Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) “Portraitist of the Famous”
“Perhaps I should say, flatly, what I believe–that he is a great painter, among the very greatest; but I do know that great art can only be created out of love, and that no greater lover has ever held a brush.”
James Baldwin (1924-1987), writer,
friend of artist Beauford Delaney
Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim, c.1971oil on canvas
Beauford Delaney, hailed as the most important African-American artists of the 20th century, whose life appeared to symbolize the mythical artistic existence of privation and relative obscurity, that show a retrospective of “uninhibited colorist (though never an unintelligent one)” that is “apotheosized” and whose talent and “free, open and outgoing nature” engendered admiration from everyone whom was fortunate enough to encounter him as he was THE darling of the international culture scene in New York and Paris. James Baldwin called him his “spiritual father.”
Remembering THE Greatest artists of the 20th century, the ‘amazing and invariable’ Beauford Delaney, the “Portraitist of the Famous”, who’s masterpieces are trumpeted as cutting-edge work in Black aesthetics, stylistic evolution from representation to pure abstraction, with new and radical theories with his techniques and expression of the politics of Black arts, affording him his very own, singular serious stature among abstract expressionists, transforming the critical landscape into a growing interest in his creation of “Black Abstraction”!
For more than a decade, Delaney showed compelling, vibrant images of energetic life: produced engaging abstract works, portraits, landscapes, and abstractions celebrated for their brilliance and technical complexity with his dramatic stylistic shift from figurative compositions of life to abstract expressionist studies of color and light, powerful works of art and culture, illuminate some of Delaney’s most innovative years and firmly place his work among the dominant art movements of the day.
The fascinating Beauford Delaney is a Modern artist who produced engaging portraits, landscapes, and abstractions celebrated for their brilliance and technical complexity with his dramatic stylistic shift from figurative compositions of New York life to abstract expressionist studies of color and light following his move to Paris in 1953, illuminate some of Delaney’s most innovative years and firmly place his work among the dominant art movements of the day!
The career of Beauford Delaney (1901-79) was mainly working with Expressionism, Harlem Renaissance who’s first exhibition was New Names In American Art: Recent Contributions To Painting And Sculpture By Negro Artists at The Renaissance Society in Chicago, IL in 1944, and the most recent exhibition was Art Basel Miami Beach 2020 – online viewing only at Art Basel Miami Beach in Miami Beach, FL in 2020. Beauford Delaney is mostly exhibited in United States, but also had exhibitions in Germany, United Kingdom and elsewhere. Delaney has 10 solo shows and 79 group shows over the last 76 years (for more information, see biography). Delaney has also been in 7 art fairs but in no biennials. The most important show was Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris at Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, PA in 2005. Other important shows were at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, MN and The Studio Museum in Harlem in New York City, NY. Beauford Delaney has been exhibited with Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden. Beauford Delaney’s art is in 9 museum collections, at France at the Museum of Modern Art , École des Beaux-Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, NY and The Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, IL, featured in Jet and Playboy magazines among others.
Beauford Delaney is ranked among the Top 10 globally, and in United States. Delaney’s best rank was in 1944, the artist’s rank has improved over the last 5 years, with the most dramatic change in 1992.
Many of its prominent figures, who admiringly looked upon Delaney as their “Shaman” or “Yogi” and fondly referred to him as a “Black Buddha”, were described by his close friend, James Baldwin, as a “cross between Brer Rabbit and St. Francis of Assisi.”
His list of friends and acquaintances including artists, World Leaders, politicians, activist, authors/poets/writers, intellectuals, filmmakers, promoted by numerous patrons of the arts, world Cultural Ambassadors, art gallery owners, befriended by notable figures, and musicians Stuart Davis — his closest painter compatriot — W.E.B. Du Bois (whose portrait he painted), Salvadore Dalí (whose portrait he painted), Countee Cullen, Louis Armstrong (whose portrait he painted), Duke Ellington (whose portrait he painted), Ethel Waters (whose portraits he painted), W.C. Handy (whose portrait he painted), Henry Miller (who wrote a tribute to him), John F. Kennedy (whose portraits he painted), Robert Kennedy (whose portraits he painted), Jean-Claude Killy (whose portraits he painted), Herb Gentry, Alain Locke, Cy Twombly, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Georgia O’Keeffe (who drew charcoal and pastel portraits of Delaney in 1943), Augusta Savage, Stuart Davis, John Marin, Pablo Picasso (whose portrait he painted), Richard A. Long (whose portrait he painted), John Koenig (whose portrait he painted), and Claude McKay were connected to Paris in various ways.
