THE CREATIVITY of Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) flourished in New York City and Paris. An exhibition at his hometown museum brings attention to a pivotal relationship that thrived in parallel. “Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door” at the Knoxville Museum of Art explores the nearly four-decade relationship between Delaney and James Baldwin (1924-1987), and sheds light on “the ways their ongoing intellectual exchange shaped one another’s creative output and worldview.”

Presenting more than 50 paintings, works on paper, and archival materials, including photographs, sketchbooks, and notebooks, many displayed publicly for the first time, the exhibition visualizes and further examines the connection between the artist and writer documented in several publications over the years.

(The Knoxville Museum of Art is temporarily closed until further notice, due to the COVID-19 virus.)

 


James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney, Paris, circa 1960. | Photographer anonymous. Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator

 

Born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1901, Delaney studied art in Boston and moved to New York City in 1929, where he met Baldwin. Known for his figuration and portraits (many of Baldwin), Delaney began transitioning to abstraction in 1950. He spent time at the Yaddo art colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., traveled to Europe for the first time, initially to Rome, and then to Paris in 1953, where he settled and lived for the rest of his life.

Baldwin went to Paris, too, and the expats continued what the museum calls their “mutually beneficial engagement.” Each struggled with the frustration and barriers of their sexual identity. The elder Delaney served as father figure and mentor to Baldwin. In turn, Baldwin’s commitment to civil rights and forceful articulation of the array injustices black Americans endured, enriched Delaney’s conscience and outlook.

Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin’s mother left his drug-abusing biological father before he was born. She later married a Baptist preacher who raised the author, treating him harshly. In “James Baldwin: A Biography,” David Leeming characterizes the connection between Baldwin and Delaney who first met in 1940, when the writer was a high school student:

    In Beauford Delaney, then in his thirties, Baldwin found what he was looking for. In fact, he found the person who can probably be called the most important influence in his life. Delaney had the capacity and the inclination to give him something his stepfather or for that matter his mother or Orilla Miller or his other favorite teachers, even Countee Cullen, could not have given him. When Beauford looked through that skinny boy on his doorstep he saw a kindred spirit where Mr. Baldwin, as far as his stepson was concerned, had seen an aberration. Jimmy was not yet fully aware of his own homosexuality or of the demands of his vocation, and Beauford, himself a homosexual, a minister’s son, and an artist was there, as a father in art, to help this younger version of himself through a crucial passage.

    From the beginning the young Baldwin sensed a natural connection with Beauford Delaney. He sensed that when he observed him he was really seeing himself as well. Here was a black man, an artist, an outsider, somehow a later version of himself. It was as if Jimmy had found his long-lost father. Beauford was not his father, but he treated the boy like a son. From that first day the man and the boy trusted and believed in each other. Later Baldwin would say of Beauford that he was from the beginning until the last “my principal witness.”

 


“Dark Rapture” (1941) is the first portrait Beauford Delany painted of James Baldwin. According to Delaney biographer David Leeming, the artist painted 10 or 12 portraits of the writer, between 1941 and the mid-1970s. Shown, BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Dark Rapture (James Baldwin),” 1941 (oil on Masonite, 34 x 28 inches). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

 

THE TITLE OF THE EXHIBITION, “Through the Unusual Door,” is taken from a reference in “The Price of the Ticket” (1985), a collection of essays written by Baldwin between 1948 and 1985. The author first met Delaney in the doorway of his Greenwich Village studio at 181 Greene Street. Baldwin said he was 15. They were separated in age by 23 years. In a passage in the autobiographical introduction to the book, Baldwin writes about the encounter:

    I was terrified, once I had climbed those stairs and knocked on that door. A short, round brown man came to the door and looked at me. He had the most extraordinary eyes I’d ever seen. When he had completed his instant X-ray of my brain, lungs, liver, heart, bowels, and spinal column (while I had said, usefully, “Emile sent me,” [Emile Capouya, his DeWitt Clinton High School “running buddy”]) he smiled and said, “Come in,” and opened the door.

    He opened the door all right.

    Lord, I was to hear Beauford sing, later, and for many years, open the unusual door. My running buddy had sent me to the right one, and not one moment too soon.

