Conversations With Beauford

On entering the Levis Fine Art gallery on West 24th Street in Manhattan a few weeks ago, I felt the selfish sense of an ideal timing in that I was visiting Beauford to say hello somewhere around 4pm on a Thursday evening, happy in the absence of the typical bustle of a 6pm crowd that might have interrupted the conversation between Beauford and me. Manhattan galleries will often inundate your inbox with invitations for openings and exhibitions, only to grace your presence with that sense of ‘trespassing-snobbery.’   But at Levis Fine Art, it was different. 

Abstraction 2Jim Levis came out and met me.  I told him of my connections to Beauford Delaney and of my absolute pleasure in seeing the exhibit.  I also mentioned that I that I knew a Monique Wells in Paris.  He in turn extended a warm welcome and shared a few thoughts on what inspired him to recognize our friend with this wonderful exhibition, Beauford Delaney: Internal Light, which ended on June 15th at Levis Fine Arts on West 24th Street in Manhattan. 

It was my second visit to see a Beauford exhibition in as many months.  He had been featured prominently in the Whitney Museum’s Blues for Smoke exhibition earlier this year, though as part of a collective of great black artists.  At Levis however, this was solely a Beauford exhibit, and I had much to discuss with the man, Beauford that is.  While standing there, I thought of the many questions swirling in my head for so many years for Beauford regarding the legendary stories I had heard of his erratic behavior, and the odd yet sympathetic portrayal I had received from those who knew him, lived with him, and loved him but would never fully come to understand him.  Among those were Ed Clark and others, who used to recount to us of their days as artists in Paris in the ‘50s.


Beauford Delaney, of Knoxville Tennessee, was one of the great African American artists of the 20th century.  I have in the past described myself as a Beauford Delaney kid, loosely self-defined as spending a period of my life in the shadows of Beauford wherein on any given day Beauford might have occupied about a thousand of the average forty thousand thoughts that crossed my mind.   

As the US-based curator for artist Ealy Mays, Paris-based African American painter and ‘dauphin’ to the generation of Paris-based black painters of which Beauford Delaney was a member, I had come to know of Beauford Delaney from my days as a Paris resident in the mid 1990s, through my interactions with Mays while learning of the incredible legacy of black expatriate literary and artistic endeavors within the city walls.  This began my fascination with Delaney, a man whose life was seemingly as dark, as his work was bright.

Beauford Delaney’s was the other side of Paris; Not exactly Van Gogh’s trail of madness and brilliance through the south of France, but neither was it Henry O. Tanner’s genteel existence of solace found in painting religious images such as “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” “Return of the Holy Women,” or “The Resurrection of Lazarus.”  Tanner, like Delaney, was another kind and gentle but tortured soul.  Both were sensitive men who had fled the harsh Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States for the soft artistic shores of France, with Tanner leading the way a generation before Delaney. 

During my over ten years in Paris, I had also met and known many intensely talented artists who too were tortured souls.  So standing there in that gallery covered with Beauford’s work, I needed some answers, in particular to the question of the seemingly perfectly inversed relationship of the genius to the demented, and of its reconciliation soon or later with the bottle or some other form of drugs or anesthetic methods, intended to numb the pain. 

I was not going to wait to read the opinions of some disconnected art writer or of others with varying titles who are paid handsomely to vomit illustrious words per minute without ever having a single intimate moment with the man or having any knowledge of who he was.  This was not Rembrandt or Gaugin who lived a ‘thousand’ years ago and whose works are only to be found in major museums. 

This was a painter whose roommate had been a father figure for many of us in Paris for many years, and who had recounted as many Beauford stories to us over the years.  His other roommate was James Baldwin, one of the most pre-eminent black authors of the last century.  So Beauford is dear to us on so many levels.  I was therefore not at the gallery to examine brush strokes or contours, but instead I was there to look Beauford in the eye and ask of him, some of the many questions that had been on my mind for these many years. 

Was it true that he had attempted to throw himself into the Seine or into some other waterway in France a few times before actually being committed to a hospital for the insane? 