Also significant is the impact of jazz, as exemplified by the avante garde “free jazz” music explosion of Ornettte Coleman, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Frank Wright, Bobby Few, Bill Dixon, François Cotinaud, Sunny Murray, Barney Wilen, Globe Unity Orchestra, Andrew Hill, Dave Burrell, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Grachan Moncur III, Malachi Favors, Claude Delcloo, Beb Guérin, Kenneth Terroade, Bernard Vitet, Lester Bowie, Jerome Cooper, Joseph Jarman, Joachim Kühn, Steve Lacy, Roscoe Mitchell, Robin Kenyatta, Michel Portal, Irène Aebi, Ronnie Beer, Kent Carter, Dieter Gewissler, Oliver Johnson, Famoudou Don Moye, Alan Shorter, Bernard Vitet, Jouk Minor, Byard Lancaster, Kenneth Terroade, Paul Jeffrey, Ronnie Beer, Sonny Sharrock, Pharoah Sanders, Black Harold, Johnny Dyani, Gary Windo, Rene Augustus, Joseph Déjean, Beb Guérin, Claude Delcoo, Clifford Thornton, Wayne Shorter, Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Research Arkestra, François Tusques, Alan Silva and the Celestrial Communication Orchestra.
Luminaries Josephine Baker, Bob Blackburn, Ed Clark, Bob Thompson, Marian Anderson (whose portrait he painted), Jacob Lawrence, Ella Fitzgerald (whose portrait he painted), Zora Neale Hurston, Alfred Stieglitz, Carl Van Vechten, Edward Steichen, Dorothy Norman, Anaïs Nin, art studio owner Charles Alston, Jackson Pollock, Vassili Pikoula, Henri Chahine (whose portrait he painted), Charlie Parker (whose portrait and music he painted.), James Jones, Jean Genet, Lawrence Calcagno, Cab Calloway, Elaine DeKooning, Palmer C. Hayden (whose portrait he painted), art dealer Darthea Speyer (whose portrait he painted) who had exhibitions of Delaney’s art at Paris’ Galerie Lambert in 1964. Others include artists Charles Boggs, Al Hirschfeld, John Franklin Koenig, Harold Cousins, Herbert Gentry (whose portrait he painted), Ed Clark, and Ellis Wilson, authors James Jones and Henry Miller (who was also a water colorist), Writers Richard Wright, Surrealist poet Stanislas Rodanski, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, William Gardner Smith, Richard Gibson, Lorraine Hansberry, Ted Joans, art historian Richard A. Long, and his friend Lynn Stone.
Delaney became close friends with another influential visual artist, Lawrence Calcagno. A white, abstract landscape artist from Northern California, it was an unlikely pairing when the two met in Paris. Yet the two men grew to share a close artistic bond, tied by their shared belief in the spiritual nature of painting and abstraction. They also became close personal friends, writing hundreds of letters to each other over Delaney’s later years, after Calcagno left Paris to return to America. In these letters, Delaney is at his most vulnerable and open, as he felt with a kindred spirit.
His closest lifelong friend, however, was James Baldwin — who, while fleeing a strict father at 16, looked up Delaney in the Village. He later called the artist his “principal witness.” Delaney was a kind of surrogate nurturing father to the writer. Judging by his 1941 Dark Rapture (James Baldwin), a steamy nude portrait of the 16-year-old writer (as well as from subsequent Baldwin portraits over the decades), Delaney seems to have been in love with the lithe young man 22 years his junior.
Indeed, while Delaney had not intended to settle permanently in Europe, he quickly realized he had found there a more hospitable climate in which to pursue his craft. Asked about his experience as an expatriate he replied, “Expatriate? It appears to me that in order to be an expatriate one has to be, in some manner, driven from one’s fatherland, from one’s native land. When I left the United States during the 1950s no such condition was left behind. One must belong before one may then not belong. I belong here in Paris, I am able to realize myself here. I am no expatriate.”
