The art of the American painter Beauford Delaney, who died over four decades ago, deserves sustained attention from a major New York museum. That it has not already happened is breathtaking. In a moment when the histories of art, and especially Black American art, are expanding in all directions, Delaney seems to be hiding in plain sight. His work is one of the signal achievements of 20th-century American art. New York, his home for 24 years, is where most of his development took place.
Like Philip Guston and Stuart Davis, Delaney’s art spans several styles, and is connected by robust impasto surfaces and startling colors that give his best pictures a visionary buzz. Starting in the late 1930s, he developed a semiabstract version of American Scene painting (influenced by Davis, a friend). Then in the early ’40s came a distinctive portrait style. (James Baldwin — first his protégé, then his protector — was a frequent subject, as were other Black luminaries, his friends and sometimes his patrons.) Starting in the mid-1950s in Paris — where he had moved at Baldwin’s behest — he developed his own brand of allover Abstract Expressionism. With light-filled fields of color in rhythmic brushstrokes, it made good on his lifelong admiration of Monet.
In 1978, the Studio Museum in Harlem organized a Delaney retrospective — evidently ahead of its time, since the attention it garnered was fleeting. A decade later his work began to re-emerge, this time in solo and group shows at two New York galleries — first at Philippe Briet and then at Michael Rosenfeld. The latest of these is the Rosenfeld Gallery’s remarkable “Be Your Wonderful Self: The Portraits of Beauford Delaney.”
Born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1901, Delaney was Black and gay at a time when being either in the United States was especially dangerous. But he was also visibly talented. When Delaney was in his late teens, his first painting was seen by Lloyd Branson, a white Knoxville artist who offered to give him art lessons. In 1923, Branson sent Delaney to Boston with money and letters of introduction. Delaney stayed six years, haunting museums, attending three art schools and frequenting the salons of the city’s intelligentsia, which, given Boston’s long involvement with abolition, were integrated. He arrived in Manhattan in 1929, and became a beloved fixture in Greenwich Village and Harlem, all the while just barely scraping by, in an unheated loft on Greene Street.
The Rosenfeld show presents 25 portraits that date from 1941 (a gorgeous, many-colored, full-length depiction of the young Baldwin, nude) to 1972 (a slightly weird portrait of the writer Jean Genet). But among these works are seven abstract paintings made from around 1958 to around 1970. The combination clarifies the way that Delaney’s artistic endeavors bolstered one another. Namely, abstraction offered Delaney a new outlet for his love of color and helped the portraits obtain a new kind of painterly fabulousness.
In the 1940s, before Delaney fully embraced abstraction, his portraits were characterized by sturdy realism overloaded with color. This tendency is apparent in the 1941 nude portrait of Baldwin and the patterned dress of Edna Porter’s portrait (1943). In “Presence (Irene Rose),” from 1944, the sitter’s hair is brown, but also purple, turquoise and green and her red-orange dress is enhanced by, it seems, gold cuff bracelets whose chunky purple gems have orange gleams.
In a 1943 portrait, a handsome young English lieutenant, maybe a pilot, is backed by mottled blues and pinks. And in a circa 1945-50 portrait of Baldwin, where he seems to sit in the air, his multicolored jeans suggest an almost hallucinatory rendition of light and shadow, while the background is virtually an abstract painting. His eyes fasten on ours with an intense, almost otherworldly stare that becomes constant in the later portraits. It seems appropriate to these more concentrated gazes that Delaney’s rendering becomes less naturalistic. It adds to his subjects’ dignity that they are stylized, gaining something of an Egyptian immobility.
The earliest Paris painting here is “Composition Peinture (a.k.a. Light Blue to Gold Abstraction)” from around 1958, which shows abstraction taking over completely in a shimmer of colors that suggests an artist blissed out on nature. You’ll soon notice that the brushwork in Delaney’s abstractions is free-form; each surface has different rhythms. Two small abstractions from around 1960 share a light-shot palette of chartreuse, yellow and white but the surface of one is all bristling crisis-crossing strokes, while the other is a soft expanse of puddling blobs, almost like sunspots. Each painting feels fresh and experimental — a risky lack of predictability that is shared by very few of his contemporaries. In this show Delaney’s abstract techniques first register in his figurative efforts in a 1962 self-portrait, in which the background, as well as the artist’s face, sweater and French beret are pulverized in different color combinations. Each area could be expanded into an abstract painting.
Delaney’s dappled garments and backdrops also suggest auras, inner light. A thick radiant yellow becomes his signature color, whether in the glowing face of Bernard Hassell, the dancer who became Baldwin’s companion, seen against purple (around 1963), or the entire being of Ahmed Bioud, another friend, from 1963. Abstraction and portraiture achieve an amazing unity in a 1967 portrait of Baldwin in which the writer’s face and shoulders are little more than black outlines with touches of green on a pulsing field of yellow.
Delaney’s multiphased achievement fits in all over the map of 20th-century American art: the Harlem Renaissance, the Stieglitz circle, American Scene painting and Abstract Expressionism, but it is still waiting to be written into these histories. David Leeming’s detailed, cleareyed “Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney” (1998) provides a reliable foundation for further study. And since 1990, museums around the country have been realizing that their collections need Delaney paintings and have been taking action. New York went from having one Delaney in a public collection — a gouache given to the Studio Museum in 1984 — to having 15 held in five different museums. Such acquisitions begin to give Delaney’s work a solid foothold in the art consciousness of the city, and beyond. But that is just the beginning.
Be Your Wonderful Self: The Portraits of Beauford Delaney
Through Nov. 13, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 100 11th Avenue, Manhattan, (212) 247-0082; michaelrosenfeldart.com.