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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Beauford Delaney

Jazz Concert in Old Synagogue, Lower East Side, New York,
1946, Beauford Delaney
Most people who know art and artists also know (or have known) artists for whom their art, as one of my students once put it, " not a matter of life and death; it's more important than that." Such people we call (or consider) "compulsive artists." That is, they paint because they must--their art more important than life and death. It dominates their life and is often at least the indirect cause of their death. In studying the lives of hundreds of artists over the years, I've run across at least a dozen or more who fit that description. Today I came upon another, one I'd never encountered before, the early 20th-century African-American painter, Beauford, Delaney.
Heavy on the paint, light on the likeness.
In looking at the work of Beauford Delaney we must be aware that his younger brother Joseph Delaney was at least equally talented as a painter, though it's doubtful one would be likely to get their works mixed up. Beauford was a modernist, very much an expressionist as seen in some of his many self-portraits (above) and his Harlem Renaissance paintings such as his Jazz Concert in Old Synagogue, Lower East Side, New York (top), from 1946. His brother's work is somewhat more traditionally modern (if that's not an oxymoron) as seen in his Williamsburg Bridge (below) alongside a portrait of him by his brother.

Though brothers, in temperament, they were exact opposites,
Joseph being an introvert, his brother, Beauford an extrovert.
Both boys were born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Beauford was born in 1901, his brother in 1904. Their father was a barber and Methodist minister. Their mother had been born a slave and was unable to read or write. Both boys showed early talent as artists, often copying pictures from Sunday School images. As a teenager, Beauford got a job at a sign shop. There his work brought him to the notice of Lloyd Branson, the city's best-known artist. Delaney became his apprentice and was, at the age of twenty-three, encouraged to go to Boston for formal training (or at least as formal an art training as a young black man could obtain at the time). He studied at the Massachusetts Normal School, the South Boston School of Art, and the Copley Society.

Jazz Quartet, Beauford Delaney
Around 1929, Beauford Delaney decided to leave Boston for New York where he thought his chances for success would be greater. That turned out not to be the case. His timing was awful in that he arrived just in time to see the stock market crash and endure the poverty and loneliness of the Great Depression. He was, however, arriving at the high point of the Harlem Revival, bringing him into contact with the creative genius the likes of Countee Cullen, writer James Baldwin, artist Georgia O'Keeffe, and writer Henry Miller among many others. He thus had a hand in bringing black music, art, literature, and culture into the public limelight during the 1930s and 40s.

Untitled (Jazz Club), ca. 1950, Beauford Delaney
Beauford Delaney led a rather "compartmentalized" existence. His studio was in Greenwich Village, where he became part of a gay bohemian circle of mainly white friends, though he was always secretive and rarely comfortable with his sexuality. When he traveled to Harlem to be with his African-American friends and colleagues, Delaney made efforts to ensure that they knew little of his other social life in Greenwich Village. He feared they would be repelled by his homosexuality. Delaney's "third life" centered on the aesthetics and development of modernism both in Europe and the United States, primarily influenced by his friends, photographer, Alfred Stieglitz and the cubist artist, Stuart Davis, as well as the paintings of the European modernists such as Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Delaney's work ranged from early figurative works
to Abstract Expressionist in his later years in Paris.
At the age of 52, and just as the center of the art world was shifting to New York, Delaney left New York for Paris. By 1953, Europe had already attracted many other African-American entertainers, artists, and writers who had found a greater sense of freedom there. Writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, William Gardner Smith and Richard Gibson, along with artists such as Harold Cousins, Herbert Gentry, and Ed Clark had all preceded him in journeying to Europe.

Dark Rapture, 1941, Beauford Delaney
Economically, Delaney faired little better in Paris than he had in New York. At one point, this compulsive painter was reduced to cutting up his raincoat to use as a painting surface (Untitled, 1945). Con-tinued poverty, hunger and alcohol abuse fueled his de-terioration. He had been star-ving and working all of his life--in Tennessee, in Boston, in New York, and finally in Paris. It would not be going to far to say he suffered far more than any other artist I've ever encountered due to his race, his sexuality, and also from all the emotional stress forced upon him in his efforts to survive. Following a brief trip back to the U.S., Delaney returned to his work in Paris early in 1970. However, it soon became clear that he could no longer cope with daily life. By 1973 Delaney was rapidly losing mental control. His friends tried to care for him but, in 1975, he had to be hospitalized and later committed to St Anne's Hospital for the Insane. There, Beauford Delaney died in March of 1979.

Gaggame, Beauford Delaney--
strange name.


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