While Paris had in some sense liberated Delaney, there were sorrows he could not escape. “There always seems to be the shadow,” Delaney wrote to a benefactor, “which follows the light.” Although he was referring to the financial difficulties that plagued him throughout his career, the artist could also have been talking about his struggles with mental illness, which manifested as psychotic breaks and ghostly voices in his head, resulting in his confinement to a mental hospital at the end of his life. While Delaney was a mentor to Baldwin during the author’s early years, Baldwin later became Delaney’s protector, assisting him financially and emotionally. For an introduction to an exhibition in Paris in 1964 Baldwin wrote, “Perhaps I am so struck by the light in Beauford’s paintings because he comes from darkness—as I do, as, in fact, we all do.” The vibrant luminosity of Composition 16 is but one example of Delaney’s lifelong quest to find light in that darkness.
Many felt him to be the “Dean of African American Artists Living in Europe.” Although he never fully wanted this distinction most of Delaney’s works were close to being classified as abstract art. Beauford Delaney died in Paris at age 78 on March 26, 1979.
Delaney lived and worked in Paris for many years and much of his work was neglected until a retrospective in 1978 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. During his absence, the French government, in an effort to collect delinquent accounts, sealed off his apartment and prepared to auction off his products of nearly a forty year career. Many of his works were stolen and some had to be recovered by European Intelligence, the CIA/FBI. Had the works been sold, dispersed throughout Europe, the neglect may have been irreversible.
The painter Beauford Delaney (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris) was lost to history for a time. Yet in the mid-twentieth century, Delaney was considered an important artist of his generation.
Following his death, he was praised as a great and neglected painter but, with a few notable exceptions, the neglect continued.
A retrospective of his work at the Studio Museum in Harlem a year before his death did little to revive interest in his work. It was not until the 1988 exhibition Beauford Delaney: From Tennessee to Paris, curated by the French art dealer Philippe Briet at the Philippe Briet Gallery, that Delaney’s work was again exhibited in New York, followed by two retrospectives in the gallery: “Beauford Delaney: A Retrospective [50 Years of Light]” in 1991, and “Beauford Delaney: The New York Years [1929–1953]” in 1994.
Delaney disappeared from collective memory partly due to the racial bias of art history, which, among other things, meant that even while he was celebrated, it was less as a painter equal to his contemporaries than as some kind of Negro seer or spiritual black Buddha wherein he could not escape the long American night of racism.
“Whatever Happened to Beauford Delaney?”, an article by Eleanor Heartney, appeared in Art in America in response to the 1994 exhibition asking why this once well regarded “artist’s artist” was now virtually unknown to the American art public. “What happened? Is this another case of an over-inflated reputation returning to its true level? Or was Delaney undone by changing fashions which rendered his work unpalatable to succeeding generations? Why did Beauford Delaney so completely disappear from American art history?” The author believed that Delaney’s disappearance from the consciousness of the New York art world was linked to “his move to Paris at a crucial moment in the consolidation of New York’s position as the world’s cultural capital and his work’s irrelevance to the history of American art as it was being written by critics” at the time. The article concludes, “Today  as those histories unravel and are replaced by narratives with a more varied and colorful weave, artists like Delaney can be seen in a new light.”
In 1985 James Baldwin described the impact of Delaney on his life, saying he was “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.” Baldwin marveled over Delaney’s ability to emulate such light in his work despite the darkness he was surrounded by for the majority of his life. It is this insight of Delaney’s past, Baldwin believes, that serves as evidence for the true victory Delaney secured. Baldwin admired his keen ability to “lead the inner and the outer eye, directly and inexorably, to a new confrontation with reality.” He further wrote, “Perhaps I should not say, flatly, what I believe – that he is a great painter – among the very greatest; but I do know that great art can only be created out of love, and that no greater lover has ever held a brush.”
His work is sold in galleries for increasingly high prices, and his paintings hang prominently among modernist and postwar works in New York’s Museum of Modern Art [where his yellow Composition 16 (1954-56) was hung next to a work by Mark Rothko], the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery (notably a portrait of Baldwin). The American artist Glenn Ligon curated a 2015 exhibition at the Tate Liverpool titled “Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions” that featured two works by Delaney (one a portrait of Baldwin) and put Delaney in the company of the Abstract Expressionists, next to a picture by Franz Kline.