    I walked through that door into Beauford’s colors—on the easel, on the palette, against the wall—sometimes turned to the wall—and sometimes (in limbo?) covered by white sheets. It was a small studio (but it didn’t seem small) with a black pot-bellied stove somewhere near the two windows. I remember two windows, there may have been only one: there was a fire escape which Beauford, simply by his presence, had transformed, transmuted into the most exclusive terrace in Manhattan or Bombay.

Three weeks after Baldwin died in 1987, Maya Angelous wrote about her “friend and brother” in The Los Angeles Times. Referring to his passage in “The Price of the Ticket,” she said: “Thus, Baldwin describes meeting and being met by Beauford Delaney, the provocative black American painter who was to enlarge and enrich Baldwin’s life. Baldwin’s description of Delaney fitted Baldwin as well. For he, too, was small and brown and had the most extraordinary eyes.”

The Knoxville Museum of Art describes the exhibition as the first to examine “in any depth the creative exchange between the two” and contends that Delaney’s embrace of abstraction was inspired in part by his “intellectual and personal” relationship with Baldwin.

In “Amazing Grace: The Life of Beauford Delaney” Leeming wrote about the everyday experiences that connected Delaney and Baldwin and fed the artist’s perspective and production:

    Baldwin always said that Beauford taught him to respond to life as an artist—to look for truth and reality where others could not see it. He often told the story of how on one of their frequent walks through Greenwich Village, Beauford one day told him to look at the water in the gutter. At first the boy saw nothing, but Beauford—like a Zen master—said “Look again,” and this time Baldwin saw a film of oil in the water and noticed the way it distorted and made remarkable to buildings reflected in it. In later years Baldwin said the lesson had to do with complex vision, with learning to be willing to find what the artist has to find in ugliness, even in one’s own ugliness. Ultimately Beauford’s lesson was that “what one cannot or will not see, says something about you.”
 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Scattered Light,” 1964 (oil on canvas, 39 x 24 inches). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Knoxville Museum of Art, 2015 purchase with funds provided by the Rachael Patterson Young Art Acquisition Reserve. Photographed by Bruce Cole

 

EARLY ON, DELANEY INTRODUCED BALDWIN to a new way of seeing his surroundings and feeling music. In his biography of Baldwin, Leeming wrote: “Beauford taught his protégé to react to life as an artist. Light and music, for Baldwin, became synonymous with Beauford: ‘The reality of his seeing caused me to begin to see.'” In “Amazing Grace,” he further explained:

    A part of what Beauford taught his pupil involved music. He introduced him to classical music and also to the kind of music that the church elders for who young Baldwin preached associated with sin and degradation. Beauford taught Baldwin that the blues and boogie woogie and jazz were as “sacred” as the gospel music they both knew and loved in church; he told him about secular music that held the soul together—especially the souls of black folk. After a few months, Baldwin and Beauford would sit by the old Victrola, whose cover Beauford had painted, and sing with Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and even Paul Robeson—Beauford in his deep baritone voice. Baldwin in his soft tenor. Beauford also took Baldwin to galleries and concerts and introduced him to his friends—to Palmer Hayden, Ellis Wilson, his brother Joe, to Theodore Upshure, Teddy Wilson, and many others. These were all successful African Americans, role models for a boy who many months before had thought himself worthless and without hope of success. One night Beauford took Baldwin to hear Marian Anderson, and after the performance they went backstage to meet the singer. On their way home Beauford could talk of nothing but Anderson’s “smoky yellow gown” in relation to her “copper and tan” skin and the red roses scattered about the dressing room. When some time later Beauford painted the portrait he had “fixed in mind” that night, he told Baldwin he painted it for him.

The arc of their relationship is illustrated in the awe Baldwin experienced upon first meeting Delaney and his recollection nearly two decades later of how the artist came to regard him and the agency he achieved using the power of his voice and words. In “Amazing Grace” Leeming wrote:

“Baldwin realized that to Beauford he represented the black man and the homosexual speaking out for him and others against white and sexual tyranny while he—Beauford—depended on white patronage to survive. Baldwin was Beauford’s hope—’the spiritual heir, the son, the lover, the friend’ who did what he wished he could have done. All that was important now was to make him less ‘miserable’ (JB undated to Mary Painter, summer 1958).”

