by Joseph Nechvatal
Resonance of Form and Vibration of Color
COLUMBIA GLOBAL CENTERS, PARIS
FEBRUARY 4 – MARCH 15, 2016
An initial question intrigued me on visiting the American modernist painter Beauford Delaney’s Parisian show Resonance of Form and Vibration of Color: How did a black gay painter remain so full of light and joy during the struggle against racial and sexual bigotry taking place in the 1960s? Delaney struggled his entire life with poverty, disenfranchisement, and prejudice—not only against his African-American heritage, but also against his homosexuality.
This mini-retrospective of Delaney’s productive Paris years (1956 – 75) offered a rare look at a fairly wide sampling of Delaney’s two major styles from the time (representational portraiture and Abstract Impressionism). Their stylistic interaction offered some answers to the question above, even while raising more questions about this legendary African-American modernist—more known (through David Leeming’s biography and Eleanor Heartney’s Art in America piece from 1994 “Whatever Happened to Beauford Delaney?”) than seen.
Indeed, the general public has never seen most the works in this exhibit from private Parisian collections. They were not included in the Delaney retrospective of his Paris years at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978, nor in Sue Canterbury’s Delaney exhibition at The Minneapolis Institute of Art in late 2004 to early 2005 entitled Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris. So any fresh looks at the work and the man in other locations is more than welcome in our time of undimmed fury over the police killings of unarmed black men in America. Delaney was a curious black man who resisted thinking of himself (to use the mid-20th-century term) as a Negro artist, even as he had tremendous pride in black cultural achievement. So the first thing to appreciate is the complexity involved in evaluating his art in a variety of shifting contexts.
Born a Methodist preacher’s son in Knoxville, Tennessee, Delaney studied with the portrait artist Lloyd Branson until migrating, with Branson’s assistance, north in the 1920s to Boston, where he worked odd jobs while taking art lessons at institutions such as the Massachusetts Normal Art School and the Copley Society. In 1929 Delaney moved to Harlem, just as the Harlem Renaissance was succumbing to the Great Depression. Delaney studied at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton and John Sloan. Among the relationships he established were friendships with the poet Countee Cullen, and with a seminal figure in the development of advocacy for African-American art and cultural advancement in Harlem, Charles Alston. He helped Alston on a Works Progress Administration mural project at Harlem Hospital while producing pastel portraits sketches of W.E.B. DuBois, the singer Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and others. Turning the tables, friend Georgia O’Keeffe did Delaney’s portrait as well.
In 1930, Delaney was invited to participate in a show of “Sunday painters” at the Whitney Studio Club Galleries (precursor of the Whitney Museum of American Art). He accepted a job as a telephone operator and security guard there and moved into a living space and studio in the Galleries’s basement. He eventually moved to SoHo, where he began painting colorful modernist urban landscapes—not dissimmilar to the excellent works of his friend Stuart Davis (who, like Delaney, had been influenced by Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso). Delaney befriended Willem de Kooning—intriguing, given that Delaney never felt comfortable within Manhattan’s proto macho Abstract Expressionist scene. SoHo was where Delaney became mentor and long friend to black gay writer James Baldwin—Baldwin knocked on Delaney’s door and found the inspiration and encouragement to become a literary artist himself. Baldwin describes this intense initial meeting in the introductory essay of The Price of a Ticket from 1985, and he dedicated several literary works to him. Moreover, SoHo was where Delaney’s other writer friend, Henry Miller (whose candid writing about sex eased Delaney’s acceptance of his homosexuality), made him somewhat famous in the art world with his 1945 praising essay “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney” that was reprinted in Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare. His piece on Delaney is an exception to his mostly bitter and unsparing criticism of the American-style materialistic way of life, American popular culture, and technology in general. This despite its (perhaps unintentionally racist) tone of crude racial stereotyping.
But this early relative SoHo success did not spare Delaney from the obscurity and poverty that would plague him to the grave. In 1953 Delaney joined the many painters who came to Paris during the post-World War II years, with the encouragement of his painter friend Palmer Hayden; Baldwin, who moved to Paris in 1948, urged Delaney on. There he found a place that offered an alternative to the difficulties he had of living in New York and discovered a way of life less encumbered by racism and homophobic sexual bigotry.