Was the use of ‘yellow’ and its many variants done in search of discovering a 4th primary color or was this his media, through which he could express himself and resonate color and light - his way of shining from within?  

How did he feel to see friends and fellow artists Harold Cousins, Ed Clark, Herbert Gentry, Romare Bearden, and many others receive such widespread recognition, acclaim, and fame, while he languished unrecognized for so many years? 

What was his reaction to his friend James Baldwin’s meteoric take off after returning to America in 1957 to participate in the civil rights struggle? 

Did he consider Baldwin’s friendship an important a factor in his life as history had recorded it, and did he feel that Baldwin had done enough for him in his darkest hours of need, as would have been expected of such a ‘dear’ friend and mentee? 

Most importantly, I wanted to ask Beauford if he was finally at peace and if he was happy with the new found recognition and dedication of recent years by galleries, collectors, scholars and even writers, such as Paris-based freelance writer Monique Wells who single handedly saved the destruction and possible desecration of his ‘about-to-be abandoned’ burial spot and created the “Les Amis de Beauford” foundation in Paris, solely dedicated to the preservation of the legacy and dignity of Beauford Delaney.

I did not need to ask him how he felt about the exhibition underway at Levis Fine Arts as I could feel his spirit throughout the hall, and I knew he was happy.  So I took the time to look Beauford in the eyes and pose my questions.  His answers were as varied as could be imagined, and where they were not too clear, I had to infer my own interpretations of the man in yellow.  He was no less complex than history had suggested, yet his genteel nature guided my interpretation of each and every painting within the gallery and deep into the soul of the man

His Life

In addition to being one of the great African American artists of the 20th century, Beauford Delaney was an early black abstract painter and an alumnus of the mid-century Paris club of black writers and painters, which boasted luminaries such as writers Richard Wright, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, Richard Gibson, William Gardner-Smith, cartoonist Ollie Harrington, and painters Romare Bearden, Harold Cousins, Herbert Gentry, Ed Clark, Lois Mailou-Jones, and many others. 

Paris became the destination for early black intellectuals as far back in the early 1840s when the Free
Abstraction 12People of Color
from the New Orleans area, while not slaves, were still not afforded the opportunities of education whites.   Most were offspring of a French father and a black mother, and names such as Michel Seligny, Victor Sejour, Armand Lanusse, Pierre Dalcour, Louise Lamothe, Adolphe Duhart, and Louis and Camille Thierry, headed to France to study.  Some of these African Americans intellectuals, such as Pierre Dalcour, shared the stage in France with legendary French writers like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

But history had never given much attention to their legacy in Paris.  The first true and widely covered black expatriation to France was that of legendary African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner later in 1891.  Tanner started the wider trend of black intellectuals settling in Paris, followed by Meta Vaux Warrick-Fuller at the turn of the century.  Horace Pippin was there during World War II.  Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Augusta Savage and William H. Johnson were there in the mid 1920s.  Hale Woodruff, Archibald Motley, and Palmer Hayden were there in the late 1920s, and Lois Mailou-Jones in the 1930s.   The crop of Bearden, Gentry, Clark, and Delaney then arrived later in mid century.  In other words, with the exception of Jacob Lawrence and a few others of the time, Paris was at the forefront of greatness in both 19th and 20th century African American art and literature, and Beauford Delaney was a part of this during a crucial period.

New York

After studying in Boston, the man from Knoxville Tennessee headed to New York in the shadows of the great depression.  Of those days, he recounted the following, "Went to New York in 1929 from Boston all alone with very little money…this was the depression, and I soon discovered that most of these people were people out of work and just doing what I was doing – sitting and figuring out what to do for food and a place to sleep." Beauford captured this mood by painting men seeking warmth standing around a burning garbage bin in Can Fire in The Park

On arriving in New York, he found himself in Greenwich Village, which by itself must have been an odd experience in an America of the 1930’s where color lines would have mandated Harlem as a more suitable destination for the black artist.  But even more striking was that at that very time of his arrival in New York in the late 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, and there would have been an absolute expectation of the migrating black artists or literati to descend upon Harlem.  But for Delaney it was Greenwich Village, an early indication of the caution exercised by a deeply introverted persona who also feared the Harlem scene where he might have risked being exposed as a gay black man.

