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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Beauford and the Briet Brothers

Philippe Briet (1959-1997) was a French gallery owner and publisher who was passionate about the work of Beauford Delaney. His brother Sylvain shares that passion to this day. Sylvain Briet graciously consented to speak with me about the work that he and Philippe undertook during the late 1980s through the mid 1990s to lift Beauford’s works from obscurity and promote them. (He also contributed the photos in this posting; they are not to be reproduced elsewhere or otherwise utilized without his express permission.)

Philippe Briet’s passion for art was born when he was a high school student in Caen, Normandy in 1977. He organized several exhibitions of modern and contemporary art at his school, including the works of great painters such as Chagall and Sonia Delaunay. He befriended Sonia Delaunay in Paris in 1978, and she generously created a poster for one of his shows. At his tender age, he would meet artistic greats such as Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall, and Andy Warhol. By the time he was 22 years old, Philippe was responsible for the contemporary art program for the City of Caen, and organized a traveling exhibit of contemporary French art in Africa for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He would later befriend painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York, and earnestly support this artist when his work was not yet popular.

Philippe Briet (right) and his art teacher at the Sonia Delaunay exposition (1978)
© Sylvain Briet

Philippe Briet (left) and Sonia Delaunay (1979)
© Sylvain Briet

Briet moved to New York in 1985, and opened the Philippe Briet Gallery in SoHo, Manhattan in 1987. One Sunday in April 1988, Philippe took Sylvain and some friends to the Studio Museum in Harlem, and was surprised to find it closed. The gallery’s bookstore was open, however, and inside, Philippe’s attention was drawn to a tall pile of books with an orange cover bearing a black and white photo of a man whose face he had not seen before. This was a stack of catalogs for the Studio Museum in Harlem’s retrospective of Beauford’s works, organized by Richard A. Long in 1978. Beauford’s photo was on the cover. The catalogs were on sale for $1.00.

Cover of the Studio Museum in Harlem catalog (1978)
Courtesy of Sylvain Briet

Sylvain indicated that Philippe was entranced by the depth of Beauford’s expression on the cover, and the images of the works that he saw in that catalog. Feeling the importance of that moment, he bought a copy for each of his friends. He later contacted Mary Schmidt Campbell, New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs and former Executive Director of the Studio Museum, to learn more about this amazing painter, and discovered that Beauford was deceased. Campbell would introduce Philippe to several persons who knew Beauford personally, including Solange du Closel, Richard Long, and Al Hirschfeld. Captivated and impassioned by Beauford’s work, Philippe moved heaven and earth to organize and present the first Beauford Delaney exposition since 1978. Entitled Beauford Delaney [1901-1979]: From Tennessee to Paris, this show was presented in November 1988. It included roughly ten works from New York and Paris, including a portrait of Solange du Closel and a magnificant painting of Washington Square in New York.

Interior of the invitation card for the 1988 exposition
Courtesy of Sylvain Briet

According to Sylvain, Philippe felt that people were much more cognizant and appreciative of Beauford’s personality than they were of his art. Philippe embarked on a treasure hunt of sorts, finding some of Beauford’s paintings in the homes of persons who had purchased them long ago and, not realizing their artistic value, stored them in basements or closets. He recovered several that were in less-than-optimal condition, paid fair market value for them, and had these paintings restored. His mission was to acquire Beauford’s works to showcase, not to sell, and to convince museums and the art press of the importance of these works.

Sylvain joined his brother in New York, and together the two men pursued the work of operating a new SoHo gallery, which opened on Broadway in October 1989 with Don’t You Know by Now, a show curated by jazz musician Ornette Coleman. Philippe and Sylvain would mount two retrospectives of Beauford’s work: A Retrospective: Fifty Years of Light (1991) and Beauford Delaney: The New York Years (1994). Forty-seven paintings were hung at the latter exhibit, which was a remarkable feat given that only œuvre created between 1929 and 1953 were shown. Most of these works were being shown for the first time in over fifty years.

A Retrospective: Fifty Years of Light (1991)
© Sylvain Briet

Philippe Briet (right) and Richard Long at the 1991 exposition
© Sylvain Briet

None of the works shown at either of these exhibits were for sale. The shows drew the attention of major newspapers and magazines (The New York Times, The New Yorker, Village Voice, Art in America, New York Magazine, Amsterdam News, Arts Magazine...), as art critics noted the quality of the works and posed the question "Why did Beauford Delaney disappear from American art history?" Shortly after this exposition ended, the Briet brothers closed the gallery and began to publish books about artists and their work.

Beauford Delaney: The New York Years (1994)
© Sylvain Briet

Haywood "Bill" Rivers at the 1994 exposition
© Sylvain Briet

Philippe (left) shows Brice Porter a self-portrait of Beauford at the 1994 exposition
© Sylvain Briet

In 1995, Philippe Briet collaborated with American poet Cid Corman and American curator and publisher Richard Milazzo to create a book of poetry dedicated to Beauford. Called Tributary (Edgewise Press, 1999), it contains fifty poems and five color reproductions of Beauford’s paintings. In 1995, Philippe also wrote a draft essay about Beauford that he did not have the opportunity to finalize. It would eventually be published in the catalog for the 2007 art exhibit entitled Philippe Briet: Art. Art. Art., which was organized by Sylvain for the Région Basse-Normandie in honor of the 10th anniversary of his brother’s death and presented at the Abbaye-aux-Dames in Caen, France.

Cover of the Philippe Briet: Art. Art. Art. catalog
Courtesy of Sylvain Briet

Sylvain Briet has followed the status of Beauford’s gravesite since 2002. He continues to hope that Beauford’s remains will someday be transferred to Montparnasse Cemetery, the burial ground closest to where Beauford spent most of his life in Paris, and where James Baldwin wanted to see his friend buried. He is following the progress of Les Amis de Beauford Delaney regarding the placement of a permanent marker at the tomb at Thiais Cemetery.


Ed Baker said...

Cid was a friend of Beauford's

check out TRIBUTARY Cid Corman poems


David Leeming's Amazing Grace

(oppps... I see you point towards Tributary)

About Beauford Delaney said...

Hi Ed,

I have ordered TRIBUTARY and plan to do a posting about it once I have read the book.
Thanks for commenting!


Peggy Hartzell said...

I have a couple photos that my uncle. Thomas Handforth who was an artist and friend of Carl Van Vechten took in Harlem in the 30s.I'm wondering if they aren't of a young Beauford. Is there anyway I can email you copies to see what you think?

About Beauford Delaney said...

Dear Peggy,

My humble apologies for the huge delay in responding to your message. Yes, you can send the photos by e-mail to amisdebeauford@yahoo.com.