New York

Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 19 1/2".

Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 19 1/2".

Beauford Delaney

Levis Fine Art

Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 19 1/2".

This was the first exhibition of Beauford Delaney’s work in New York since a solo presentation at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2002, and it couldn’t have been more timely. In his lifetime (1901–1979), Delaney’s uneasy oscillation between abstract and figurative modes of painting was probably pretty hard for viewers to wrap their heads around; these days it’s almost par for the course. He was passionately championed by literary lions such as James Baldwin (for whom he was something of a father figure) and Henry Miller, but his place in the history of art still seems uncertain. Yet as time goes on, the quality of his work grows clearer. Perhaps it was just Delaney’s bad luck to be a contemporary of the likes of Newman, Rothko, and de Kooning; in an era enamored with the big canvas and the big gesture, neither one was his style. Although many of his abstract works approximate monochromy, in his case the production of “a tightly covered, evenly and heavily textured rectangle of paint” did not, as Clement Greenberg had predicted it should, foment a “crisis of the easel picture.” For Delaney, it seems, the process of fixing a dense mass of materialized light on a relatively modest-size rectangle—the largest works here were roughly fifty-seven by forty-five inches—required intense concentration, something that was essential to what is most striking about his abstractions: In these works, a phenomenon that is purely and gloriously one of the senses alone—the evocation of light through color—is imbued with a sense of intense subjectivity, of aching inwardness. The intensity that comes with Delaney’s small scale was his hedge against the monotony and decorativeness that Greenberg saw as the risks of allover painting.

This inwardness is conveyed above all by the exquisite sense of touch with which Delaney built up his dazzling surfaces—a touch that was as far from that of de Kooning slugging it out with a housepainter’s brush as it was from Rothko’s evanescent strokes effacing themselves in a nebulous blur (though a gorgeous orange and red gouache from 1963 shows just how close, at times, Delaney’s palette could get to Rothko’s). The complexity of the marks’ layering allows for the appearance of the phenomenon described in the title of one ca. 1963 painting, Light Seeping Through, which features a kind of melting green calligraphy soaked into a yellow and orange ground. Given Delaney’s attraction to the yellow/orange slice of the spectrum, it is hard not to have van Gogh’s sunflowers somewhere in the back of one’s mind as one absorbs his paintings’ energy. Also like van Gogh, Delaney maintained a fierce openness to the force of color, which comes across as a measure of personal vulnerability.

In Delaney’s portraits, that vulnerability can be exposed to an almost embarrassing degree; to what extent the painter also found it in his subjects is an open question. In a 1967 portrait of the composer Howard Swanson—best known for his song settings of Langston Hughes’s poetry—the subject’s head seems forced out of the swirling pigment of one of Delaney’s yellow abstractions, a result of the artist’s sheer determination to wrestle it into visibility. Yet the glaring luminosity of the surround no longer seems solar, as in the abstractions, but sallow and somehow toxic, and one feels that Swanson’s wide-staring eyes are those of a victim of this unhappy illumination.

Barry Schwabsky