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. Born and initially taught to draw in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was a central figure in Boston, New York, and Parisian high-art circles, exhibiting his paintings in Europe and in the United States. Delaney was a devotee of jazz and blues: he painted portraits and impressions of jazz artists such as Ella Fitzgerald (Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, 1968) and Charlie Parker (Charlie Parker, 1969 and Charlie Parker Yardbird, 1958), and when lonely in Paris he copied blues lyrics into his sketchbooks. He was a beloved figure among writers, painters, and filmmakers, promoted by numerous patrons of the arts such as American cultural ambassador and art dealer Dorothea Speyer (1919–2014), and befriended by notable figures such as Georgia O’Keeffe (who drew charcoal and pastel portraits of Delaney in 1943), Henry Miller (who wrote a tribute to him), Countee Cullen, Louis Armstrong, Carl Van Vechten, and, later, Henry Louis Gates. He painted writer Jean Genet, singer Marian Anderson, and the Surrealist poet Stanislas Rodanski. Moving among such luminaries, Delaney was often seen as a kind of “Buddha” or teacher, though he fought extreme poverty and mental illness throughout his life.
Delaney met Baldwin in New York in 1940 when the writer was just fifteen years old and did a now-famous painting of him about a year later titled Dark Rapture (1941)—the first of many paintings of Baldwin that Delaney would complete during his lifetime. The two would remain close as mentor/protégé, adopted father/son, and friends. Delaney introduced Baldwin to classical music, jazz and blues, took him to galleries and introduced him to friends, and made the funeral arrangements after Baldwin’s father’s death. Delaney, from an older generation that felt viscerally the policies of Jim Crow, found in Baldwin a powerful intellectual with a fearless social conscience and commitment to Civil Rights causes. He also found a spiritual partner and muse who provided emotional comfort, stability, and creative validation. Encouraged by Baldwin, Delaney left the US in 1953 and settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1979. In Delaney’s last years in a sanitarium in France, Baldwin was appointed one of his primary trustees and helped see to his needs. A famous picture by Max Petrus taken in 1976 shows them standing together in a garden, holding hands, Baldwin in 1970s dress, Delaney an old man in a white bathrobe, looking peacefully into the camera. Tragically, however, after Delaney died in 1979 in Saint Anne’s Hospital for the Insane and was buried in a something like a pauper’s grave outside of Paris, his work was nearly forgotten. Today, his reputation is being restored through the work of artists, critics, curators, and amateur enthusiasts worldwide. The Les Amis de Beauford Delaney project, headed by Monique Wells in Paris, has been central to restoring his memory in that city. Grave and tourist markers now signal his historical presence in Paris and Knoxville, TN. 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; An Artistic Friendship: Beauford Delaney and Lawrence Calcagno at the Palmer Museum of Art at the Pennsylvania State University in 2001; 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), 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.