were a film reel instead of a static image, the next move would be for the woman to fling herself away from her partner just as powerfully as she lands on him here. The contemporary arts community now and then adopts certain fashionable words and phrases that quickly become cliché in their overuse. Joy is a current party favor. Still, I don’t think there is a better word to describe the look on the male dancer’s face at this moment of sprawling, dancerly extravagance — his mouth gasping in surprise, his white teeth parted to let a laugh burst through. It’s these moments I’ve observed swing dancers pull off that have made me want to try it myself.

Richard Yarde, “Dancing at the Savoy” (2007), the Baltimore Museum of Art, gift of Dorothy and Jerome Preston, Jr., Damariscotta, Maine (© Estate of Richard Yarde)

The rest of the show is both like and unlike this watercolor. Mostly there are images of people who are legendary in United States history, and particularly among Black people: Marcus Garvey, who led a back-to-Africa movement, the champion boxer Jack Johnson, the international entertainer Josephine Baker, the actor and singer Paul Robeson, the abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, and civil rights fighter Malcolm X among them. Most of the images are slightly askew in their frames. Or, in the case of “Johnny’s Gone” (1977), the watercolor image of a funeral casket is tilted up and stretched across several sheets of joined paper, making the work feel homespun and less archly high art. Oliver Shell, the curator of the show and the writer of the catalogue essay “From Photo to Brush,” surmises that Yarde was fascinated with his godfather Amos Gibson’s work as a portrait photographer, and assisting Gibson would have witnessed the darkroom printing process for analog photographs. It feels strange to say this now, as if this process belonged to another age. I suppose it does. This is exactly how I learned photography back in my undergraduate days: using an enlarger to burn the image projected through the negative onto light-sensitive paper, placing that paper into the developer, watching the image slowly swim up into visibility, then putting it through the stop bath, and finally in the fixer, before immersing it in a water wash to get all the chemicals off. I always thought that photographs looked the most beautiful when they were still wet, the blacks never again appearing so rich and deep, like velvet coaxed into a paper surface.

Richard Yarde, “Johnny’s Gone” (1977), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, Friends of the Department gifts and matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (© Estate of Richard Yarde; image copyright © the Metropolitan Museum of Art; image source: Art Resource, NY)

According to Shell, Yarde learned how to hand-tint photographs by watching Gibson and would practice on black-and-white newspaper images. Shell states that “a lack of correct alignment … mimics the darkroom behavior of floating paper.” Perhaps it does. And Yarde was known to have worked from photographs. But ultimately what images such as “The Sitting” (1978) and my favorite of the entire exhibition, “The Parlor” (1980), do is make an historical document into something personal, wistful, more a vision than a visual fact. This particular watercolor is gorgeous in the way it treats fabric and creates a brightly colorful resonance among the upholstered chairs, the patterned curtain and floor, and the shirt worn by the male figure sitting with a child’s arm slung over his shoulder. It’s an image of people existing in a large room with an abundance of space. There is something joyful in that: to be able to be lavish with space, to take up as much or as little as one wants.

Richard Yarde: Beyond the Savoy continues at The Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, Maryland) through April 24. The exhibition was curated by Oliver Shell.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...