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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Conversations with Beauford - Part 1

Paul Sinclair is the agent for the African-American expatriate artist Ealy Mays. He and Mays are admirers of Beauford's work and students of his life story and Sinclair's profound respect and empathy for Beauford inspired him to represent Mays. The following is an excerpt from an article that Sinclair wrote after visiting Beauford's solo exposition Beauford Delaney: Internal Light, which was recently held at Levis Fine Art in Manhattan. I have published it here with his permission.


On entering the Levis Fine Art gallery on West 24th Street in Manhattan last week, I felt a selfish sense of ideal timing in that I was visiting Beauford to say hello at about 4pm on a Thursday evening, and I was very happy at the absence of a bustling 6pm crowd that might have interrupted the conversation between Beauford and me. Many Manhattan galleries will inundate you with invitations only to grace your presence with that sense of “trespassing-snobbery.” But at Levis Fine Art, it was different.

Beauford Delaney: Internal Light
Levis Fine Art
© Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator

Jim Levis came out and welcomed me. I told him of my connections to Beauford Delaney and of my absolute pleasure in seeing the exhibit, and I also mentioned that I that I knew a Monique Wells in Paris. He in turn extended a warm welcome and shared a few thoughts on what inspired him to recognize our friend with this wonderful exhibition, entitled Beauford Delaney: Internal Light. It was my second visit to see a Beauford exhibition in as many months. He had featured prominently in the Whitney Museum’s Blues for Smoke exhibition earlier this year, though as part of a group collection by great black artists. At Levis, this was a solo Beauford exhibit, and I had much to discuss with the man.

While standing there, I thought of the many question for Beauford that I had in my head for so many years. I am a “Beauford Delaney kid,” loosely self-described as spending a period of my life in the shadows of Beauford wherein on any given day Beauford might have occupied about hundred out of the average forty thousand thoughts that crossed my mind. His was the other side of Paris; Not exactly Van Gogh’s trail of madness and brilliance through the South of France, but neither was it Henry O. Tanner’s genteel existence of solace found in painting deeply religious images such as Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Return of the Holy Women, or The Resurrection of Lazarus. Tanner, like Beauford, was another kind and gentle soul. Both were sensitive men who had fled the harsh Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States for the soft artistic shores of France, with Tanner leading the way a generation before Beauford.

During my years in Paris, I had met and known so many deeply talented artists who too were tortured souls. So standing there in that gallery, I needed some answers – in particular, to the question of the seemingly perfectly inversed relationship of the genius to the demented, and its reconciliation sooner or later with the bottle or some other form of drug intended to numb the pain. I was not going to wait to read the opinions of some disconnected art writer or of others with varying titles who are paid handsomely to vomit illustrious words per minute, without ever having a single intimate moment with the man or any knowledge of who he was. This was not like a Rembrandt or a Gauguin who lived a thousand years ago and whose works are only to be found in major museums. This was a painter whose roommate had been a father figure for some of us in Paris for years. I was not there to examine brush strokes or contours. Instead, I was there to look Beauford in the eye and ask of him the questions that have been on my mind for these many years.

“Was it true that he had attempted to throw himself into the Seine a few times before being committed?” “Was the use of “yellow” and its many variants done in search of discovering a 4th primary color or was this his media, through which he could abstractly express himself and resonate color and light, his way of shining from within?” “How did he feel to see friends and fellow artists Harold Cousins, Ed Clark, Herbert Gentry, Romare Bearden, and others receive such widespread recognition and fame, while he languished unrecognized for many years?” “What was his reaction to his friend James Baldwin’s meteoric take off after returning to the America in 1957 to participate in the civil rights struggle?” “Did he consider Baldwin’s friendship an important a factor in his life as history had recorded it, and did he feel that Baldwin had done enough for him in his darkest hours of need, as would have been expected of such a ‘dear’ friend and mentee?”

I also wanted to ask Beauford if he was finally at peace and if he was happy with the new found recognition, and dedication of recent years by scholars and writers such as Paris-based freelance writer Monique Wells, who single-handedly prevented the destruction and possible desecration of his “about-to-be abandoned” burial spot and created the Les Amis de Beauford foundation in Paris, solely dedicated to the preservation of the legacy and dignity of Beauford Delaney.

I did not need to ask him how he felt about the exhibition underway at Levis Fine Art Gallery, as I could feel his spirit and I knew he was happy. So I took the time to look Beauford in the eyes and posed my questions. His answers were as varied as could be imagined, and where they were not too clear, I had to infer my own interpretations of the man in yellow. He was no less complex than history had suggested, yet his genteel nature was felt throughout the exhibition halls.

Abstract in Orange and Red, 1963
Gouache on wove paper
25.75 x 19.625 inches
© Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator

Beauford's life was lived with kindness, care, pity, neglect, confusion, paranoia, a little schizophrenia, and a lot of pure genius. Depression, isolation, exploitation, and religious-induced self-hatred for being born gay drove the engine of torture that powered both dimensions of his extremes. His work reflected bright colors and lights, which shone through, while his mood often reflected absolute darkness. The artist manifested one wavelength while his art was of an entirely different genre. In physics we learn that with massive temperature increases past a few hundred degrees Celsius, black bodies start to emit visible wavelengths, appearing red, orange, yellow, blue and white. In seeing Beauford’s work, one can imagine a similar internal increase in neurons, increase in electrons, heightened molecular stimulations to the brain, and near atomic spinning of particles, to produce incredibly serene light and often yellow textures, with delicacies of time, place, moods and circumstances. Internal turmoil enveloped the man while tranquility eased itself into every inch of his work and into much of his external interactions with others. He painted many faces but it was through forceful and poignant construction of the eyes by which he often showed us the souls of his subjects. At times, it was clear that he channeled some of the inner Beauford into his subjects as well. All who knew Beauford described him as a kind, sweet, and loving soul, albeit always in regretfully poignant tones.

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