Delaney’s painting style(s) matured as he indulged his passionate interest in the modern art he found in La Rive Gauche galleries and studios, in opera at the Palais Garnier, and in the Greco-Roman sculpture at the Musée du Louvre. Abandoning the precise realism of his early academic training, Delaney developed a lyrically expressive style that drew upon his love of musical rhythm in color. He continued to paint and draw portraits, but also moved away from representational art towards pure abstraction. His paintings became freer, looser, more expressive of joy, and more colorfully complex. Yet he continued to faithfully make extensive use of yellow, a color that he associated with inner universal spirituality.
The best example of this, and one of the best paintings in the show, makes central use of white and yellow as a symbol for intellect, creativity, happiness, and the power of persuasion. It is a very loosely brushed, lyrical, and musically expressive abstract oil on canvas called Untitled (1959) and it crackles with whiplashes of swirling warm energy mixed in with vines and other vegetation. I can see in it how Delaney, by exposing himself to the exquisite sun-penetrated stained glass windows of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, considered one of the finest collections of Gothic windows in the world, felt the soul-touching lyrical power of sun-pierced yellow taking on a broad sense of Helios communal spirit. I have felt the same thing. Unitled evokes bright summertime diffraction, with balmy curvilinear swirls passing through wisps of cool blue air. The whiplashing thick juicy lines also disposed me to feelings of ecstatic writhing eels almost fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau in mood. It has a quality of heightened awareness, of focused openness, and expected connectivity that I associate with the spiritually engaged paintings of Mark Tobey. But with Untitled there is a Bebop-ish jazz to the painting that sets aspects of the central omphalos swaying, floating, dripping, melting, curling, throbbing, arching, aching. Such use of a loose swirl of gay, colorful, and luminous lyrical expression may well have been a felt response, as well, to his further exposure to the free flowing lines in the work of certain European modernists like Hans Hartung. Within this Parisian context, now six years solid, Delaney may have here too been painting his (sort of) spinal column, rushing with climaxing pleasure. Certainly, energy is dancing and rushing up this Rococo flaming tree with the passion found in a Willem de Kooning painting of a woman set swinging in a Jean-Honoré Fragonard. What I want to see in this painting is Delaney externalizing his sense of liberation, of feeling high on his French reality; where art is a central pillar of society, where blacks are warmly welcomed in the jazz clubs and literary circles, and where he, like other expatriate gay men, could find friendship at the Café de Flore.
Delaney’s first solo exhibition in Europe was held in Paris in 1954 and throughout the late ’50s he also exhibited in Spain, Italy, and Germany. In 1961, he suffered a mental breakdown brought on by his anxieties over lack of money (exacerbated by his dependence and spending on alcohol). His biographer, David Leeming, describes the “voices of despair” that had begun to surface along with a “tendency toward disorientation.” Besides the tensions associated with his past American racial situation and alcoholism, Leeming suggests that Delaney kept his personal life in conflicted compartments: “sex with whites, but not with blacks, sex with temporary acquaintances, not with friends, safe politics with most whites, strong race identification with blacks [ … ]. His black friends knew little of his white friends; his gay friends knew little of his straight ones.” As well, Delaney formed no lasting romantic relationships. After a severe mental breakdown during a voyage to Greece in 1961, he was institutionalized for the first time. While he remained a psychiatric outpatient, Delaney produced, exhibited, and sold numerous paintings, yet he was hospitalized for mental and/or physical illnesses several more times before finally being committed to the psychiatric facility at Saint Anne’s Hospital in 1975. Yet I only saw two possible glimmers of these psychic evanescent woes in the show: one in his entirely weird The Eye (1965) (perhaps a self-portrait with imaginary thin neck?), with its use of blood orange in the eye and distorted head, and in the atypically stormy brown abstraction Untitled (1961).
