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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Where to Find Beauford's Art: Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries - Part 4

This final segment of the multi-part article on the Beauford Delaney paintings held by Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries comes from Patricia Sue Canterbury*, curator of the solo exposition entitled Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris that was mounted by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2004.


The group of works that resides in the collection of the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries (“CAUAG”) is bound together by the two salient factors of color and origin. All seven works, which range between 1962 and 1978, are suffused with yellow, a shade that dominated the artist’s work—particularly after his relocation to Paris in the 1950s. The sun-drenched shade was a flexible, expressive tool that conveyed the perceived essence of his subject matter. The other aspect that contributes special meaning to the works as a group is the fact that all are a bequest from Delaney’s long-time friend, James Baldwin. My thoughts on a few of my favorites follow below.

Baldwin and Delaney’s history spanned decades and, while it began with the artist in the role of mentor to the younger man, by the 1970s Baldwin would take on a protective role towards the man who had taught him in little but profound ways to look beyond the surface of initial impressions. It was also Delaney who was living proof to the young, aspiring writer that a black man could be, and succeed, as an artist. The friendship begun in New York continued across the Atlantic where both men found in Paris a place where each could explore their respective paths with a freedom that opened within them new approaches and ideas in the pursuit of their crafts.

Given their long history, Delaney portrayed Baldwin on many occasions and those likenesses rank as some of the artist’s most powerfully intuited portraits. Therefore, it is not surprising that out of the three portraits by Delaney in the CAUAG collection, it is his portrayal of James Baldwin that projects to us the interior essence of the sitter.

Portrait of James Baldwin
(1971) Oil on canvas
Bequest of James Baldwin
Image courtesy of Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries
Note: Some question whether the person depicted in this portrait is indeed Baldwin.

The yellow light of inspiration and spiritual power surrounds the author like an aura, but the face is suffused with the same light as if it is rising up from within and emanating towards the viewer. Baldwin and the light are one and the same. The clarity of vision and purity of his purpose are further conveyed to us through the bright white of his eyes and the jacket in which he is cloaked. His expression, looking straight ahead, is one of calm determination and his position in the dead center of the canvas, further marks the solidity of that resolve.

As Baldwin’s success as an author rose, he would in turn offer Delaney opportunities to vacation with him in various locations, including his timber and stone villa in St. Paul de Vence in the South of France. CAUAG is fortunate to possess two works that mark Delaney’s presence there. In Village (St. Paul de Vence) the artist captured the nature of a town that, to any visitor, is an unending succession of steeply pitched steps that hug the walls of any structure they desire to reach. Here, Delaney collapses a slice of the town into a single plane with multiple stepped paths and the cellular-shaped interiors of the establishments that border them. It is a portrait of a place well loved, which conveys a sense of his delight in its peculiar quality of place.

Village (St. Paul de Vence)
(1972) Oil on canvas
Bequest of James Baldwin
Image courtesy of Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries

The work also reaches back to works from New York (ca. 1946-1953) when the artist employed similar divisions or compartmentalizing in the portrayal of a place (i.e., Untitled (Jazz Club), ca. 1951, Private Collection). While each area of activity is distinct, in concert they convey a sense of simultaneity within the greater whole of the place portrayed.

Yellow Cyprus (1978), painted six years later, and one year before Delaney’s death, translates his experience of the scene that opened before him from the terrace of Baldwin’s house at St. Paul de Vence. In spite of his delicate mental state by this point in time, he obviously divined larger, cosmic meaning underlying the visual phenomena. To get at it, he restricted the color palette and stripped away the unessential elements that would only distract. The yellow orb of the sun does not simply bathe the landscape in golden light; it invades it and transforms it into an extension of itself and threatens to dematerialize it, outright.

Yellow Cyprus
(1978) Oil on canvas
Bequest of James Baldwin
Image courtesy of Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries

The scene embodies the spiritual crux of what Delaney had sought to capture in his grand cosmic abstractions of the 60s—“that which cannot be said or portrayed…that is deathless, eternal, and obscure.” [Letter to Henry Miller, 11/3/65] Indeed, nature here presented him with its own “canvas” of infinite and unfathomable light. It was left only for him to walk into it.

*To read the other contributions that Sue Canterbury has made to the Les Amis blog, click on the links below:
Anatomy of an Art Exposition - Part 1
Anatomy of an Art Exposition - Part 2
Why Are So Many of Beauford's Paintings in Museum Storage

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