On ViewMichael Rosenfeld Gallery
September 8 – December 23, 2021
Beauford Delaney’s imagination was ablaze with portraits. Often painting his subjects from the shimmering flight of memory, Delaney’s approach to portraiture was an exercise in deep connection between his own interiority and that of the people he painted. At Michael Rosenfeld gallery in Chelsea, Be Your Wonderful Self showcases 25 of Delaney’s engrossing portraits, as well as seven abstract works, tracing the painter’s personal and aesthetic trajectory from the East Village in 1941 to Paris in 1972. The exhibition is a marvel of Delaney’s imaginative disruption of figuration and abstraction, observation and play. Delaney beckons visitors into dense, surreal worlds of expressive color and rhythmic texture where his portraits occupy the slippery realm between remembrance, dreams, and reality.
Portraits of Delaney’s close friends and relations dominate the exhibition, enveloping the gallery in the sweetness of intimacy and kinship. For Delaney, intimacy was the foundation of his creative practice, forming not only the content of his paintings, but also his formal vocabulary. In 1954, he wrote to one of his closest confidants, James Baldwin, “[I] have been working and living with the many people who make up Beauford … and trying to merge them into some sense of composition and a workable form of painting.” Our first point of entry into Delaney’s imagination is through his effulgently fauvist portrait of Baldwin himself, Dark Rapture (1941). We encounter the literary icon ensconced in a fantasy of blissful colors that move swiftly in and around the contours of his body. A tree filled landscape, built from layers of thick, tactile impasto, calls out to the viewer to reach into its texture. Rendered with the same bold painterliness and vivid coloration as the landscape behind him, Baldwin is swept up into what feels like a psychedelic vision. Delaney envisions Baldwin in the nude, opening up the possibility of a queer reading of the painting: the painter was openly gay but struggled with his sexuality, which he often described as alienating. This depiction of another queer man perhaps unlocks a portal into an imagined haven of queer sociality, a futurity unbounded from interdictions on queer life and relation.
Amidst the portrait of Baldwin and other sitters, abstract compositions buzz with the same dramatic play of texture and light that calls to mind the technical interventions of artists like Vincent van Gogh, Frank Bowling, and Jackson Pollock. Modulations in brushwork and technique abound: in Composition Peinture (aka Light Blue to Gold Abstraction) (ca. 1958), intrepid layers of impasto threaten to enter the realm of sculpture, while in Untitled (1962), an accumulation of thick but undulating brushwork offers a more graceful gesture. By and large, these improvisations in light date to the late ’50s and early ’60s, following Delaney’s move to Paris. For Delaney, the new city—where he surrounded himself with French literati and other Black American expats—fueled an urgent will for creative exploration that led him toward increasing experimentation with abstraction. But Delaney’s newfound commitment to abstraction did not mean an abandonment of figuration. If anything, the inseparability of abstract sensibility from figurative form was the organizing principle of Delaney’s work: “my painting has been associated with ‘abstraction,’” Delaney wrote. “But there are no precise limits for me between ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ paintings.” As the side-by-side exhibition of portraiture and abstraction at Michael Rosenfeld reveals, Delaney was insistent on shattering the categories of genre, situating his work outside of conventional artistic vocabularies.
This wrestling with abstraction also heightened Delaney’s sensitivity for color. The exhibition’s second gallery, an explosion of bright yellows and greens, reveals this in full force. Painted between 1964 and 1972, these portraits are drenched in the warm glow of Delaney’s affection. Notably, yellow recurs throughout Delaney’s oeuvre as a mark of love and tenderness. These semiotics of color also enable a radical play with Blackness: the majority of the sitters in these portraits are Black, but their skin tones unfold in a vast assortment of lime greens, pastel blues, and saffron yellows. Touched by Delaney’s incredible command of color, Blackness shows up in unlikely hues. But despite this chromatic ebullience, Delaney’s sitters are tense, with a reserved, even somber countenance. A portrait of his mother Delia (1964) is among his most emotionally captivating. Surrounded by a flurry of saffron brushstrokes, her face—rendered in the same color as the background—bears a quiet but fierce expression. Facing the viewer head on, her closed lips curve upward in a suggestion of a smile that does not touch her eyes. In the midst of all the yellow is the piercing white of Delia’s eyes, which simultaneously look at and past us, her gaze haunted with the secrets of a retreat inward.
After witnessing these paintings, I felt compelled to return to Baldwin, who writes of his friendship with Delaney with what can only be described as poesis. “I learned about light from Beauford Delaney,” Baldwin wrote in 1964. “The light contained in every thing, in every surface, in every face.” Delaney’s work remains a heuristic of light. From the fugitive glow of his abstractions to the piercing emotional dimension that illuminates his portraits, he invites us to delight in a luminous intimacy.