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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Art and Desire

Art and Desire
re-Searching Beauford Delaney: Part Four

EL Kornegay Jr., Ph.D.

In Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney, David Leeming opens the unusual door to what might be considered the sexual life of Beauford Delaney. According to James Baldwin, this lyric about the “unusual door” comes from a song “Beauford would often sing.”[1] This unusual door signals at least two aspects of who Beauford Delaney is: a “…living exemplar of a black man as functioning, self-supporting artist” and according to Leeming, a homosexual. Beauford was a Negro artist and a homosexual.[2] Yet, both are constrained by the former, with Beauford’s art having limitations in the world of whiteness and his sexuality having limitations in the world of blackness.

Both comprise a double-edged sword of desire with the sharp blade of race and sexuality cutting both ways. The issue of race is a traceable event; sexuality is a bit more elusive, for the latter requires the willingness of lovers to speak and encounters to be exposed. Race plays itself out in the open; sex, most often behind closed doors. How can we account for these acts, which most often remain sealed behind a wall of silence? How do we add the dimension of physical intimacy to our beloved Beauford in ways that celebrate his manhood and his desire to love and be loved?

Leeming asks if Beauford’s paintings say anything about his racial or sexual history. I say his painting say something about both. This is a co-constituted viewpoint, one in which race and sexuality are combined in a colorful commentary of blended pastels, vividly textured swirls, and dimensioned landscapes where images of desire have been captured.

The joy and pain of a double-edged life that has been raced and sexed is wrapped up in a climatic crescendo of brushstrokes distilled on canvas where truth lies somewhere between the painted images we see and the reasons for their being that we cannot. It is in this space where the answer to the question concerning Beauford’s sexual selfhood might be found.

Leeming writes that some friends of Beauford’s claim that he “did not concern himself with racial or sexual issues” and “that his whole life was his painting.” Yet we find hints of a sexual pulse in Dark Rapture (1941); hidden desire roams under the moonlit streets and city lights of Greenwich Village (1945), in the interplay of couples in the light of day in Washington Square (1952), and in the brightly colored celebration of the erect phallus set between testicular orbs in Sun and Moon (1970). Beauford subtlety expresses his racial and sexual self in certain of his paintings; he reveals what he wants us to see privately, not publicly.

Dark Rapture
(1941) Oil on canvas
Private collection

Leeming mentions that Delaney was a very private man and was careful never to blur the lines between eroticism and friendship, between race and sex. However, Beauford does integrate these themes into his work and is quite flamboyant in his celebration of human eroticism in both his love for the blues and its reflection in his art. There is a voyeuristic quality to his paintings; many of his subjects seem not to see him and therefore do not necessarily see his desire for them. He seems to be an unknown admirer framing the silhouette of someone he finds beautiful up close (in Jean Genet [1972], Genet seems to emerge from a thicket after a private encounter) or admires from afar (in Rosa Parks [1970], the specter of a perpendicular bulge adorns a random dark figure in the background of the painting). The angles in his works belie coyness, a shyness only revealed when you catch the glance of an admirer in the corner of your eye.

Jean Genet
(1972) Oil on canvas
Private collection

I appreciate Leeming’s response to the questions surrounding Delaney’s racial and sexual identity. Along with black religion, they are important aspects shaping Beauford’s life and work. However, I find that Beauford’s desire – to resist racial and sexual limitations – is directly tied to and bound up in his art. There is no need to speculate about either: we only have to look at what he painted and left behind to get a glimpse of who, what, and how he loved. It is an unusual door to open, but once you have entered, the understanding of the many dimensions of Beauford’s desire begins to emerge.

[1] I have not been able to trace the anecdotal reference by Baldwin of this lyric often sung by Beauford. However, I do understand this is possibly an example of a folk “spiritual” indicative of the black church tradition both men shared and one which Baldwin very often references. James Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket”, ed. Toni Morrison. Collected Essays.(New York: Library of America, 1998), 830.
[2] David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography, (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1994), 32.

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