This theme of his introversion is a constant one in speaking to those who knew him.  It is also a constant in most written accounts of his life.  In his 1951 book Once Around the Sun, Brooks Atkinson stated, "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."  Atkinson’s observation related in part to Beauford Delaney being an early abstract expressionist, a leap ahead of his time that was not then fully understood by many, including Brooks Atkinson himself.

Beauford would later find himself in the midst of the bohemian downtown scene, making friends with the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Renaissance luminary Countee Cullen, and writer Henry Miller, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship.  It was also in Greenwich Village, where a teenage James Baldwin made the acquaintance of Delaney, an encounter that Baldwin later described as “the first living proof for me, that a black man could be an artist.”  The two men would later find refuge in Paris, with Baldwin leading the way, at the invitation writer Richard Wright.  


Racism in America sent Beauford packing for France in 1953.  Many of the literature on his life points as well to a homosexuality that conflicted with his deep Christian values, for driving him from America.  This double indemnity, which was Baldwin’s dilemma as well, must have been too much to bear for the man with his own cross on his shoulders and with Jesus on the sideline looking on.  In 1950s America, the white gay community was as walled off from gay blacks as was the larger white society from the larger black community.  As for Christianity, many churches at that time would have more readily accepted heinous murderers in their midst than known gay black man. 

In Paris, Beauford would experience the Paris of the ‘fabulous ‘50s’ for the others, but not for himself.  He painted at L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière where he met and befriended Harold Cousins and Herbert Gentry.  But, again, it was his long friendship with Jimmy Baldwin that most framed his history, and this must have manifested itself both positively and negatively in one way or another, in Delaney’s torturous journey through life.  

His life was lived with kindness, care, pity, neglect, confusion, paranoia, a little schizophrenia, and a lot of pure genius.  Depression, isolation, exploitation, and religiously induced self-hatred for being born gay, drove the engine of torture that powered both dimensions of his extremes.  His work reflected bright colors and neon lights that shone through while his mood often emanated from a place of absolute darkness, with the gravitational pull of a black hole.  The artist manifested one wavelength while his art was of an entirely different genre. 

In physics we learn that with massive temperature increase past a few hundred degrees Celsius, black bodies start to emit visible wavelengths, appearing red, orange, yellow, blue and white.  In seeing Beauford Delaney’s work, one can imagine a similar internal increase in neurons, increase in electrons, heightened molecular stimulations to the brain, and near atomic spinning of particles to produce his serene light waves through mostly yellow textures with delicacies of time, place, moods, and circumstances. 

Internal turmoil enveloped the man while tranquility eased itself into every inch of his work and into much of his external interactions with others.  He painted many faces but it was through forceful and poignant construction of the eyes by which he often showed us the souls of his subjects.  At times, it was clear that he also channeled some of his own inner self into his subjects as well.  All who knew Beauford described him as a kind, sweet, and loving soul, albeit always in regretfully poignant tones.   “Poor ole Beauford,” they would say.

I have never read a book about Beauford Delaney, and my first intimate knowledge of the man came from stories Ed Clark told us during his many summer residencies at Cité des Arts in Paris in the 1990s through the early 2000s.  It was during this period that I came to learn of and be transfixed by the wealth of 19th and 20th century expatriate African American legacy in France.

Late in the ‘90s, Clark, who had kept Beauford Delaney’s paint box in a Paris locker for many years, then passed it on to his protégé and my friend, Ealy Mays.  By then the stories of Beauford had already become legendary to both Mays and I, who were effectively the co-recipients of many years of Delaney legends.  Many nights, after the crowd of a soiree or vernissage had dissipated, Ealy and I would ponder the life of “poor ole Beauford,” looking down at the paint box at our feet while eating or drinking in Mays’ studio.  The dried paint still held some color and character, and there were times when we felt that the spirit of the man was with us in the room, in a final nod of appreciation that someone remembered him or that someone was at least talking about him. 

