Les Amis de Beauford Delaney is partnering with the Wells International Foundation (WIF) to take the Beauford Delaney: Resonance of Form and Vibration of Color exhibition to the U.S.!

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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.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Beauford at Galerie Darthea Speyer

Darthea Speyer is an extraordinary woman whose passion and vision changed the landscape of Paris’ art scene. She worked as exhibit officer for the United States Information Services at the American Embassy and helped to found the American Cultural Center in the rue de Dragon. Subsequently, during the midst of the May 1968 riots, she established an art gallery in the heart of Saint-Germain des Prés. Her brother, A. James Speyer, designed the space, and brother and sister worked together to plan the expositions.

Galerie Darthea Speyer
© Discover Paris!

Beauford and Darthea Speyer met in the fall of 1956, when Speyer purchased a watercolor that Beauford painted during his summer in Ibiza that year. She would later organize a group exhibition that included Beauford’s works at the American Cultural Center in 1966, and host two solo exhibitions of his work at her gallery. She was a staunch supporter of Beauford during good times and bad, and often commissioned him to paint portraits of herself and her family to provide him with work. She was a member of the trustee panel that handled Beauford’s affairs during his last years, which were spent at Saint Anne’s Hospital.


Darthea
Beauford Delaney
Oil on canvas (1965)
Courtesy of Galerie Darthea Speyer

The 1973 solo exposition at the Speyer Gallery was quite successful and received positive reviews. Beauford’s portraits commanded the most attention. Among them were works depicting Jean Genet, Ahmed Bioud, and James Baldwin. Speyer also selected several abstract and semi-abstract paintings to exhibit, including many that featured African themes. The exposition ran from February 6 through March 2.


Invitation card for 1973 exhibit at Galerie Darthea Speyer
Courtesy of Galerie Darthea Speyer

Not much is written about the 1992 solo exposition at the Speyer Gallery. However, in the invitation card for the exhibit, Speyer tenderly eulogizes Beauford. She speaks of his coming almost each day to her office at the American Cultural Center, and then to the gallery. She states how he happily and quickly captured the images of her family and friends on canvas. She laments the shadow that descended upon his spirit and eventually led to his commitment at Saint Anne’s.


Invitation card for 1992 exhibit at Galerie Darthea Speyer
Courtesy of Galerie Darthea Speyer

Galerie Darthea Speyer permanently closed its doors at the end of 2009. It will donate its remaining works by Beauford to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.


Beauford and Darthea
Invitation card for 1973 exhibit at Galerie Darthea Speyer
Courtesy of Galerie Darthea Speyer

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Tribute to Beauford...in Gratitude

Richard Gibson was sixteen years old when he first met Beauford Delaney in Philadelphia. Their friendship continued until Delaney’s death in 1979. In the early 1950s, Gibson was stationed in the Army in Germany and would visit Beauford in Paris during his furloughs. When he was discharged, he moved to Paris and stayed for a time in the same hotel that Beauford occupied. At that time, Beauford introduced Gibson to Ed Clark, the then-struggling and now renowned artist whom Gibson still considers a friend. Beauford attended Gibson’s wedding at the town hall of Paris’ 6th arrondissement. To this day, Gibson speaks of Beauford with a mixture of affection and pride.

Gibson was one of many whose portrait Beauford painted. He vividly recalls Beauford's hotel room on the top floor of what was then called the Hotel des Ecoles on rue Delambre in the Montparnasse district in Paris. Beauford had transformed the room into a studio by draping old white sheets over the dark furniture to provide the light he loved.


Portrait of Richard Gibson
Beauford Delaney
Oil on canvas (1955)
Dolan/Maxwell Gallery

The following is Richard Gibson’s tribute to Beauford:

Beauford Delaney was a master and friend who taught me how to see, hear, and understand a lot about the arts, from jazz to Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and the spirituals to the European and American classics, from the glories of African sculpture to Mondrian (who also loved jazz). Walking through any museum with Beauford, whether in New York or Paris, was a guided tour in art history and a revelation of the profound meaning of what we saw. He taught about art just as he could teach you to hear and enjoy musicians as diverse as Schoenberg and Fats Waller.

I came to know Beauford after reading Henry Miller’s “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney” in 1947. I had indeed been amazed and dashed off a hasty letter of admiration to Beauford at 131 Greene Street—the address Miller repeated several times in that essay—in hope that it might guide curious dealers and potential patrons to his ramshackle loft studio on the edge of Greenwich Village.

Beauford replied and an exchange of letters followed, until one day not long after, Beauford rang the door of the West Philadelphia home where my grandmother and I lived. My grandmother was quite surprised and warily let him in. Beauford seemed even more surprised to discover that I was a 16-year boy studying at Central High School. Beauford had come to Philadelphia because he had been named “Artist of the Year” at the Pyramid Club, an association of black, primarily middle class, people. They gathered together not because they were snobs, but because many local restaurants would not serve African Americans in what was mistakenly taken to be a “liberal” Northern Quaker city.

Beauford was not shocked, and certainly did not inform my grandmother, when I in turn arrived one day a few months later at his door on Greene Street with my first serious girlfriend who happened to be a Quaker English teacher 20 years older than I. “Now you really are a man,” he quietly commented, smiling.

Proud of his African origins and well aware of the inhumanity of slavery in the transatlantic world, Beauford could quote with approval both W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Yet he was not a racist or a black nationalist, and included white and black men and women among his close friends all his life.

Just as he was pleased for me and my girlfriend that day on Greene Street, he was also pleased (though fearful of dire consequences) when another slightly older friend, James Baldwin, revealed without apology his sexual orientation. Beauford did many portraits of Jimmy, including his great nude portrait of 1941 of Baldwin entitled Dark Rapture. Some might now call this painting “afromodernist,” but Beauford’s style evolved over the years to his final abstractions based on the admixture of Paris’ greyish light and spots of color.

Beauford's favourite author was Proust, whom he read and reread in the old Scott Moncrief translation of Remembrance of Things Past, followed by Andre Gide, whose journals he loved for their frankness.

The mystery of Beauford’s slow decline in Paris, which had become his home (though he never denied his origins in the American South), remains for me a sad and tragic mystery that has not been explained to my satisfaction. At least he was always treated as a human being in Paris, even in the hospital where he died, and where he rejected the gift of pastels the nurses offered him in hope they might restore the great creativity they had heard of from his visiting friends. “No,” he said firmly, pushing them away, “I am still owed money for my work.”

Indeed, I remain in Beauford’s debt for the paintings he gave to me, and all that I learned from him about art and life.

– Richard Gibson