Into the Sublime

Beauford Delaney's arduous artistic journey

Born in

Knoxville

on the last day of 1901, Beauford Delaney was three years older than his brother Joseph (hereafter referred to as "J. Delaney") and almost 8 years old when Agee came into the world. But no matter how Knoxville-bound Agee and the Delaneys were originally, they all moved on to bigger, presumably better places in later years. The year 1953 found Beauford Delaney relocating to

Europe

after living in

Boston

, then in

New York

's

Greenwich Village

for decades. With the exception of a brief visit to

Tennessee

in 1969, he never returned. He died in an asylum in 1979 and was buried in

Paris

.

Nor was Delaney's art later confined to the sort of "subject matter" present in New York-inspired works like "

Greene Street

" (1940) and "

Washington Square

" (1952).

m

Surrounding current festivities celebrating James Agee, our city has been and is acknowledging two other native sons: Beauford and Joseph Delaney. Following an exhibition of the latter artist's distinctive work at UT's Downtown Gallery, we have the opportunity to see a selection of Beauford Delaney's art in an impressive retrospective show presently at the Knoxville Museum of Art.

Born in Knoxville on the last day of 1901, Beauford Delaney was three years older than his brother Joseph (hereafter referred to as "J. Delaney") and almost 8 years old when Agee came into the world. But no matter how Knoxville-bound Agee and the Delaneys were originally, they all moved on to bigger, presumably better places in later years. The year 1953 found Beauford Delaney relocating to Europe after living in Boston, then in New York's Greenwich Village for decades. With the exception of a brief visit to Tennessee in 1969, he never returned. He died in an asylum in 1979 and was buried in Paris.

Delaney's art, however, is still very alive; dozens of vibrant canvases now on display attest to that. As different as they are from Agee's contribution, they make us wonder what magic summoned the muses to three creative and determined individuals residing in the same town at pretty much the same time.

Delaney was, according to essayist Richard J. Powell, "a gentle individualist [who] rarely followed trends of any kind." He was also black and gay—no wonder he wanted to get the hell out of Dodge. The thing is, for many African-Americans, "Dodge" ended up being the U.S. in general, when the Great Depression squelched the optimism that energized the Harlem Renaissance.

Although government support via the Works Progress Administration encouraged black artists, it could not eliminate inequality, racism, and economic despair. In fact, Native Son author Richard Wright—an American expat in Paris like Delaney, writer James Baldwin, and others—deemed this country "a lost cause" for blacks. Baldwin and Delaney (who Baldwin considered a "spiritual father") understood Wright's perspective. Like numerous jazz musicians as well as writers and artists, Delaney was more appreciated abroad. He had mostly escaped what Baldwin referred to as "the fury of the color problem," although financial stability forever eluded him.

Romare Bearden, one of many black painters deserving recognition, co-authored a history of African-American artists. In it he wrote, "[Delaney] created regardless of circumstances, and this ability to concentrate in pursuit of his vision won him the regard of everyone who knew him."

An untitled painting in the KMA's show is a poignant reminder of obstacles the artist generally faced. While assembling pieces, Sue Canterbury (the show's Minnesota-based curator) discovered that the 1954 work was painted on part of a cut-up raincoat that Delaney used when he was too poor to buy canvas. Its exposed backside reveals its origins, but the painting tells us more. Included in this first exhibition to closely examine Delaney's developmental shift, the untitled painting is, in Canterbury's estimation, the first known work from Delaney's non-objective phase, and it heralds a new direction. Alongside several never-before-exhibited images, it is in many ways remarkable.

Whether or not race explains Delaney's failure to win fame or fortune remains a question. Whatever the case, black identity per se is not at the center of Delaney's work. Delaney was, as Bearden put it, "isolated by his single-mindedness more than anything else." Undeniably charming, Delaney befriended all sorts of people—among them Henry Miller (whose 1944 portrait is on view), Alfred Stieglitz (represented in the show by an inscription dedicated to Delaney), and Georgia O'Keeffe. His "agenda" was essentially artistic, not social.

In her book titled A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists , Rachel Cohen notes that "Delaney was one of the first black people Baldwin could remember encountering who didn't live in Harlem, and certainly the first artist he'd met who didn't feel his material was confined to 'black life'." Nor was Delaney's art later confined to the sort of "subject matter" present in New York-inspired works like "Greene Street" (1940) and "Washington Square" (1952).

Evidently, the City of Light brought more than a lighter touch to Delaney's work. Despite being the son of a preacher—as was Baldwin—Delaney was not religious in the traditional sense. But he sought a sort of universal truth and was as inspired as his brother by his parents' spiritual devotion. Delaney's paintings after 1960 could be called simply transcendent; for me, they're the soul of the show. Whereas art by J. Delaney always retained a narrative complexity, that of his older sibling moved beyond detail into color-as-subject, then color as everything (although he still painted portraits). Delaney's earlier bold brushwork and impasto gave way to work that Powell, in an essay titled "The Color of Ecstasy," said "[illumined] a world in which poverty, inhumanity, lovelessness, mediocrity, and darkness threaten soul and being. Delaney sought in his work... to know that ecstatic feeling of an 'excessive and deliberate joy' in life." The later work was about paint and painting, but it was mostly about being.

Artwork now at the KMA was created by a man who eventually succumbed to mental illness, a man whose Paris studio was so cold he had to wear a winter hat indoors. Ironically, to own the Delaney paintings displayed—many of which belong to overseas collectors—would cost millions. Yet the collection is, in the best sense of the word, priceless. It reflects an indomitable spirit blessed by extraordinary talent, a talent first nurtured in our midst. m

 

What: Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris

Where: Knoxville Museum of Art, 1050 World's Fair Park Drive

When: Thru June 26, with several related events. Call 525-6101 or go to www.knoxart.org for info.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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