Poor Ole Beauford

AbstractionWhile Clark gave us one perspective on Beauford, Tannie Stovall (who recently left us), provided another.  And yet another treasured experience was a discussion with the other messenger of time, Herbert Gentry, during one of his last visits prior to his death, to see Clark.  Then there was Roscoe, a relic of the past who was neither famous nor relevant to most discussions of that era, but was an incredible source of information and a man who appreciated our recognition during a period when it was simply his time to sit and watch Paris go by.  So whenever we found Roscoe, we talked.

Gentry knew Beauford well and like Clark, he was at some point an actual roommate of Beauford. Both of their memories of Beauford ranged from his struggles with the vane to his struggles with the substantial.  From his looks, to his age, to his sexuality, Beauford Delaney’s demons raged their own internal battles and internecine warfare at will.  According to Clark, when Beauford arrived in Paris, he was relatively older than many of his contemporaries.  One can imagine that this might have inspired the insecurities of bygone youth. 

Beauford was also a dark complexioned black man in a 1950s Paris of then mostly ‘exotic’ light-skinned pretty-boy African American writers and painters.  This must have forced an even closer bonding with Baldwin, who himself was dark skinned and not considered one of the ‘pretty boys,’ and himself a gay man among the group in Paris.  

Given Beauford's genetic code for shyness and introversion, one can also imagine his sense of inadequacy in face of such prevailing criteria of measuring up.  Grown men who might have long graduated high schools and colleges still found the path back to kindergarten with mandated criteria for being part of the clique.  Clark also mentioned the devastating impact on Beauford, of Baldwin’s return to the States. 

I had always been curious about Baldwin’s dedication to his ‘dear friend,’ but in recalling Clark’s discussions, a much-deteriorated Beauford in Baldwin’s absence must have meant a strong mutual affection and genuinely shared caring among these long time friends.  Invariably, Ed Clark would recall his old roommate with pity.  “Poor ole Beauford,” he would say.

Tannie Stovall was a part of the Paris scene since mid 1960s and he would go on to live there until his death in early 2013.  At some point in the late 1990’s, he had opened his doors to a group of us, next generation black men in Paris, who gathered occasionally under a social group generically called The Brothers, or simply for BYOB (Bring You Own Bottle) Friday nights.  I occasionally stopped by mostly for Tannie’s stories, of which he recounted many.  Regarding Beauford, they were primarily of the ‘good ole days’ at Haynes Restaurant in Paris.

Haynes Restaurant (Haynes’), founded by charismatic Morehouse graduate Leroy Haynes, was the epicenter of the black intelligentsia in search of ‘soul food’ in that era of Paris life.  It was also a category destination for mainstream celebrities and the ‘cool set’ such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Rod Steiger, Marianne Faithful, Sydney Poitier, Warren Beatty, and numerous other Hollywood celebrities.  Haynes was also one of the few regular spots for Beauford, who had developed a genuine friendship with Leroy Haynes, for whom Beauford also did a now famous portrait.  A self-portrait by Beauford was still hanging at Haynes’ during my days in the Paris of the 1990s and remained there until its closure in the early 2000s.  

According to Stovall, Beauford was always quiet and serene but could be found laughing and joking with the likes of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Leroy Haynes, and other patrons of the restaurant.  From all accounts, I know that Beauford had fun at Haynes’ and that this was one place where he was also truly appreciated.  Whether it was the alcohol or the food that gave him such pleasures at Haynes, or whether it was simply the collective ambience of being in the company of friends, remains a mystery.  