In 1962 he had recovered sufficiently to live on his own again, and friends bought him a studio on the Rue Vercingétorix. Though he remained plagued by booze, paranoia, and guilt over his homosexuality, this was a prolific period of abstract painting for him, and he produced fine energetic works, such as the feathery and fiery Untitled (1970). Still Delaney continued to suffer from hearing “inner voices” and worsening mistrust and paranoia marred his last years. He refused to give up alcohol and would sometimes ignore doctor’s orders to take his medication. When he died, intestate, at Saint Anne’s Hospital on March 26, 1979, he was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery outside Paris (a situation that has since been rectified by Monique Wells and Les Amis de Beauford Delaney). According to Leeming, James Baldwin wished to bury him in the Montparnasse cemetery, but neither Delaney’s family nor Baldwin had the funds to accomplish this. Yet today there are two plaques commemorating Delaney in Paris; one at the Hôtel Odessa on rue d’Odessa, in the fourteentharrondissement where Delaney stayed in 1953 when recommended by painter Earl Kerkam and several other Americans following some serious serendipitous merriment at the Dôme Café. The other plaque is at Hôtel Le M, located at the address of the now defunct restaurant Mille Colonnes where Delaney frequently ate three-course meals for less than $1.00.
The challenge of this show is not in accepting a radical newness in the works’ form, but in considering it within many contexts simultaneously (as travel abides). The challenge is to resist dropping Delaney into the facile deterministic framework wherein a person’s race and/or sexual preference is their destiny, but rather, to use those identitarian contexts as points of entry for grasping the works’ significance. Given Delaney’s travels, the multiplicity of his social experiences, his spiritual highs and paranoid lows, the context for his paintings keeps shifting. This requires consideration of his mobility and his places of residency within the context of the artistic and economic struggles of African-Americans, and engenders an appreciation of how he succeeded to move between different social frames despite feelings of alienation from racial and sexual discrimination.
Delaney’s paintings occupy several unique spaces within a cosmopolitan, 20th-century context. In relation to the black painters of his generation, he is more formally daring in terms of non-figurative abstraction than most, like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Selma Burke, Richmond Barthé, Norman Lewis, and his brother Joseph Delaney. In the era of modern French painting and art theory especially that of art critic Michel Ragon (who championed Cobra, L’Art Informel, Art Brut, and abstract art), Delaney’s abstract work falls in with the lyrically abstract paintings of Tachisme of the 1940s and ’50s. Often considered to be the European equivalent to Abstract Expressionism (although AbEx tended to be more aggressively raw than Tachisme), it was part of a much larger postwar movement known as L’Art Informel (Art Informel) which valued Surrealist-derived intuitive forms of expression similar to Action painting.
Yet all of this (not to mention the significance of his disadvantaged upbringing, his artistic roots in Harlem, his SoHo success, his taste in abstract European modern art, his bohemian Montparnasse social life, his frequent travels throughout Europe, and his warm long friendship with Baldwin and other American artists living in France) still does not adequately sum up or provide a definitive characterization of Delaney and his art. Nor do the numerous tragedies he suffered later in life with his drinking and debilitating mental illness. If anything, these disparate elements provide a deep thread that runs throughout his life and work.
This thread, it seems to me, is that elaborate column of sunny yellow; that pillar of personal passion in the 1959 work Untitled. My take away is that that warm swirling shaft of universal inner spirit was the central mast of the man and his art. Consequently, his work projects a strong and vivid performance of social innocence where no actual innocence exists. Too many disturbingly taut contemporary vignettes have been obscuring it. From the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, to barbarous ISIS beheadings, to the repeated pangs of terrorist attacks, to the undimmed fury around cherishing the significance of black lives, to the nationwide agonizing response to police killings of unarmed blacks, events have obscured it. Continual LGBT challenges to equality obscure it.
Still there they are, these paintings of universal inner spirituality, offering us the chance to widen our focus and consider the warm swirling incontestable fundamentals of a person.
Within the context of atmospheric America, Delaney, even after bearing the brunt of selective enforcement of the law and social rejections, paints the many moving parts of flight from racism and homophobia. In that sense, the mounting heat of the work helps us break with cold essentialist and reductionist-based opinions about each other, and to visualize all the innocent visible and invisible interactions that occur between and within our habitual perceptual modalities.
JOSEPH NECHVATAL’s book Immersion Into Noise was published in 2011 by the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press.