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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Untitled, 1959: Finding the Light

By Hanna Gressler

If you compare a painting by Beauford from the 1920s with a painting by him from the 1950s and onward, there is a chance you may think the paintings come from two different artists. The older he became, and the more art he produced, the more Beauford moved toward abstraction.

In the 1930s, Beauford found himself heavily influenced by the French artist Henri Matisse, whose use of saturated colors and distorted spaces inspired Beauford’s own artwork. Paris was the perfect city to allow Beauford to indulge his passion in modern art as he frequented galleries and studios in La Rive Gauche and looked at Greco-Roman sculpture at the Musée du Louvre. In this culturally artistic environment, Beauford’s painting style matured and flourished as he developed a new sense of color and space.

We can see this flourish of color and space in Untitled, from 1959. Dark shades of green, blue, and purple outline this painting. The colors then become lighter as they move across the canvas - a clear white and bright yellow - creating an inward movement toward the center of the painting.

(1959) Oil on canvas
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

As a viewer, your gaze is immediately drawn to this center of white and yellow, whose light seems to be swallowing the darkness of the colors around the painting, suggesting the image of a black hole. But instead of a black hole infused with darkness, this hole is infused with light, and we must enter into it in order to discover what we become on the other side.

This inward movement of the bright colors also suggests a sense of home, the image of a womb in which the light of life exists. The viewer feels a desire to return to this home, where she can be lulled by the painting’s “gentle blue and darling yellow.”

The brush strokes of the painting, Untitled, are also particular in their loose and musical style. Instead of serving to fill up bodies of space with the color, the brush strokes form spiral-like bodies of their own. Across the canvas, the white colored strokes develop a lyrical aspect as they form shapes akin to letters, as if they are trying to speak to the viewer.

These white bodies of color hold a mystery the viewer must solve in order to see past them and become engulfed by the bright yellow in the background. The sun-pierced yellow holds a spiritual power as it evokes the spirit Helios, providing a sense of holiness. In fact, each color contains a symbolic meaning.

It is Beauford’s combination of colors in this painting that creates a personal narrative and informs the imagination of the viewer. The inward movement created by the bright white and yellow colors pull the viewer toward a place she can call home, a place of light and rebirth, resulting in a sense of regeneration and redemption.

Throughout his entire life, Beauford was forced to face racism and homophobia, two potent forms of social rejection. In his more abstract paintings, Beauford paints his escape from this rejection, flying toward colors of light with the same movement as his brush strokes. The energy in his paintings comes from the visible and invisible interactions that happen between the many shapes and colors. These interactions evoke a universal spirituality that allows the viewer to look inside herself and discover that she is her own source of light and power.

Hanna Gressler is a rising senior at the American University of Paris. She is serving as a 2017 summer intern for the Wells International Foundation.

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