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Beauford Delaney: Liquid Light, Paris Abstractions, 1954-1970

September 10 – October 30, 1999


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Like many African-American artists living in the United States during the early twentieth century, Beauford Delaney moved to Europe, and specifically Paris, to pursue his artistic career. Living and working in a city free of racial discrimination and social pressures to pursue realism, Delaney had the freedom to explore abstraction.

Beauford Delaney, born in Knoxville, Tennessee, studied with a local artist before moving in 1923 to Boston to study classical technique at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, the Copley Society, and the South Boston School of Art. In Boston, Delaney was exposed to black activist politics by associating with some of the most radical African-Americans of the time, including Countee Cullen and William Monroe Trotter. In 1929, Delaney moved to New York City and began painting strong representational portraits of members of the New York elite and notables such as Marion Anderson, Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington. In 1930, Delaney studied at the Art Students League with John Sloan and Thomas Hart Benton and met among others Richmond Barthé, Charles Alston and James A. Porter. Interested in all the arts including poetry and jazz, Delaney formed life-long friendships with James Baldwin, Palmer Hayden, Al Hirshfeld, Henry Miller, Alfred Steiglitz and Ellis Wilson. Delaney’s paintings of the 1940s and early 1950s consist largely of modernist interiors and street scenes, executed in impasto with broad areas of vibrant colors.

In 1953, Delaney left New York and his "Greene Street" studio and traveled to Europe where he settled in Paris. Feeling free of racial and sexual biases, Delaney expanded his painting vocabulary and began creating lyrical, colorful non-objective abstractions. These paintings, consisting of elaborate and fluid swirls of paint applied in luminous hues, are pure and simplified expressions of light; the essence of Delaney’s art. For Delaney abstraction was "the penetration of something that is more profound in many ways than the rigidity of a form." In 1978, The Studio Museum in Harlem organized his first major retrospective exhibition which included his abstractions and portraits completed in Paris. A 1968 recipient of a National Council of the Arts Grant, Delaney’s work is included in numerous museum collections including The Art Institute, Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The National Museum of American Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1979, Delaney died in Paris while hospitalized for mental illness.