Leeming wrote biographies of Baldwin and Delaney. In the preface to “Amazing Grace he recounted his introduction to Delaney. “I met Beauford Delaney in the summer of 1966,” he wrote. “I was sent by James Baldwin for whom I was working at the time, to bring him from Paris to Istanbul. My meeting with Beauford, the ensuing journey, and the weeks with him in Turkey change my life and made this biography somehow inevitable. It was impossible to spend time with Beauford Delaney without becoming aware that his was a profound and complex story.”

 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Portrait of James Baldwin,” 1944 (pastel on paper, 24 x 18 3/4 inches). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Knoxville Museum of Art, 2017 purchase with funds provided by the Rachael Patterson Young Art Acquisition Reserve. Photographed by Bruce Cole

 

THE KNOXVILLE MUSEUM OF ART holds the largest collection of Delaney materials. The current exhibition follows “Gathering Light: Works by Beauford Delaney from the KMA Collection,” which was presented by the museum in 2017, and “Joseph Delaney: On the Move” in 2018.

“Through the Unusual Door” presents Delaney works drawn from public and private collections and also showcases the museum’s own holdings, including a 1944 portrait of Baldwin. Four years after Delaney met the young writer, he painted “Portrait of James Baldwin,” depicting him surrounded by a symbolic ring of light and “the most extraordinary eyes” to which Angelou would later refer.

Emotionally incapacitated, Delaney died in a Paris asylum in 1979. Six years later, Baldwin penned a candid and heartfelt epitaph to Delaney in “The Price of the Ticket”:

“Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility, and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.” CT

 

“Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door” is on veiw at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tenn., Feb. 7-May 10, 2020. In order to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Knoxville Museum of Art is temporarily closed. Check directly with the museum for scheduling updates

 

BOOKSHELF
A fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition. “Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door” features contributions by Mary Campbell, a professor of art history at the University of Tennessee, whose research focuses on James Baldwin, Beauford Delaney, and the Civil Rights Movement; artist Glenn Ligon, who is particularly knowledgable about Baldwin’s writings and Delaney’s art; Levi Prombaum, a curatorial assistant at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, whose doctoral research examined Delaney’s portraits of James Baldwin; and Stephen Wicks, the Knoxville Museum of Art curator who organized the exhibition and has led the institution’s effort to build the largest and most comprehensive collection dedicated to the work of Beauford Delaney. David Leeming has written biographies of both the artist and the author. “Amazing Grace: Life of Beauford Delaney” was published in 1998 and “James Baldwin: A Biography” was released in 1994.

 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Untitled,” 1947 (oil on masonite). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of Dolly J. Fiterman

 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald,” 1968 (oil on canvas, 24 x 19.5 inches). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Permanent collection of SCAD Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. Walter O. Evans and Linda J. Evans, Photograph courtesy of SCAD

 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Untitled (New York City),” circa 1945 (watercolor on paper, 15 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Knoxville Museum of Art, 2014 purchase with funds provided by the KMA’s Collectors Circle. Photograph by Bruce Cole

 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Abstraction #12,” 1963 (oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 38 1/2 inches). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Knoxville Museum of Art. Photographed by Bruce Cole

 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Untitled (Yellow, Red, and Black Circles for James Baldwin, Istanbul),” 1966 (watercolor and gouache on paper, 25 5/8 x 19 inches). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Knoxville Museum of Art. Photographed by Bruce Cole

 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Charlie Parker,” 1968 (oil on canvas). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Memorial Art Gallery of the University Rochester; Maurice R. and Maxine B. Forman Fund, Herdle Fund, Lyman K. and Eleanore B. Stuart Endowment Fund, Marion Stratton Gould Fund, and the Estate of Susan B. Schilling

 


BEAUFORD DELANEY (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), “Yaddo,” 1950 (pastel on paper). | © Estate of Beauford Delaney, Knoxville by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Knoxville Museum of Art, 2017 purchase with funds provided by the Rachael Patterson Young Art Acquisition Reserve

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is a solo editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.