How he lived was known to very few, yet known to all was his internal struggles and his constant financial difficulties.  In spite of some support by a few well-known patrons, his mental state and self-esteem exposed him to great exploitation.  His introversion was his primary trait, and according to Stovall, where an extroverted James Baldwin would seek the spotlight, Beauford Delaney would dodge even the ray of a flashlight.  In concluding his Beauford stories, Tannie Stovall would shake his head in sorrow and poignantly qualify his statements with, “Poor ole Beauford.”

For us ‘youngsters,’ Roscoe was another ‘old timer’ and an excellent source of Paris legends from its days of black literary and artistic glory.  Roscoe was a tall slim man of about six feet four inches and barely a hundred and eighty pounds, whose genes betrayed any sense of the aging process.  He had a strong and an almost eerie physical presence of Vlad Dracula himself.  But Roscoe was a wonderful man and a veteran who had served in the American Armed Forces, ‘theoretically’ in France.  Which war he had actually fought was often difficult to tell.  I never asked and in Roscoe’s recounting, it was generally hard to discern whether the Germany to which he referred in enemy terms was that of the Fuhrer’s or of the Kaiser’s. 

But there was no doubt that Roscoe was one of the men who had seen action in a war and who had decided to stay on in France.  Some years later after I had left Paris, and a short time before his death, I got the news that Roscoe had put on his military uniform in 2009 for one last trip to Normandy for the visit to France by the first black President of the United States.  A few weeks after President Obama’s visit, my friend, the artist Ealy Mays, happened upon Roscoe in the streets of Paris and asked him, “So Roscoe, I heard you met Obama and shook his hand.  What did you say to the President?”  According to Mays, Roscoe, ever the quick story teller, leaned over on his shoulder and said softly, “Well, I just told the young fella good luck.  I think he’s gonna need it.”

When Roscoe would talk to Ealy Mays and myself about Beauford Delaney, it was always in a greater cause of telling us ‘youngsters’ what Paris ‘can do to you.’  Never mind that Roscoe had lived in France for over a half a century (maybe even a century) out of refuge from the American society of race and color prejudices.  Here was the cheese warning of the pitfalls of life in the very mousetrap in which it had lived for most of its life.  He always said to us, “Look at what they did to ole Beauford.”  

I recall my last discussion with Roscoe on a beautiful fall afternoon somewhere around the millennium on a crowded rue Mazarine, which snaked its way from rue de Seine back to the boulevard Saint Germain in the 6th arrondissement.  Ealy Mays and I were walking from rue de Seine, and we ran into Roscoe outside of famed restaurant Alkazar, which is located a few steps before reaching the intersection of rue Mazarine and rue Dauphine.  Roscoe lived only a few doors away on rue de Seine, and it was always a pleasure to buy him a drink or a coffee while sitting outside of a café in an environment where spoken French was mostly uttered only by the waiters and a few locals. 

This is the heart of the tourist area, and it was here where we often enjoyed picking Roscoe’s brains on a history that we had come to envy in our very failure to emulate or recreate.  But Roscoe saw life from the cautious perspective of a black man who at some point on his journey had no doubt made the intimate acquaintance of Jim Crow and possibly of all his relatives and friends.  Decades of life in France had still given way to a voice of caution belied by racial fear.  With his observations and thoughts were the constant caveat, “you boys need to be careful of these people, they’ll get you if they want to.” 

On this day however, as our discussion veered in the direction of Beauford Delaney, Roscoe sideswiped us with a little known fact, at least to us.  Sipping his coffee and pointing to me, Roscoe asked, “You know how many times ole Beauford tried throwing himself in the Seine?”  "What the hell?" was all I could think.

In a less publicized incident(s), the artist had seeming attempted to rid himself of his earthly burdens and according to Roscoe, not just once.  I had heard a similar story from Clark but this was said to have happened on a boat somewhere outside of Paris.  The “malicious people that would come to Beauford at night” and according to him, “speak unpleasant and vulgar language and threaten malicious treatment…interfering with my health and urgent work…the constant, continuous creation,” were real.  They were his constant companions.  He had come to regard them as enemies of his creative process yet he could not readily jettison them in open sea or river, so he instead tried jettisoning himself. 

