New York

Beauford Delaney, James Baldwin, 1967, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄4 × 31 3⁄4".

Beauford Delaney, James Baldwin, 1967, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄4 × 31 3⁄4".

Beauford Delaney

With their intimate scale and close cropping, the nineteen late-career portraits at the center of this small Beauford Delaney survey seemed to conjure up the individuals who surrounded the artist in his adopted home of Paris. Simply composed, paintings such as Untitled (Portrait of a Young Man), ca. 1963, in which a brown-skinned model is set within a background of brilliant-yellow impasto, indicate that portraiture was Delaney’s mode for luscious experimentation with rich color and thickly applied paint. The man’s unguarded expression, an essential feature of the most captivating of these works, also called forth the making of the piece and spurred one to think that Delaney (1901–1979) must have cultivated an intimate rapport with his sitters. Markedly different from the artist’s earlier paintings of street scenes, still lifes, and portraits from his years in New York at the Art Students League in the 1930s, these works—all of men, save one of the artist’s late mother—evidenced his singular late style and the ways in which he conveyed his own experience of a given subject in a portrait.

The trajectory of Delaney’s painting is inseparable from the course of his biography. Born into an African American family in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was the child of a mother who was a slave during the last months of the Civil War. He attended segregated schools but was able to take lessons from Lloyd Branson, a white artist, who helped him move to Boston in the early 1920s to pursue classical training. Relocating to New York immediately following the 1929 Wall Street crash, he settled in Greenwich Village, where he worked for two decades. In pieces from these years, such as Presence (Irene Rose), 1944, the intensity of Delaney’s later portraits is not yet in evidence, though his affectionate portrayal of his friend and patron foreshadowed the primacy of his connection with his subjects in the following decades.

In 1953, he moved to Paris. As this exhibition demonstrated, the new environment proved transformative. A long-standing interest in Claude Monet’s experiments with light bore fruit once Delaney was settled in France, as he undertook total abstraction for the first time. While Composition Peinture (aka Light Blue to Gold Abstraction), ca. 1958—filled with short strokes of color that swirled around the canvas—was the strongest of the six examples on view, in general they read as transitional territory, full of developments and techniques that come to full bloom in the portraits. The way the approach crystallized was apparent in a work such as Bernard Hassell, ca. 1963, which portrayed a dancer who was friends with both Delaney and James Baldwin. In this piece, the model’s striking features were framed by large swaths of the composition—Hassell’s background and shirt—made up of multicolored abstract fields. Pushing the abstraction yet further, the 1967 portrait of Baldwin (the latest of three that depicted the writer in the show) featured the figure traced solely in outline, now completely integrated with the dappled-yellow Impressionistic ground. As Delaney described it, abstraction offered a means for getting more of his subjective observations onto the canvas. In his words, it allowed him “a penetration of something that is more profound in many ways than the rigidity of a form.”

As a Black gay man, Delaney poignantly described his relationship to the country of his birth. When asked if he was an expatriate, he replied, “It appears to me that in order to be an expatriate one has to be, in some manner, driven from one’s fatherland, from one’s native land. When I left the United States during the 1950s no such condition was left behind. One must belong before one may then not belong. I belong here in Paris. I am able to realize myself here.” As the frankness and lucidity of the Paris portraits suggest, the break from the constraints of the known and the familiar—and from a nation that never truly felt like home—proved decisive in Delaney’s work. Indeed, the change engendered for him the possibility of shedding the influence of his American contemporaries. It cracked open his approach to both form and technique and led to the expansive and unencumbered expression of his perceptions on the canvas.