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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bob Tomlinson on Beauford's Painting at the Centre Pompidou

Bob Tomlinson is an artist, a retired French professor, and a long-time Paris resident who made the City of Light his home “by accident”! He lived in Paris during the 1968 uprising, moved away for several years, and then came back and established permanent residency in the city.

Bob Tomlinson and Anna Comnena
Image courtesy of Bob Tomlinson

Bob shares a few personal remarks on the untitled painting by Beauford in the exhibition Modernités Plurielles at the Centre Pompidou.

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Untitled
(1957) Oil on canvas
© Discover Paris!
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

For me, Beauford’s most productive period evokes with a certain nostalgia a period of my life in Paris — the 60s, when I was a young painter and he had attained his artistic maturity. So I was very interested to see this unique and rarely exhibited work from the Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection.

The exhibit aspires to be a survey of global modernism and as such it is somewhat overwhelming. (Admittedly, I have a limited tolerance for museums; after an hour my retinas overload and I can no longer see.) For anyone interested in African-American artists in the City of Light, the undoubted highlights of the show are the three appearances of Josephine Baker (a photo, a film of her dancing, a wire sculpture by Alexander Calder) and, of course, the painting by Beauford.

Unfortunately, whether intentional or not, the exhibition continues the neglect and marginalization from which Beauford suffered during his lifetime. As far as I could tell, he does not figure in the catalog and one finds his painting almost by accident in a small transverse corridor two-thirds of the way through the vast exhibit.

Done a few years after his arrival in Paris, this 1957 painting is a striking example of Beauford’s personal appropriation of an abstract expressionist aesthetic. Usually Beauford’s works in this vein are wholly non-representational. However, this one is different. The thick paint surface is agitated by an abstract textual and coloristic whirlwind, but out of this tangle of yellows and reds a form resembling that of a fierce lion emerges, suggested by paint strokes of an intense blue, although other purely abstract splashes of the same blue scattered on the background render the interpretation ambiguous.

The tension between the abstract and the figurative in Beauford’s paintings (I’m thinking of paintings like his 1965 portrait of James Baldwin, which perhaps unconsciously inspired my own 2013 version) is not restricted to African-American artists, but they (we) feel it with a particular acuteness — the interest in the formal qualities of the work pitched against the need to express the heavy burden of history in a more figurative narrative form.

Portrait of James Baldwin
(1965) Oil on canvas
Private collection
Image courtesy of Levis Fine Art
© Estate of Beauford Delaney,
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

James Baldwin
(2013) Bob Tomlinson
Image courtesy of the artist

Beauford bridges this gap in the ambiguously abstract Pompidou painting by his imagery and personal use of color, as he does in his portraits, which despite their figurative content utilize the same techniques. For him, his favorite color yellow had complex spiritual and emotional meanings, from the unsettling lime-yellow background of Baldwin’s portrait to the vibrant yellows that dominate the other primaries, red and blue, in the Pompidou painting. All this intense personal energy contrasts with the gentle, contemplative soul whom I knew in the cafés of Saint Germain and Montparnasse.

The disjunction between the surface personality of artists and their work is not uncommon. I consider myself somewhat laid back, and I think I’m often perceived as such, yet I’ve been described as “a serene New Yorker who paints troubled pictures.” Whether he is in an abstract or figurative mode, one of the things I admire most about Beauford is his fidelity to a private, deeply felt emotion that may not be apparent on the outside, a quality lacking in some other works of the exhibition that seem dictated by an impersonal artistic doctrine rather than any inner truth.

Having said that, there are many interesting things to see: for example a section of contemporary African artists and Larry Rivers' reworking of Manet’s Olympia in terms of American race relations. The show is on until January 2015, so don’t miss it!

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