Be Your Wonderful Self: The Portraits of Beauford Delaney



Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), Self-portrait, 1962, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 21 1/4 inches / 64.8 x 54 cm, signed

“[Beauford] Delaney repeatedly turned to art to break down the boundaries of fixed identity in ways that were not just aesthetic… but also spiritual. Such ecstatic annihilations ran between his purely abstract paintings and his portraits, animating his figurative and non-figurative work. “[1] —Marie Campbell

“[I] I worked terribly hard… and a lot shattered and exploded, but now it’s melting into lava-like smoke and flowing color, sometimes a real flame, other times sifted essences… yes, I paint again in my old feeling – tense, difficult, but compulsive, and I love this.”[2] —Beauford Delaney, 1964

The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is pleased to announce its third solo exhibition of paintings by Beauford Delaney (American, 1901-1979), which will contextualize the artist’s very personal practice of portraiture against its fascinating body of non-objective abstractions.

With 25 portraits and 7 abstract works, Be Your Wonderful Self: The Portraits of Beauford Delaney explores the portrait of preeminent status held in the life and work of the artist, following the trajectory of his career from his “Greene Street” period in New York to his ardent embrace of pure abstraction following his move to Paris in 1953. By exhibiting the portrait of Delaney alongside his abstractions, the exhibition seeks to reveal the common intention with which the artist approached the two genres of painting, which dominated his artistic production for the rest of his works. years of work. Be your wonderful me will be accompanied by an extensive catalog, featuring a new scholarship from Mary Campbell, associate professor of art history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and an illustrated timeline featuring an extraordinary selection of archival photos and ephemeral unpublished. A special section of the publication will be devoted to statements from historical and contemporary voices such as James Baldwin, Richard Long, Julie Mehretu, Georgia O’Keeffe and Amy Sherald, who describe the indelible impact of Delaney’s work on their practices and broader evolution of 20th century modernism.

The scope of Be your wonderful me encompasses Delaney’s mature career, starting with his first masterful portrayal of a young James Baldwin, Dark rapture (1941), and ending with his penetrating 1972 portrayal of Jean Genet. While its praise is well deserved, Delaney’s technical mastery often overshadows his singular ability to capture individual temperament in his portraits, an ability often augmented by the artist’s sincere and unconditional interest in his models. Her distinctive formal approach to portraiture combines abstraction and figuration so that the model’s physical description is secondary to her psychological essence; by emphasizing the specific characteristics of their form (often including clothing or expression), Delaney renders each subject as an iconographic manifestation of their inner self. His bold Fauvist palette and meticulously textured surfaces, which range from densely encrusted to ethereal, unify subject and background in a way that eclipses their bodily presence, making each painting a new, holistic embodiment of its subject. Delaney often worked from memory to paint portraits, an approach that imbues his images with a particular subjectivity rooted in the artist’s emotional and psychic relationship with his subjects; far from a narcissistic drive, Delaney adopted this approach as a means of making visible the imperceptible link between artist and subject through a combination of formal exaggeration or simplification expressed by meticulous chromatic accuracy.

Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), Untitled (Portrait of a Young Man), circa 1963, oil on canvas, 65.4 x 54.3 cm, estate stamp

Delaney’s abstractions were also crafted in his studio without a physical referent present – typically with the walls and other works in the space covered in white linens to enhance the effects of natural light – and testify to the intense drive for aesthetic experimentation. that he felt incapable of expressing himself adequately in his figurative works. Considered by the artist to be individual expressions of ineffable emotional or cosmic depths, the abstract works have often served as a receptacle for the overflowing of the creative passion that overwhelmed the artist after his installation in Paris. By exhibiting these parallel works in conversation with each other, Be your wonderful me seeks to reveal the conceptual knot that unifies them, namely the striking treatment of the tone and the atmosphere inherent in the whole of the artist’s work. As the critic and poet Jean Guichard-Meili wrote in a review of the artist’s exhibition in 1964 at the Galerie Lambert: “Only a methodical and prolonged exercise of vision will allow [the abstract paintings] to feel and savor in the middle and under the network of tones of colors… the movements of the internal convection, the vibrations of the underlying design. The portraits do not differ from other works… The background, the clothes, the hands, the face are a pretext for autonomous harmonies.[3]

Biographically, Delaney was as affable as he was generous, often living in poverty due to his charitable nature. The artist’s good friend, Henry Miller, once summed up Delaney’s benevolent character: “He has made many, many friends throughout his career, and he never ceases to make them. new. It is not only a friend he is the friend, the one who gives everything. Poor as he was, he never gave the impression of being miserable. He always gave more than he received, that is to say himself. “[4] Delaney’s figurative paintings demonstrate his blind eye for subjects, which variously represent family, casual acquaintances from all walks of life, and friends from his large circle of artists, writers, and other cultural luminaries. Although many of his social network members are exceptionally acclaimed individuals, Delaney’s genuine warmth and concern has extended to everyone he has befriended, regardless of social status, including Larry Wallrich, an employee of the Greenwich Village bookstore who became a longtime friend, and to whom the main phrase of this exhibit was made in a 1953 letter from the artist.

Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), Untitled (aka Abstract White Light), c. 1965, oil on canvas, 61 x 50.2 cm / 61 x 50.2 cm, estate stamp

A staunch follower of abstract expressionism, Delaney felt compelled to pursue his interest in non-objective imagery in the mid-1950s, after the artist’s move to Paris instilled in him a new sense of artistic freedom. . Settling among the avant-garde Parisian scene of American expatriate artists which included Baldwin, Bob Blackburn, Harold Cousins ​​and Sam Francis – the latter, along with Monet, Delaney would consider influential for his early abstractions – Delaney a adopted this new mode of expression, which became the dominant approach of his practice in the years that followed. Although they bear no linear or formally descriptive element, Delaney’s abstractions contain the same level of meticulous individualism in composition, palette, and surface quality as his portraits, manifesting a highly expressionistic manipulation of the surface to elicit an energetic sense of movement and formal interaction.

Indeed, despite such a drastic stylistic leap from his Greene Street period, the place of abstractions alongside Delaney’s portrait in the chronology of his career reveals an ideological consistency in the artist’s conception of painting, which ‘he understood as an attempt to embody the light. through painting with the same universal lighting with which he makes the world itself visible. “My work intensifies and some of the years of trial and error are starting to take root in color and form,” Delaney wrote to Miller in 1964. “The human situation invades and spills over. I am humbly devoted and try to find an orchestration for this flood… We try to speak through the brush of tangible and intangible feelings. They allow the vast panorama of things before, present and future.[5]

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC is Special Advisor and Estate Representative for Beauford Delaney.

More information on Beauford Delaney (1901-1979).

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery will also present a solo exhibition of Beauford Delaney’s abstract works at the Masters of the frieze (Spotlight, stand H1, October 13-17, The Regent’s Park, London).

[1] Mary Campbell, “Beauford Delaney in Ecstasy,” in Be Your Wonderful Self: The Portraits of Beauford Delaney, exhibition catalog (New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld, 2021).
[2] Beauford Delaney, Letter to Henry Miller, May 21, 1964, quoted in David Leeming, Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 162.
[3] Jean Guichard-Meili, trad. Richard A. Long, Arts, December 16-22, 1964, p. 27.
[4] Henry Miller, Letter to Darthea Speyer, September 26, 1972, in Darthea Speyer Records Gallery, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
[5] Beauford Delaney, Letter to Henry Miller, May 21, 1964, quoted in David Leeming, Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 163.

All works © Estate of Beauford Delaney, courtesy Derek L. Spratley, Squire, Court Appointed Administrator


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