Weekly Update – Delaney’s Embrace

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Today’s Weekly includes my short review of the great Beauford Delaney exhibit at the PMA. Here’s the link to the art page and below is the article. And here’s Libby’s post on the show. (image is one of Delaney’s Washington Square images. Click the image to see it larger. There are four more images you can see larger on my flickr site.)
Beau’s Monde

Beauford Delaney’s paintings, with their vibrant colors and thick-as-icing paint, are complete seductions. I didn’t want to leave the warmth of their embrace, one that’s sun-kissed and rhythmic like Matisse, mystical like van Gogh and sensuous like de Kooning. This is a painter’s painter, and I wondered why I knew so little about him.


Delaney, now featured in the exhibit “Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was an important African-American artist who expatriated to Paris in 1953. A gay man, he was connected to many literati and artists of his day. He was a seminal influence on the writer James Baldwin, 23 years his junior, whom he befriended and who in turn cared for Delaney in his old age. (untitled painting from 1947. he was schooled in art but look at that symbol-laden, outsider-y ebullience)

His works are in many important collections, including the PMA, but as curator of modern art Michael Taylor said at the press preview, “He’s an artist worth knowing who hasn’t been given his due.”

Delaney was schooled in Boston and moved to New York in 1929. He knew the works of the masters and was hooked into the contemporary scene in New York. You can feel those influences on his work, but Delaney was no mimic-his paintings are unique, imbued with joy and an outsider’s ferocity.


What transforms them are the artist’s glorious colors and his formidable compositions. His portraits, street scenes and abstract works feel like they poured out whole-perfect translations of the artist’s inner visions. (“Distant Horizons,” a painting made before the artist emigrated to France. Sold to raise money for the journey. The collector who bought it kept it all his life, Curator Taylor said.)

Delaney’s portraits are especially powerful. His Portrait of Canada Lee fractures the boxer-turned-actor’s bare arms into fields of red, green and purple. Yellow was a color of cosmic connections for the artist, and Lee sits, a brooding and beatific god, before a field of golden yellow. It’s a simple but amazing depiction.


The PMA has enhanced the traveling show, which originated in Minneapolis, with works from its own collection including the iconic Portrait of James Baldwin, and with works and documentation from Delaney’s 1947 Philadelphia exhibit at the African-American social club the Pyramid Club. (image is another Washington Square painting. This one strikes me as a take on Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”)

The mainstream art world, with its mostly white tastemakers, often overlooks great art. This show should help place Delaney’s star in the art firmament where it belongs.

“Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris”
Through Jan. 29. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th St. and the Pkwy. 215.763.8100.

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