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Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Boundless Love: Beauford Delaney’s Letters to Larry Calcagno

By Sojourner Ahébée

An Artistic Friendship:
Beauford Delaney and Lawrence Calcagno

Catalog cover for art exposition
Palmer Museum of Art (2001)

Beauford Delaney’s life was marked by a certain loneliness as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality and his mental health. But his friendships, especially those he nurtured in Paris, provided him with profound love and companionship.

Of particular importance was his friendship with Lawrence Calcagno, an American abstract expressionist painter who moved to Paris in the 1950s to study visual art. In his biography of Delaney, David A. Leeming, recounts that:

Beauford met Larry Calcagno early on in his stay in Paris through Charley Boggs… In Calcagno Beauford immediately recognized someone he could open up to. Also a homosexual, Larry was a handsome, gentle, highly sympathetic and loving man of forty who shared Beauford’s dedication to art.

In other words, Beauford saw much of himself in Larry. And though his friend would return to the United States permanently in the late 50s, Beauford and Larry would remain close through a series of letters written over many years.

In these letters, we find Beauford at his most honest and open self. We see his pain. We see his optimism and light. We witness his generous heart, his longing to be loved, and his longing to feel Larry's presence.

In a March 1959 missive, Beauford writes:
Dear Larry,

Your wonderful [,] informative letter arrived today like a celestial sentinel [.] I had walked into Paris this morning… and here was your letter… It almost made me weak.
That such a small thing could have such power over Beauford is a testament to the value the painter placed on these exchanges.

A few years later, the news of President Kennedy’s assassination would weigh heavily on Beauford’s heart. In November 1963, Beauford received a letter from Larry, enclosed with one of his drawings. Beauford wrote back, saying:

Dear Larry,

You beautiful scene… arrived today along with your living message [.] It was as if you were here in person [.] I immediately placed it upon the wall where I can see it all the time [.] We here are all overwhelmed with the death of President Kennedy and life and work are temporarily suspended. However, I am delighted with your spirit… and it is present in your work.

No 6 Portrait, JFK
(1966) Pastel
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

When Beauford tells Larry that reading his message made it feel as though he was physically present, Beauford puts forwards something of great importance – the letter’s capacity to carry the soul of the writer within its pages.

Receipt of Larry’s letter works against Beauford's self-alienation and alienation of the world. Though Kennedy’s death is a considerable loss, Beauford recognizes Larry’s art and his letter as a source of light during a dark time. For Beauford, both the practice of art and the practice of letter writing are passionate investments in the world and in other people.

It is important to note that Beauford allowed words and whole sentences to move freely in his letters to Larry. There is often no punctuation; sentences bleed into each other. One does not know where Beauford’s thoughts begin and end. Words are often misspelled. And Beauford’s handwriting is such that it is difficult for the untrained eye to decipher the message.

Portrait of a Young Man (Larry Calcagno)
(1953) Oil on canvas
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

In an essay included in the Beauford Delaney: Resonance of Form and Vibration of Color catalogue, Levi Prombaum, a Ph.D. candidate at University College London, explained that Henry Miller brilliantly compared the quality of Beauford’s letters to the informal intimacy of a preacher’s speech. Beauford was the son of a preacher, so he carried the cadence of that particular rhythm with him throughout his childhood and adolescence. His letters participate in a higher order of intimacy and love, just as the words of a preacher would.

In November 1957, Beauford ended a rather long letter to Larry with the following:

As always a letter never says what one wants it to say but the necessity to write carries with it the necessity to send it so God bless you and your life and work.


When we think about sacred things, we are reminded of something that has no bounds, something that transcends our mortal existence. And it is this meaning of “sacred” that describes the boundless love that rooted itself in Beauford’s letters to Larry.

Sojourner Ahébée is a 2016 BOSP Continuation International Fellow for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. She is currently serving as the Paris intern for the Wells International Foundation.

Read more of Sojourner's work at Sojourner Ahébée.

Additional reading about Beauford and Larry Calcagno:
Beauford and Larry Calcagno
Larry Calcagno's Portrait of Beauford

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