Because his estate has been largely closed to scholars to the present day, and because his reputation waned after his death, critical writing about Delaney is almost nonexistent, even with the flourishing of Baldwin studies across disciplines.
The Studio Museum of Harlem broke ground with the first major posthumous exhibition of Delaney on US soil with Beauford Delaney: A Retrospective (1979) and included the full text of Baldwin’s previously published essay “Introduction to Exhibition of Beauford Delaney Opening December 4, 1964 at the Gallery Lambert.” There have been other exhibitions of Delaney’s work since 2000 that include Baldwin in minor ways and whose catalogues have provided most of the critical work done recently on Delaney to date: these include Beauford Delaney: Liquid Light: Paris Abstractions 1954-1970, organized by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in 1999; Beauford Delaney’ at the Sert Gallery of the Harvard University Art Museums; An Artistic Friendship: Beauford Delaney and Lawrence Calcagno at the Palmer Museum of Art at the Pennsylvania State University in 2001; The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA; Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow, organized by the High Museum of Art in 2002 and curated by Richard J. Powell, who contributed a groundbreaking essay about Delaney’s use of color; Beauford Delaney: New York to Paris (2005), organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, whose robust catalog features several scholarly essays mentioning James Baldwin; Beauford Delaney: Renaissance of Form and Vibration of Color (2016) at Montparnasse’s Reid Hall and sponsored by Wells International Foundation and Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, along with Columbia Global Centers/Reid Hall Exposition; and Gathering Light: Works by Beauford Delaney (2017) at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee. Aside from the catalogue essays from these and other exhibitions, the only monograph devoted to Delaney is the 1998 biography by David Leeming, Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney (1998). Leeming outlines the broad arc of Delaney’s life and artistic development while emphasizing the contrast between the artist’s vibrant social life and troubled inner life that led to his institutionalization in the late 1970s. It is encouraging to see, however, that references to Delaney are now appearing in cutting-edge work on Black aesthetics, such as Fred Moten’s theoretical work, and in reconstructions of LGBTQIA arts.
While previous Delaney exhibitions and publications have almost exclusively emphasized Delaney’s stylistic evolution from the 1940s to the 1960s, from representation to pure abstraction, as a function of his move from New York to Paris and/or his worsening mental health, the proposed symposium will put Delany into conversation with new and radical theories about the techniques and politics of Black arts, affording him some of the first serious treatment by academic criticism to date. Because of Delaney’s stature among abstract expressionists, the project will contribute to a growing interest in the past ten years concerning “Black Abstraction” in the arts, as evidence by shows at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (2014), the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston (2014), Pace Gallery (2016), Anita Shapolsky Gallery and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (2018). It is time to bring Delaney also into the sphere of queer theory, new Black aesthetics, and new theories of Black care that are transforming the critical landscape in academe and in which Baldwin is now frequently found.
But his life ended very much like it began. Even after the fame and notoriety, he was still a poor, black man with many struggles. Just like his art, Delaney’s life was filled with light and darkness. Highs and lows.
If you were to picture a counter-image to help balance that perception in one person, you could hardly do better than Beauford Delaney. He was black, he was gay, he was unpredictable, he was charismatic. He was an intellectual, and he was an artist, in fact a wildly colorful, creative and unpredictable abstract expressionist. He was cosmopolitan, connected to the world beyond, and adored in Paris and New York, where his paintings, some of them famous and very expensive, have been exhibited, even recently.
Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim, c.1971
oil on Canvas
25 1/2″ x 21 3/8″ / 64.8 x 54.3 cm
signed verso with Beauford Delaney Estate stamp
Beauford Delaney, Paris, France
Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, TN
Dr. Ravindra Varma Dantuluri, Knoxville, TN
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Beauford Delaney. Paris: Galerie Darthea Speyer, 1973. Exhibition catalogue.
Illustrated in black-and-white in a photograph with the artist in his studio, n.p.
Beauford Delaney: A Retrospective, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY, April 9 – July 2, 1978;
Museum of National Center for Afro-American Artists, Dorchester, MA, October 8 – November 4, 1978
Illustrated in black-and-white in a photograph with the artist in his studio and listed on the checklist as no. 13, n.p. (titled Portrait of a Man)
Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim (c.1971) exemplifies Beauford Delaney’s masterful portraits in which he uses bold, contrasting color to express an arresting psychological and emotional likeness. With his signature yellow palette and expressive brushstroke, Delaney portrays his friend Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim.