Delaney’s one and only return to the United States in 1969 was cut short, as these “malicious companions” had asserted an overt dominance while he was here.  It was then that many in America who knew him well, had come to accept the inevitable – that Beauford Delaney was going mad.  

For us, in listening to Roscoe and without knowing the full circumstances or facts of his claims, it was fair to assume that if ‘Les Pompiers’ had truly intervened on separate occasions to rescue Beauford from freedom in La Seine or in some other body of water, per Clark, then they had certainly also effectively extended an already prolonged life sentence for the man, with us art lovers the world over being the ultimate beneficiary.  "Un grand merci aux pompiers," I thought to myself.

We did not know the dates of Roscoe’s attributions but it was fair to assume that painting was Beauford’s light out of his darkness.  It was therefore not a stretch to imagine that further manifestations of brush on canvas had indeed continued after these incidents, to further enhance Beauford’s legacy of light.  The country with the highest per capita consumption of anti-depressants would have likely given him a few pills after each ‘chute’ into the water and then send him home to sleep it off.

Jimmy Baldwin and Beauford

Some of his greatest tributes in life and in death came from his friend James Baldwin.  Since their meeting in Greenwich Village when he had saved Baldwin from a near nervous breakdown as teen, Beauford had become a mentor and a father figure to Baldwin.  When Beauford moved to Paris and settled in the suburb of Clamart, Baldwin had actually ended up staying with Beauford for sometime.  In his book From Harlem to Paris, writer Michel Fabre describes the two as sharing Beauford’s tiny apartment, which had one big window in front of which grew an enormous tree. 

They loved to sit on the edge and chat, looking out at the garden, according to Fabre.  Baldwin stated, “Everything one saw from this window, then, was filtered through these leaves, and this window was a kind of universe, moaning and wailing when it rained, black and bitter when it thundered, hesitant and delicate with the first light of the morning, and blue as the blues when the last light of the sun departed.  Well, that life, that light, that miracle, are what I began to see in Beauford’s paintings, and this light began to stretch back for me over all the time we had known each other, and over much more time than that, and this light held the power to illuminate, even to redeem and reconcile and heal.” 

In his introduction to the opening of a Delaney exhibition on December 4, 1964 at the Gallery Lambert, James Baldwin wrote, "The darkness of Beauford's beginnings, in Tennessee, many years ago, was a black-blue midnight indeed, opaque and full of sorrow.  And I do not know, nor will any of us ever really know, what kind of strength it was that enabled him to make so dogged and splendid a journey." 

On another occasion, Baldwin stated of his friend, "He has been starving and working all of his life – in Tennessee, in Boston, in New York, and now in Paris.  He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive; and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness."

But the time would come when Baldwin’s stars had begun to rise.  His trip to the United States in 1957 was the start of his journey into civil rights activism and large-scale notoriety in America.  His friend Beauford Delaney must have felt an even further isolation from the comfort of his long known and trusted mentee and dear friend.  Beauford’s demons were not far from the surface and would have easily taken hold at any chance of isolation.  With alcohol as his permanent refuge and sole close ally and enemy at once, there was little that could have been done to stave off further despair.   

By early 1970s Beauford's inability to cope with daily life had become evident.  In the autumn of 1973 his friend, Charley Boggs, wrote to James Baldwin stating, "Our blessed Beauford is rapidly losing mental control."  By 1975, Charley Boggs’ and our blessed Beauford was in deed hospitalized and shortly thereafter committed to a hospital in Paris.

On March 26, 1979 Beauford Delaney died in St Anne's Hospital for the Insane in Paris

The Languish

Over the years Beauford Delaney had many exhibitions since the 1930s, both in the United States and in Europe.  Yet while the careers and reputations of his contemporaries took hold in the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980’s, Beauford’s was for a long time largely forgotten by the public, especially in the US where he had returned only once for that short time in 1969.  The art community had pretty much ignored a retrospective of his work at the Studio Museum in Harlem a year before his death.   "This was Beauford, not Bearden." 

It was not until the 1988 exhibition Beauford Delaney: From Tennessee to Paris, curated by the French art dealer Philippe Briet, at the Philippe Briet Gallery, that Delaney's work was again exhibited in New York, followed by two retrospectives: Beauford Delaney: A Retrospective [50 Years of Light] in 1991, and Beauford Delaney: The New York Years [1929-1953] in 1994.

In response to the 1994 exhibition, writer Eleanor Heartney wrote an article in Art in America, under the title, "Whatever Happened to Beauford Delaney?"  In it, she questioned why this once well regarded ‘artist's artist’ was now virtually unknown to the American art public?  "What happened?” she asked.  “Is this another case of an over-inflated reputation returning to its true level?  Or was Delaney undone by changing fashions which rendered his work unpalatable to succeeding generations?”  “Why did Beauford Delaney so completely disappear from American art history?" was her probing thought. 

She believed his disappearance from the consciousness of the New York art world was linked to, "his move to Paris at a crucial moment in the consolidation of New York's position as the world's cultural capital, and his work's irrelevance to the history of American art, as it was being written by critics" at the time.  Eleanor Heartney concluded, "Today [1994] as those histories unravel and are replaced by narratives with a more varied and colorful weave, artists like Delaney can be seen in a new light." 

Enters Monique Wells

Fast forward to the 2000s.  Whatever the case, as had been speculated on by Miss Heartney in the 1990s, it was clear that a generation of art curators, galleries, historians, collectors, and aficionados, had remained largely ignorant of Beauford Delaney’s contributions for sometime.  Even worse, it seemed that his narrative was to be one of continuous torture and neglect, even in death as it was in life. 

On his death, Delaney was buried without much fanfare or due recognition and laid without cause or care for many years in a grave in the suburbs of Paris.  Then at the turn of the decade, Paris freelance writer and entrepreneur Monique Wells, in conducting research on black gravesites in Paris, got word of plans to effectively abandon caring for Beauford’s gravesite along with the potential destruction and desecration of his final resting place.  The tragic life of the gentle genius was now to enter an even more depraved chapter, many years in death.  

Miss Wells set out to remedy the decades of exploitation and neglect accorded to the artist by creating an association, “Les Amis de Beauford Delaney”, dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Beauford’s legacy and a restoration of his dignity.  Her first success was in securing his gravesite from any possibilities of exhumation, desecration, destruction or efforts to transplant his remains.  She organized and fundraised the purchase of a proper tombstone and undertook the performance of a proper ceremony, cohosted by the U.S. Embassy's Department of Public Affairs in Paris.  Beauford had finally found a guardian angel, and a lifetime of exploitation and neglect had finally become the recipient of care and kindness from society.

ConclusionProtrait of Man on White

So as I stood at Levis Fine Arts and solemnly reached into Beauford’s eyes, I found the man as complex, as soft, as tender, and as serene as the multitude of other witnesses to his existence.  He refused my probes for direct answers and where he responded, it was terms still comprehensible only by geniuses or by madmen. 

His genteel and almost princely Portrait of Man on White is juxtaposed to the effeminate yet rough portrayal of Howard Swanson, wherein Beauford obviously channeled much of his own inner turmoil onto the almost Portrait of Howard Swanson‘piggish’ face with which he obscures Swanson’s neck.  

It was the eyes of Portrait of Man in Red that captivated me, and again I wondered while stepping back, "how did Beauford manage to fuse his own persona into this face of a white man?"  In studying the portrait, an image of Beauford instantly came alive. Portrait of Man on Red

Beauford’s Portrait of Ahmed Bioud went straight to the core of Bioud’s soul.  One is captivated by his eyes and immediately hypnotized into feeling the inner core of Bioud.  Thereafter, seeing the rest of the portrait becomes a blur.  “Portrait of a Seated Man” was again the Beauford with something to hide, yet dignified and meticulous in all that he did.  

Portrait of Ahmed BioudAn untitled piece described as Seated Figure in a Café simultaneously places the individual in a forest or jungle, which forced the question of whether an artist can ever truly be anything but himself.  The tumult and confusion of Beauford’s mind was such that even moments seated in a city café might have unleashed attacking lions or tigers, monkeys swinging wildly, or birds singing from deep within a rain-forest vegetation, through which rays of bright yellow sunlight would extend to yank at his consciousness and return him to the drink in his glass or food on his plate.

Whatever darkness he felt inside would often give way to a constant light. 
Seated Figure in a CafeWhere the focus was not on a realist image, Beauford would go dancing in a magical world of light infused abstracts.  Without saying so, it was clear that this was where he found his solace.  He was an abstract painter before the movement and standing there in the gallery, it became clear to me that his strokes into abstraction were the unleashing of impulses formed from deep within.  

There was the sense that these were not of visual formations, but instead guided manifestation driven by forces from within as Beauford pranced away in some foreign and alien universe.   And then he showed me an even more surprising beauty in “Turquoise in Blue,” another piece of abstract work but this time a dalliance with a light infused shade of blue.

The man I spoke to was not necessarily insane, but he was sufficiently different, and like other geniuses, quite possibly very misunderstood.  In her biopic definition of the man and his work, Gertrude Stein lauded the genius of Picasso’s ability to see things differently from the rest of us as being at the essence of his genius.  According to Stein, “… Picasso was not like that, when he ate a tomato, the tomato was not everybody’s tomato, not at all and his effort was not to express in his way the things seen as everyone sees them, but to express the thing as he was seeing it.”  In much the same way, Beauford showed me that he too saw things differently from the rest of us, and that his was the expression of things, not as everyone saw them, but instead only as he was seeing them.  

James Baldwin might have been correct in his characterization of Beauford as a menaced man:  "He has been starving and working all of his life – in Tennessee, in Boston, in New York, and now in Paris.  He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive."  But that Beauford had transcended such menacing, "and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness," might have been a simple interpretation of a complex composition.   

As I stood there in Levis Fine Arts, what I saw and heard from Beauford was a little different.  His inner darkness gave way to the outer light and there might not have been a need to transcend any of that.  There should be no greater expectation of genius’ coexistence with rationality than there is of light in constant opposition to darkness, where the messenger is the artist and his voice, the art.  Can logical minds or trouble-free souls give rise to the creation of exceptional art?  

Those who knew Beauford Delaney, those who loved him, and those who were uplifted by his art, were all saddened that the ‘companions’ that drove the genius had in time also devoured the man.  But the man was here, and his art now transcends both time and space, and this should be the source of happiness and inspiration for all. 

As Homer once said, there can be no pledging of faith between men and lions.  It is to be expected that lion will always devour man.  Beauford would have known that all along, and from behind the caged walls of l’hopital St. Anne in Paris, he yielded to his inner lions on the 26th day March 1979.


Writer's note! 

In honor of Beauford Delaney's 112th birthday, I have decided to republish this article, My Beauford Delaney Price-of-a-ticketConversations with Beauford, which was written earlier this year after visiting the Beauford Delaney exhibition at Levis Fine Art in Manhattan, portions of which were previously excerpted in Discover Paris blog

Ealy Mays and I had formed a friendship some fifteen years ago in Paris in the shadow of Beauford Delaney and today I am the curator of Mays’ work in America.  His tribute piece to Beauford Delaney, The Price of a Ticket, reflects the universal appreciation of, and fascination with Beauford that came to dominate both our lives, from what I have come to call ‘the Paris years.’  All Images are courtesy of Levis Fine Arts, Chelsea, NYC.

Happy Birthday Beauford

.....Paul Sinclair

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Welcome to Ealy Mays Artworks

Celebration of over 150 years of Black Literary and Artistic development in Paris

Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

It is the spectator and not life, that really mirrors art”  The Picture of Dorian Gray …Oscar Wilde

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