- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), a black artist known for his groundbreaking abstractions and remarkably sensitive portraits of the mid-1900s, is the subject of an exhibition at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. His last show was a retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978, just one year before his death.
Though artistically successful during his lifetime in both New York and Paris, his work was badly ignored after his death. "Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow," organized by Richard J. Powell, chairman of the art and art history department at Duke University and a longtime Delaney admirer, should set the record straight.
Originating at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, then traveling to the Studio Museum in Harlem before coming to the Anacostia Museum, the landmark exhibit ends its tour at Harvard University's Fogg Museum next spring. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is also planning a larger, more comprehensive, Delaney exhibition in 2004.
m m
Beauford Delaney's story is that of the tragic artist, but one with a racial twist.
Originally from Knoxville, Tenn., he studied there and in Boston before settling in New York's Greenwich Village in 1929. His portraits earned him his first successes in Depression-era New York and friendships with author Henry Miller and painter Georgia O'Keeffe.
In 1953, he moved to Paris where he painted until his death. Despite successful exhibition, Mr. Delaney fought a losing battle with alcoholism and related emotional and physical problems. Repeated hospitalizations for schizophrenia interfered with his ability to carry on a career. Castigation as a homosexual added to his anguish. He was hospitalized repeatedly before his death at Paris' St. Anne Hospital for the Insane in 1979.
From the mid-to-late 1940s paintings of Greenwich Village scenes to his last thickly-layered works with daring color juxtapositions in France, Mr. Delaney used the color yellow as a symbolic device, believing it to have special spiritual significance. Mr. Powell decided to focus on the artist's works in that color.
"I'd been looking at his work over the years and yellow kept reappearing. I thought it would be fun to explore this," Mr. Powell says, readily admitting that he has organized a theme show that doesn't attempt to survey the whole of the artist's oeuvre.
Mr. Powell believes the artist's preoccupation with yellow was determined by its potential to light up a world he perceived as dark, loveless and inhumane. Yellow signified light, healing and redemption.
Consider such richly surfaced, yellow abstract works of the 1950s and 1960s as "Composition 16" (1954) and "Untitled" of 1962. By then, the artist had settled in Paris and was exploring pigment as a 3-D, spatial presence that almost hung from the canvas.
Mr. Delaney pushed swirling light up and out of these paintings through encrusted surfaces. He obsessively layered coats of oil pigment for their unusual textures. It was as if he were filtering light through almost opaque densities. It would become his signature style with both figuration and abstraction.
The artist used this glowing haze as backdrops in his portraits of black cultural icons James Baldwin and Marian Anderson, among others. He also used it as an electrified field in his portrait of Ella Fitzgerald (1968), whose face emerges from rivulets of curling yellow paint strokes.
The curator points out that the artist first used yellow in his early "Washington Square" (1949) painting but seems puzzled by its presence.
He asks in his valuable catalog essay: "Does it connect the painting's yellow to a late winter or springtime explosion or crocuses, daffodils, forsythia, buttercups, and dandelions?" Mr. Powell feels the answer lies rather with writer Henry Miller's description of the work. Mr. Miller wrote: "The impression I carried away was one of being saturated with color and light. [He was] poor in everything but pigment. With pigment he was a lavish as a millionaire." Mr. Miller pointed out, also, that the painter used yellow to combat the grayness of New York City.
Mr. Delaney's move to Paris signaled a crucial shift of style. The change may have reflected his brave jump across the Atlantic for the life of an expatriate artist. It certainly led to a new sense of freedom and risk-taking in his abstract and figurative work.
The artist continued with his portraits but only painted people who affected him emotionally and intellectually. It was his recognition they were "special." The subjects did not "sit" for him. He limned them from memory, emphasizing their spiritual and symbolic attributes rather than exact physiognomies. "He had a strong, mystical persona himself. When he connected with a person, he really connected," Mr. Powell points out.
Such a work is his 1965 portrait "Marian Anderson." He had painted a 1951 version while still in New York, using the heavily textured and busy composition of that time. He had met the singer then and was clearly inspired by her.
In the second portrait, Mr. Delaney wanted to show the singer's courage. Her intense black gaze stares through the yellows swirling around and into her. He made her an outlined, flat black pattern. Yet the reddish yellow fire surrounding her turns the contralto into the brave visionary she was.
Hung together on a single wall, Mr. Delaney's "Self-Portrait" (1962) and "James Baldwin" (1965) are among the most moving portraits in the exhibit. The artist paints himself as sorrowful, enigmatic. He depicted Mr. Baldwin during an anguished and disillusioned year for the writer.
Malcolm X had been assassinated in early 1965, the Watts race riots exploded in Los Angeles, and blacks marched in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. Mr. Baldwin's first book of short fiction, "Going to Meet the Man" dedicated to Mr. Delaney had been published. The writer was undergoing pressures to be spokesman for what was then called the "American Negro." Mr. Delaney perceived and sensed the pressures his friend was experiencing and decided to incorporate them in this significant portrait.
The painter pulled the top of Mr. Baldwin's head up and out of the portrait so that the writer's gaze does not engage the viewer. Instead, he seems to look into nothingness. The yellows give his brown face a sickly and disquieting pallor.
This use of yellow was unusual for the artist. He thought of yellow as a spiritual support, one that could light up his darkened world. Richard A. Long, a poet friend, was thinking of the artist's perception of the color as healing and redemptive when he dedicated "ASCENDING For Beauford" with these words: "I don't want to know whom people descend from. I want to know what they are ascending to."
Despite the circumstances of his race and his personal life, and the tragedy of his illnesses, the artist did, indeed, always seem to be "ascending." Mr. Delaney expressed his belief in the innate goodness of man and joy of life through yellow and it is fortunate Mr. Powell discovered it. He has admirably succeeded in propelling this talented artist back into the public eye

WHAT: "Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow"
WHERE: The Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, 1901 Fort Place SE
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas Day, through Jan. 1
PHONE: 202/357-2000

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide