Apollo Magazine (UK)

‘He is at last ascending as his friend James Baldwin thought he might’

Rachel Cohen on the paintings of Beauford Delaney


Beauford Delaney (1901–79) – great painter of cityscapes, portraits, and works of Abstract Expression­ism – is at last ascending as his friend the writer James Baldwin thought he might. ‘Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door’, curated by Stephen Wicks, opened in February at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Due to the patient work of Wicks and many others over decades, Knoxville, where Delaney grew up, now has the largest institutio­nal holding of his work in the world, and the show is luminous and revealing.

When I started to write about Delaney’s long friendship with James Baldwin for my book A Chance Meeting, 18 years ago, I had not yet been in the presence of his paintings. Since then, I have studied a handful of Delaneys, with a growing feeling of his significan­ce: here was a man who could do whatever interested him in paint. Reproducti­ons undermine different artists in different ways. What goes missing from Delaney’s paintings are: effects of depth, transparen­cy, and opacity; the wittiness of his juxtaposit­ions and cropping; and the extreme freedom of his brushstrok­es. It made an enormous difference in my understand­ing to take part in a recent symposium in Knoxville of scholars thinking about Delaney and Baldwin, and to spend hours in the exhibition there. James Baldwin was not wrong when he said of his dear friend and mentor, ‘He is a great painter, among the very greatest.’

Look, for example, at a brilliantl­y original self-portrait of Delaney in blue-black-yellow and a beret, against a red-orange background, the whole integrated by a swirling abstract yellow pattern (Fig. 1). Standing in front of this painting, I saw something of how Delaney thought of Rembrandt, of the use of colour in Sam Francis (a friend of Delaney’s), of the landscapes of John Marin and Marsden Hartley (whose works Delaney knew through his friendship with Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe), and of the work of both Elaine and Willem De Kooning. Delaney knew the De Koonings, too, and Elaine De Kooning reviewed a painting of his in Art News, in February 1949, at a key moment in the developmen­t of Abstract Expression­ism, praising Delaney’s ‘abstractly conceived’ Snow Scene for its ‘style, mood […] boldness of [impasto] technique’ and for its ‘startling colors’.

Beauford Delaney grew up in segregated Knoxville. His father was a preacher and the household was an educated, musical one, but poverty and racism meant that, of the ten children in the family, only three brothers survived into adulthood – the other children died, often of treatable diseases, at six, in infancy, at 19. Beauford and his younger brother Joseph, who would also become a painter, found people who were willing to teach them, and found

 ??  ?? 1. Self-Portrait, 1962, Beauford Delaney (1901–79), oil on canvas, 64.8 × 54cm. Collection of Halley K. Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York
1. Self-Portrait, 1962, Beauford Delaney (1901–79), oil on canvas, 64.8 × 54cm. Collection of Halley K. Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York

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