Throughout his career, Beauford Delaney executed modernist and psychologically compelling portraits of friends, acquaintances and patrons. Portraits of those he knew intimately, tended to be the most compelling and profound. Generally, Delaney’s portrait paintings tend to be modernist, melding representation with abstraction, sharing a strong affinity with the gestural luminous abstractions that dominated Delaney’s oeuvre after 1953. Even after Delaney evolved into an abstract expressionist painter upon his move to France in September 1953, he continued to paint portraits that were much more than straightforward depictions of his sitters. While the composition was defined by the subject, he executed modernist canvases defined by his relatively monochromatic fields of color and distinctive brushwork. Like Delaney’s landscapes, cityscapes and interiors of his Greene Street period of the 1940s and early 1950s, the faces, bodies and backgrounds of his portraits were vehicles for his personal language of abstraction. Art historian Richard J. Powell writes:
“In addition to his artistic commitment to abstraction, experimenting with painted surfaces in oil pigments, and delving into the visual effects and relational possibilities of color, Beauford Delaney was equally bound to an art of portraiture. The genre that first brought Delaney critical notice and a measure of success, portraiture exemplified his genuine love of people – all kinds of people – and his fascination with their outward appearances, personalities, minds, and auras. As seen in almost every early photograph of Delaney – whether in his crowded Greene Street studio or sitting alongside his work at the Annual Washington Square Art Fair – portraits largely defined his as an artist. Yet…portraiture was also a vehicle for sorting out an array of primarily visual issues: concerns of color and form that could easily be coupled with his painting a friend’s likeness or an esteemed individual’s spirit.”*2
Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim recalls meeting Beauford Delaney and sitting for his portrait in Paris in 1971, when al-Hakim was twenty years old. al-Hakim was born Randy Wallace before converting to Islam and changing his name.
Beauford Delaney and Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim with Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim (c.1971), 1971
Curator Patricia Sue Canterbury writes of Delaney’s portraits of the 1960s:
“Delaney’s portraiture during the 1960s, although often regarded as a departure from the artist’s abstract explorations of light, was actually an extension of the same. As he had reassured viewers at the opening of his solo show at the Galerie Lambert in late 1964, abstraction and portraiture ‘were studies in light revealed – the light that have meaning to the individuals depicted…and the light considered directly as contained…in the abstract paintings.’ As the decade progressed, however, it is clear that any boundaries perceived between the two became increasingly blurred. Solid forms within the portraits dematerialized and the subject and the enveloping atmosphere seemingly shared the same atomic structure.”*2
Powell writes of Delaney’s use of a yellow palette:
“Delaney’s artistic preoccupation with the color yellow is governed by its capacity to illuminate a world in which poverty, inhumanity, lovelessness, mediocrity, and darkness threaten his soul and being. No stranger to assaults on the body and psyche, Delaney sought in his work and throughout his entire life to experience that state of perfect bliss in nature and society, to reach that nearly unattainable note or apogee of emotional discernment in the arts, and to know that ecstatic feeling of an ‘excessive and deliberate joy’ in life. Oddly enough, by placing himself and his audience in his dense and luxurious yellow zone, he realized these grand ambitions.”*3
Photograph of Beauford Delaney in his studio as reproduced in the catalogue for the exhibition Beauford Delaney, Galerie Darthea Speyer, Paris, France, February 6 – March 2, 1973; Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim (c.1971) can be seen above Delaney to the right
Portraits by Beauford Delaney are in numerous museum collections including:
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL;
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA;
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA;
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI;
Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, TN;
Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, NY;
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY;
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY;
The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC;
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA;
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA;
SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA;
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY;
Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, TN;
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA;
Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC;
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY;
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA.
*1-Richard J. Powell, “The Color of Ecstasy,” Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow (Atlanta: The High Museum of Art, 2002), 20-21
*2-Patricia Sue Canterbury, “Transatlantic Transformations: Beauford Delaney in Paris,” Beauford Delaney: From New York To Paris exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2004), 65
*3-Powell, 29-30 Powell, 29-30