“[I have] worked terribly hard here in Europe and much has sundered and exploded, but now it coalesces with lava-like smoke and fluid color, sometimes a veritable flame, other times subdued essences… yes, I am again painting in my old feeling – tense, difficult, but compulsive, and I love it.” —Beauford Delaney, 1964
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is proud to present a solo exhibition of abstract works by Beauford Delaney (1901–1979) at Frieze Masters 2021 in the Spotlight section curated by Laura Hoptman, Executive Director of The Drawing Center. Internationally recognized within the canon of twentieth-century master painters, Delaney began working in abstraction after relocating to Paris in 1953, where a new sense of creative license propelled his art in an entirely non-objective direction. Notably, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s presentation constitutes the first solo exhibition of Delaney’s work in the United Kingdom. Comprising nine works on canvas dating from c.1959 to 1965 and twenty-two works on paper dating from 1960 to 1968, the exhibition constitutes a survey of the artist’s body of abstractions, succinctly embodying the singular vision of the artist’s late career.
An extraordinary colorist whose style progressed from figurative expressionism to lyrical abstraction, Delaney was born to a large family in Knoxville, Tennessee, where his father was a Methodist Episcopal preacher. Delaney’s artistic abilities were encouraged by his mother and, when he was in high school, his principal brought Delaney’s talent to the attention of local artist Lloyd Branson, who became an important mentor to the young artist. In 1923, Delaney left Knoxville for Boston, Massachusetts where he attended studio art classes. The young artist also enthusiastically frequented the city’s museums, where he first became familiar with the work of impressionist painters, particularly Claude Monet. In 1929, Delaney moved to New York City, where he found work in the dance studio of Billy Pierce and began composing portraits of the studio’s dancers and socialite clientele. The following year, the Whitney Studio Galleries (now the Whitney Museum of American Art) included a selection of the artist’s portraits in a group exhibition. Delaney’s work received critical attention and, later that year, the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library mounted Delaney’s first solo show, Exhibit of Portrait Sketches by Beauford Delaney.
Delaney soon found more lucrative work with the mural division of the Federal Art Project (a New Deal program sponsored by the Works Progress Administration). In 1936, Delaney began attending the salons held in Charles Alston’s Harlem studio, which served as a center for the most creative minds in the neighborhood; regulars included Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage, Romare Bearden, and Robert Blackburn. While he consistently participated in the Harlem art scene, Delaney remained closely connected to the bohemian Greenwich Village community, forming lasting friendships with writers and artists such as Henry Miller, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and Al Hirschfeld. Throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s, Delaney created portraits, still lifes, street scenes, and modernist interiors executed with a dense impasto, undulating lines, and bright colors reminiscent of the fauvist tradition—a body of work now known as the “Greene Street” paintings (Delaney lived and worked at 181 Greene Street from 1936 until 1952). Though he was accepted into select circles of New York’s elite artists and intellectuals, he continued to experience marginalization because of his race, class, and sexuality.
In September 1953, Delaney followed in the footsteps of his dear friend James Baldwin and left New York City for Paris, settling in Montparnasse. In 1954, his work is included in the ninth Salon des Réalités Nouvelles at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris and, the following year, he had his first European solo show at Galería Clan in Madrid. Delaney moved to the Paris suburb of Clamart in December 1955 where, feeling a new sense of freedom from racial and sexual biases, he focused on creating non-objective abstractions. These works consist of elaborate, fluid swirls of paint applied in luminous hues, constituting pure, concentrated expressions of light. While his abstractions have clear ties to Monet’s studies of light, Delaney’s works are decidedly expressionist: the light Delaney sought to capture was not the actual light of day, but a transcendent, eternal, spiritual light. These works were first exhibited in a solo exhibition at Galerie Paul Facchetti in 1960. In the months following the show, Delaney experienced economic distress and severe psychiatric difficulties in the form of paranoia and depression, which led to a suicide attempt in 1961. After a slow recovery period, Delaney began work on a series of abstract works he referred to as his “Rorschach tests,” paintings where, as curator Joyce Henri Robinson writes, light is “enshrouded or overwhelmed, struggling to hold the forces of darkness at bay.”
In 1962, Delaney moved to a studio at 53 Rue Vercingétorix in the Montparnasse district of Paris, where he continued to produce abstractions alongside a stirring series of portraits, scenes of Paris, and landscapes of the French countryside he often visited. Despite financial and psychological hardship, Delaney continued to work, exhibit, and live in Paris, enjoying a string of successful exhibitions throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. He was honored by the Centre Culturel Américain in Paris in 1969 and, in 1973, Galerie Darthea Speyer mounted a major solo exhibition of his portraits and abstractions. In 1978 The Studio Museum in Harlem mounted the artist’s first institutional retrospective, organized by scholar Richard A. Long. Delaney died on March 26, 1979, in Saint-Anne Hospital in Paris following several years of hospitalization for mental illness. Since his death, Delaney’s oeuvre has been consistently championed by leading curators and art historians seeking to preserve his legacy, resulting in several important monographs and exhibitions demonstrating Delaney’s prescient, singular vision.
Delaney is represented in major museum collections across the US and Europe, including the Art Institute of Chicago (IL); Brooklyn Museum of Art (NY); Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris); Chrysler Museum of Art (Norfolk, VA); Detroit Institute of Arts (MI); High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA); Knoxville Museum of Art (TN; The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts (Lausanne, Switzerland); Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA); Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC); Philadelphia Museum of Art (PA); San Francisco Museum of Art (CA); Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC); The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York, NY); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond); Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN); and Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY).
Currently on view at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York: Be Your Wonderful Self: The Portraits of Beauford Delaney, open through November 13, 2021.
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC is Special Advisor and Representative of the Estate of Beauford Delaney.