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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Beauford Delaney: The Artisan as Witness

by EL Kornegay
EL Kornegay, Jr. is a FTE Fellow and PhD Candidate at Chicago Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, where he is nearing completion of his dissertation on the religious and theological mind of James Baldwin. His awareness and appreciation of Beauford and his work has arisen because of his investigation of Beauford’s influence on Baldwin.
I have come to know Beauford Delaney in a marginal and vicarious fashion. I say marginal in the sense that his works give color, shape, contexts and contours to the not-so-readily-apparent minds, bodies, and souls haunting the edges of our social, literal, and artistic worlds. I say vicarious because in his depictions of the margins of these worlds, he boldly exposes those things we are less willing to see and accept in ourselves and the world around us. Into our world and time, Delaney’s witness is slowly being unearthed and made recognizable to those of us whose social and cultural viewpoint obscures the gritty haunts and shadows of a world we mostly view as shockingly entertaining – a world of madness.

Delaney lived what he painted. He was a witness in the purest sense of the word, giving us a glimpse into a world we often pity and therefore prefer to gaze upon and understand second-hand. It is the world we thoughtfully remark about how grateful we are to encounter only in passing. Using the darkened corners of a peripheral world, Beauford brought color, light, images, and realities only imagined by some – but lived by him – to the center of the universe. Amongst the deepest blacks, through cascading earth tones, yellows, reds, blues, and abiding pastels; the prickly and soothing geometry of shapes gives witness, in a color-full panoramic voice, to a life obscured.

The Eye
Beauford Delaney
(1965) Oil on canvas
Private Collection
© Discover Paris

Beauford channeled the madness and painted saneness with it. He witnessed that fire from within the gulf of its flames and heat. His soul was charred in deep places and the searing images that emerged give us a glimpse into the mindful beauty that exists alongside the terror of the world in which we live and most often, without any resistance, allow to live in us. Beauford was trying to get it out, to exorcise through his art the pain, anguish, and beauty of one who witnesses a world gone mad and is maddened by it.

James Baldwin said of Delaney, “The reality of his seeing caused me to begin to see.”i This is the gift of Delaney’s work: it gives a “vocabulary of color and sounds” and “beauty even in the metaphorical and literal gutter” to our maddening world.

Dark Rapture
(Portrait of James Baldwin as it appears in Amazing Grace)
(1941) Oil on board
© Discover Paris

Beauford Delaney’s life and work is trying to speak to us: it is trying to get us to say and see something different about our world, ourselves, and the madness we all rationalize as reasonable. To appreciate the work of Beauford Delaney is to accept the beauty of those things – memories and people – we choose to throw away, to allow to lie in the gutter, and to not witness. It is also the acceptance of the idea that the things we hold onto to prove our sanity are, in fact, driving us insane. Delaney provides us a glimpse of beauty, color and sounds of the people, places, and things of the margins. Through Beauford’s artistic witness we are given a picture of sanity that makes the canvas of a maddening world beautiful and normal.

i David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994), 33-34

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