Les Amis de Beauford Delaney is partnering with the Wells International Foundation (WIF) to take the Beauford Delaney: Resonance of Form and Vibration of Color exhibition to the U.S.!

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Rachel Cohen's Tribute to Beauford

Rachel Cohen is a writer and a professor at Sarah Lawrence College. She contacted me a few weeks ago in anticipation of her reading from her book A Chance Meeting and the discussion about Beauford and James Baldwin that was scheduled for the New York Live Arts Festival in April. She wrote a wonderful article about Beauford's work on her blog called Abstraction and Eyes, which inspired me to ask her for the following interview:

Les Amis: What inspired you to include Beauford in your book?

R. C.: For my book, I knew I wanted to include chapters about James Baldwin, a writer who has had a strong influence on me since I studied him carefully when I was a first-year student at college. But I was having trouble finding ways to write about Baldwin, so complex in life and on the page. I read the biography of James Baldwin by David Leeming, and that was where I first encountered Delaney. Leeming makes clear what a profound influence Delaney had on Baldwin, and also tells the incredible story of Leeming driving Delaney to meet Baldwin in Istanbul – something wonderfully vivid about the relations among all three of those men comes across in that book. After I read those accounts, I knew that to write well about James Baldwin, I needed to show him in relation to Delaney. Gradually, as I read, I got more and more interested in Delaney himself, and I also learned a huge amount from Leeming’s book on Delaney, Amazing Grace.

Cover of Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney

Les Amis: What (if anything) was so compelling about him that you included him in two chapters?

R. C.: The book is structured so that each figure appears in at least two chapters – it was important to me to find a way to convey the different aspects of people that come forward in different situations and with different company. Biography tends to present tight, overly-consistent pictures of people, and I thought that changing juxtapositions would open up new perspectives. I wrote about Delaney with James Baldwin and also with W.E. B. Du Bois, two very different people, who meant very different things to Delaney, and I hoped that would allow me to show both the tender and interior person he was able to be with Baldwin, and the more mystifying, solitary figure he presented in the world of African-American intellectuals and artists that he traveled in. One way that Beauford Delaney was different than some of the other figures I wrote about was that for him it wasn’t just difficult, but really almost impossibly painful, to try to hold these different aspects of himself together.

Les Amis: When did you first come to know about Beauford’s art?

R. C.: I learned about it first from reading. One of my friends, the poet and artist John Jay Frazier, had seen The Color Yellow show and had the catalog, and I studied that, and looked at what works I could. John read the chapters I had written about Delaney when I was done and that was a great help.

Les Amis: Have you seen many of his works in person?

R. C.: No, sadly, I haven’t. The two big shows in recent years, in Minneapolis and New York, both came after I’d published my book, and I wasn’t able to get to either of them. That was a really wonderful thing about the recent experience of presenting on Baldwin and Delaney at the Live Arts Festival, “The Fire This Time!” – we were on stage with two wonderful paintings – the portrait of James Baldwin in yellow from 1965, and a painting from the Rosa Parks series. In person, the paintings are alive in an extraordinary way – you can feel the movement in the paint, and you can also feel a lot of touching and interesting elements in the atmosphere – the background of the Rosa Parks painting seemed to me saturated in memories of the South, and of Knoxville, where Beauford Delaney grew up.

Portrait of James Baldwin
1965
Oil on canvas
25.5 x 21.25 inches
Signed and dated lower left
Image courtesy of Levis Fine Art
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

Two Women on a Bench
1970
Oil on canvas
21.25 x 25 inches
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

Les Amis: I am intrigued by your focus on eyes in your recent blog post about Beauford. Please give me your comments about the following post on the Les Amis blog: You've Got the Eye.

R. C.: This is a very interesting post – there is clearly something about the eyes in Delaney’s work that many of us want to try to get at! I think your point about the asymmetries in the Delaney self-portraits is perceptive. In most portraits, the two eyes of the sitter will look quite different – an artist friend of mine once explained to me that otherwise the effect when you look at the painting is that the pair of eyes are following you – but I think you’re right that this is extremely pronounced in Delaney’s case and seems to suggest something about what he thought people could see and understand of the world, and how well they could be seen by others.

Les Amis: Do you have a preference between Beauford’s portraits and his abstract works? If so, why?

R. C.: I like both the kinds of works very much. An interesting thing that came out in the discussion at the Live Arts Panel was when Diedra Harris-Kelley, of the Romare Bearden Foundation and herself a painter, insisted that it was a mistake to make a strong distinction between the so-called “realistic” portraits and the abstract paintings. She said that in both kinds of work Delaney is concerned with edges and areas of color. I said that I had found helpful the words of the French critic Jean Guichard-Meili, who described Delaney’s painting in terms of “convection.” I said that maybe this consistent concern with the movement of paint, whether in realistic portraits or abstract paintings, was in some way analogous to the way James Baldwin’s prose moves, whether in the more political essays, or in the more imaginative fiction.

Les Amis: Would you consider the chapters in your book to be a tribute to Beauford and his work? If so, in what way?

R. C.: Certainly, but it is maybe more important to me that the book as a whole is a tribute to ideas about love and friendship that Delaney and Baldwin believed in and lived in their relationship to each other. Delaney wrote in his journal that “love when unimpeded realizes the miraculous.” Throughout my book, I wanted to show moments where a depth of understanding or generosity, found in the company of other people, helped writers and artists to do the work that mattered most to them.

Les Amis: Any final thoughts?

R. C.: Only that when I started writing about Delaney, more than fifteen years ago, I never would have thought that I’d have the chance to sit with two of his paintings and talk about his life and work with David Leeming, whose books I so much admire. Both Baldwin and Delaney were very present in that room. For me it was as if I had been writing toward them for a long time and it was a great privilege to get that close to their presences.

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