“Keep the faith and trust in so far as possible. Love humility and don’t mind the insinuations that cause sorrow…and loneliness and limitations. We learn self-reliance and to hear the voice of God, too…and how to…not break but bend gently. Learning to love is learning to suffer deeply and with quietness.” Beauford Delaney
Beauford Delaney was a sensitive soul, a lonely person and a great painter. He was as American artist from Knoxville, Tennessee. Went to Boston to study art and then moved to Harlem in 1929. Delaney struggled like others because of the Depression. He was able to make a living in several jobs — bellhop and then telephone operator, doorman, caretaker and janitor. Delaney was uncomfortable with his homosexuality. Felt like an outcast because of his race, sexuality but also religious convictions that was held in the Black community.
Expatriate? 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…. One must belong before one may then not belong. Beauford Delaney
As Delaney entered into his mature period, he became a well-established part of both Harlem and Greenwich Village, where he kept his studio. He was a minor celebrity and bohemian staple in both the gay and black communities, yet he kept these different parts of his life completely compartmentalized. On one hand, he mixed with flamboyant and sexually free Greenwich Village personalities including lifelong friend Henry Miller and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as gallery owner Darthea Speyer. The flamboyant Speyer, who was crucial to rejuvenating Paris as a cultural centre, said of him: “For many years, the sparkle of his gaze shone around him and attracted a crowd of friends, fascinated by this strong, if silent, presence. It was not his discourse that captivated, but a light that emanated from him and permeated everyone.” He also interacted with Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, and Stuart Davis and carried on conversations and experiments that influenced his move into a more modern style.
Delaney also became a respected elder of the Harlem Renaissance crowd. His intimate portraits from this period show his beliefs of love, respect and equality between all people. In this time he became a “spiritual father” to writer James Baldwin; a rare kindred spirit who was both African American and gay. Delaney’s biographer David Leeming observes, ”’He kept his life in compartments – sex with whites but not with blacks, sex with temporary acquaintances and not with friends, safe politics with most whites, strong race identification with blacks. . . . His black friends knew little of his white friends; his gay friends knew little of his straight ones.” Those compartments ”gradually became voices that argued with each other and taunted their host.”
While socially Delaney’s life was bifurcated, his art was similarly difficult to categorize. Like many Harlem Renaissance artists, Delaney was interested in African Art and how it might offer new guidance for contemporary art, but he was equally interested in the vibrant experiments with abstraction propelled by European influences. His thickly impastoed canvases celebrated the city landscape and the people who inhabited it.
By the 1950s, Delaney was increasingly battling his inner demons. In 1951, writer Brooks Atkinson noted, “No one knows exactly how Beauford lives. Pegging away at a style of painting that few people understand or appreciate, he has disciplined himself, not only physically but spiritually, to live with a kind of personal magnetism in a barren world.” While deeply appreciated within the small and marginal circles in New York, Delaney’s personal struggles and being black and gay in a racist and homophobic society often isolated him from achieving more mainstream success.
In 1953, at the age of 52, Delaney left New York for Paris. He saw Paris as somewhere he could escape the pressures of America, and gain greater freedom, as Paris was a much friendlier place for African Americans at the time. It was also where his most loved painters had flourished: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Monet. While continuing with some figurative compositions in his already Impressionist influenced style, in Paris Delaney took his love of color and light to a new extreme, creating far more abstract works. These late abstract works, despite coinciding with the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, came from a completely different standpoint: universal expression of the joys of inner light and colour from a man who saw beauty in the world despite his inner suffering.
In Paris, Delaney continued his friendships with James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, who had also gone to Paris to escape the racism of the U.S. and to find greater freedom. It was here that Delaney became close friends with another influential visual artist, Lawrence Calcagno. A white, abstract landscape artist from Northern California, it was an unlikely pairing when the two met in Paris. Yet the two men grew to share a close artistic bond, tied by their shared belief in the spiritual nature of painting and abstraction. They also became close personal friends, writing hundreds of letters to each other over Delaney’s later years, after Calcagno left Paris to return to America. In these letters, Delaney is at his most vulnerable and open, as he felt with a kindred spirit. Letter writing became an important source of comfort and communication for Delaney, in an almost spiritual manner. In 1959, he wrote: “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.”
Sadly, just as his abstract work in Paris was gaining more prominence, in the 1960s Delaney’s mental health problems and heavy drinking began to take their toll. Periods of lucidity would be interrupted with madness, paranoia, and hallucinations. He was pursued by the “voices of despair” which had plagued him all his life.
The assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King throughout the 1960s were a deep emotional blow to Delaney, and he was no longer able to be involved in civil rights work as much as he wished.
In 1972, to celebrate Henry Miller’s 80th birthday in Paris, Miller invited a small group of friends to the American Cultural centre to exhibit their works. Many of Delaney’s friends saw him for the first time in many years; he showed his late portraits of Jean Genet and of Miller himself. Delaney sat by his works, and as young people came by and praised them, he dispensed words of wisdom, saying: “You are planting a seed. Give it time…and that seed will mature and flower”.
James Baldwin particularly began to worry about his friend, but despite his best efforts Beauford Delaney was eventually committed to St. Anne’s Hospital for the Insane in Paris. In 1979, he passed away there. He was mourned by friends around the world. James Baldwin said of Delaney, “I do know that great art can only be created out of love, and that no greater lover has ever held a brush.”
Text excerpts from Art Story