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Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Many Sidedness of Beauford Delaney’s Art

Catherine St. John, Doctor of Arts at Berkeley College, brings us another review of Beauford’s work as she saw it at the recent solo exposition Beauford Delaney: Internal Light at Levis Fine Art Gallery in New York.


Beauford Delaney produced paintings that demonstrate a multiplicity of approaches, a way of working characteristic of much postwar European art. The many sidedness of his art was clearly visible before he left New York City for Paris in 1953 and while American artists often became tied to a “signature” style, artists living abroad were more apt to explore diversity in an environment where a traditional art market was absent. Delaney’s work opens up new avenues for thinking about creativity. His range emphasizes difference which, properly understood, reveals continuity.

For Beauford Delaney, art was an internal necessity. Art mattered greatly to him and it can be said that his visually absorbing paintings reflect his own identity as a human being. The major stimulus of his work is the act of painting. His work speaks to the continual relevance of paint and canvas. He explores the boundaries between representational and abstract modes, which need not be inconsistent. There is a sense of intimacy, a truth to his pictorial gestures. His marks and lines give depth to flatness, bending form to the needs of inner content. Lightness seems to emanate from within the surface of his paintings and comes towards us, an inner illumination and spirit, especially noticed in his rich yellow grounds.

There is much to be gained from repeated looking at Delaney’s art of the 1950s and 60s at Levis Fine Art. On entering the exhibit Beauford Delaney: Internal Light in the gallery on West 24th Street in Chelsea, New York, we discover the recurring balance between the profound humanity of Delaney himself and the products of imagination that unfolded from his mind’s eye. His spirit and the world around him are experienced in paintings modest in size, scaled to small studios. With a range of formal complexity, richly colored threads of paint are interwoven in both quietly contemplative portraits and alternate abstractions, suggesting layers of absent selves.

In selecting two specific paintings from more than two dozen to discuss, viewers are offered a recognizable sensibility as well as an opportunity to observe Beauford Delaney’s working methods. Suggestive of drawing, perhaps the most abstract medium of art, both seem like writing. Composites of strokes give the paintings surface unity.

Untitled: Abstract in Black, Calligraphic Lines with Red, Diptych, probably completed in 1956, was inspired by an invitation from painter Larry Calcagno to join him on a trip to Ibiza, Spain. It is a gouache with thinly worked red color accents that seem to be lit from behind. Areas of wove paper show through. We also see in the overlapping ovals in black, perhaps a figure eight or spiral, a striking formal repetition that adds an aspect of coherence to his works and reveal the momentum of his brush in response to impulse.

Untitled: Abstract in Black, Calligraphic Lines with Red, Diptych
(ca. 1956) Gouache on wove paper
Signed lower left and lower right
© Estate of Beauford Delaney,
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator
Image supplied by Levis Fine Art*

Also gouache on wove paper, Untitled: Abstract in Red, Green, Ochre and Black was completed in 1962. It is a bold, modernist flat painting. As seen in synthetic cubism, planar segments of red and green overlap in some places and fit together in others. Strokes in varying directions extend the viewer’s attention across the painted surface. There are no defined focal points but it is possible to discern an implied human or figural presence in the drawn lines that emerge in black strokes from the maze of flat areas of the color complements. Delaney’s lines and shapes interlace with a sureness of paint application.

Untitled: Abstract in Red, Green, Ochre and Black
(1962) Gouache on wove paper
Signed and dated lower right, Paris
© Estate of Beauford Delaney,
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator
Image supplied by Levis Fine Art Gallery*

Not exhibited chronologically, we sense in the paintings on display an all encompassing awakening of consciousness, his visual presence revealed over time by his dynamic range of marks both actual and conceptual. The reverence with which he handles paint engages viewers physically. There is a mastery of the artist’s craft. In more than two dozen paintings, we experience the material truth of color and gesture, each with a sense of individual character and an immediacy that casts its own mood. Lines and shapes are interlocked, invested with subjective perception.

There are four portraits in the exhibit. Done with great candor, they offer the inward qualities that Beauford Delaney discovered in his subjects. The same energetic paint handling that we observe in his non-figurative works can be seen in the portraits. Suggestive of the lives behind the faces they are, in essence, a collective narrative from which the emergent history of his time and place can be written. The portraits aid in illuminating the origins of this artist’s emotionally and intellectually resonant, profoundly human work. Can these paintings of aesthetic, historical and social significance be intellectualized or are their meanings too deep?

In closing, the poem “Description” by Christopher Stackhouse published in Plural (Counterpath Press, 2012) introduces lexical units of short phrases in which readers must look for connecting threads:

Af-am contribution to Abstraction, variation
    Pattern making, smallness versus the typified
    ‘Grand gesture’, to write as one draws, geometric
    Lines, subsets confined and confirmed by points
Beauford Delaney, Edward Bannister, Gerhard Richter
    Ellsworth Kelly’s yellow square, infinities of touch

Can these lines provide a path toward a greater understanding of Beauford Delaney’s art?

To read additional contributions by Dr. St. John to the Les Amis blog, click on the links below:

Beauford’s Portraits of James Baldwin – Part 1
Beauford’s Portraits of James Baldwin – Part 2
Where to Find Beauford’s Art: Hampton University Museum

*Levis Fine Art, Inc.
514 West 24th St., 3-W
New York, NY 10011
Member of Fine Art Dealers Association (FADA)
Contact: Jim Levis
T: 646-620-5000

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