Stephen C. Wicks, editor: Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door (Knoxville Museum of Art, 2020)

This monograph, Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door, edited by curator Stephen C. Wicks is published on the occasion of this year’s exhibition of some 50 works of art by Beauford Delaney in Knoxville, Tennessee – the hometown of Beauford (b. 1901) and his younger brother Joseph Delaney (1904-1991), a well-known artist in his own right – at KMA, the Knoxville Museum of Art. It examines the 38 year relationship between artist and writer, and “the ways their ongoing intellectual exchange shaped each other’s creative output and worldview.”

Beauford Delaney left Knoxville in 1923 – Joseph would leave, too – for New York via Boston, young at 22, but old enough to remember the Knoxville version of the race riots and mob violence erupting in a large number of American cities and communities during the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919.

Today there are plagues put up by the East Tennessee Historical Society to mark the place where the Delaney brothers were born. And KMA since 2014 has acquired more than fifty pieces by Beauford Delaney – paintings, works on paper, and other – making KMA’s the largest public collection of works by the artist, supplementing paintings from their own holdings with extensive loans from other collections for this major Beauford Delaney exhibition.    

The “Unusual Door.”  Writing that the “exhibition’s narrative” is guided by James Baldwin’s words about his friend, this is how Baldwin later described his first meeting with Beauford Delaney at the painter’s studio in Greenwich Village in 1940. Baldwin was 15, the artist 24 years his senior:

Lord,” I was to hear Beauford sing, later, and for many years, Open the Unusual Door. I walked through that door into Beauford’s colors … I walked into music.”

But where did that phrase come from? A comment to one of Delaney’s paintings from 1959, Untitled, painted while he was living in the Paris suburb of Clamart, states that “the … paintings not only reference the studio window as a portal, but … serve as visual portals themselves, a concept Delaney embraced and likened to the gospel song Lord, Open the Unusual Door.”

A gospel song? A song he had heard his mother sing when he was growing up in Knoxville? No one seems to know for sure.

The catalogue reproduces 48 paintings in color from the exhibition, paintings on the right hand page, extensive commentary on the left; photos and paintings, including three watercolors from James Baldwin’s retreat, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, from the Delaney Archives; a selected timeline for Delaney and Baldwin, both; and three essays by Stephen C. Wright, Mary Campbell, and Levi Prombaum (on patterns of rhythm and repetition in Beauford Delaney’s art). Let us take a look:

“Metamorphosis into Freedom.” The title of Stephen C. Wicks’ essay again comes from something James Baldwin wrote, this time in an essay for a publication for a Beauford Delaney 1964 exhibition at the Galerie Lambert in Paris:     

“Beauford for a while lived in a suburb of Paris, Clamart. It was at this time that I began to see Beauford’s painting in a new way, and it was also at this time that Beauford’s paintings underwent a most striking metamorphosis into freedom.” Moving towards a more abstract imagery.

Baldwin, who would often stay with his friend in Clamart to rest and get his bearings, continues: “There was a window in Beauford’s house in Clamart before which he often sat … This window looked out on a garden; or, rather, it would have looked out on a garden if it had not been for the leaves and branches of a large tree which pressed directly against the window. Everything one saw from this window, then, was filtered through the 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 morning, and as blue as the blues when the last light of sun departed. Well, that life, that light, that miracle, are what I began to see in Beauford’s paintings … “

From New York to Paris. Baldwin had moved to France in 1948, and Delaney – at Baldwin’s urgings – would soon follow:  “I left New York for Paris in 1953, and I have painted with greater freedom ever since … there are no precise limits for me between ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ …”

The artist Glenn Ligon makes a somewhat similar observation on this aspect of Beauford Delaney’s art in two fictive letters of appreciation to Delaney – “We never met, but …” – dated December 2014 and April 2019, respectively, and printed in the catalogue: “In your paintings, the line between figuration and abstraction is always porous. That has inspired a similar fluidity in my (own) paintings, which often turn text (a kind of figuration, I suppose) towards abstraction.”

And even as Delaney would continue to paint portraits, from the very beginning there was not always a one-to-one likeness between sitter and painted portrait, see for example Self-Portrait (1944) with asymmetrical eyes – “One eye sees without, the other within” –, the spiritual identity of the sitter being more important to the deeply religious Delaney. (This would apply also to other self-portraits and paintings of his friend James Baldwin, see below). And the portrait of African American jazz musician Charlie Parker (1968) in an African tunic, attesting to Delaney and Baldwin’s interest in black music, bears little resemblance to the jazz saxophonist.

“The Black Sage.” Among the paintings reproduced here, seven are portraits of James Baldwin – equal in numbers to Delaney’s self-portraits – the first and most striking being perhaps Dark Rapture (1942) of a nude 15-year old Baldwin half in shadow “as if signaling that at this early point in their friendship the artist still considered him something of an enigma.”

And the equally expressive The Black Sage (1967), a title suggesting “Delaney’s recognition of his protégé s emergence as a cultural and artistic visionary” as an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

Delaney’s self-portraits can be just as expressive, like Auto-Portrait (1965), “one of Delaney’s most iconic and recognizable self-portraits,” and the brooding Self-Portrait (1970), painted at Baldwin’s villa in Saint-Paul-de-Vence: “As his bouts of depression and confusion grew increasingly frequent, Delaney found a measure of stability in the companionship of the writer and his friends.

In contrast note the late Self-Portrait in a Paris Bath House (1971) in which “the then 70-year-old artist portrays himself as wide-eyed, lithe, and youthful, and clad in African attire not unlike that of a Maasai warrior,” reminding you of his 1968 portrait of Charlie Parker.    

“I will Not Be Moved”: (Self-) Portraits of Rosa Parks. Mary Campbell in her essay analyses a series of images of Rosa Parks (icon of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, often seen as the beginning of the mid-century Civil Rights Movement) that he created between 1963 and 1970, calling her “Madame Park” and inscribing a good deal of himself onto his images of her.  

In She Ain’t Getting Up, Mrs. Parks (1970) we see a brown woman sitting on a park bench with her arms crossed and looking straight ahead, a picture of fierce determination: “The artist places her in an inhospitable snow-cowered setting with a menacing figure lurking nearby.” Holding a gun?

Two Women Sitting on a Park Bench (Rosa Parks), (circa 1970), offers a slightly more hopeful portrait: “Delaney here presents her in a sunlit field on a bench beside a white woman. Although now occupying the same bench, the two appear physically and psychologically disconnected.

In his 1969-1970 journal Beauford writes: “At night always when it is late, people call and speak unpleasant vulgar language and threatening malicious treatment … it is impossible to pass a night of rest,” hearing voices shrieking “dirty nigger, old fag” and the like at him, threatening castration.

There had been several suicide attempts, and it became increasingly difficult “working and living with the many people who make up Beauford,” as he had once written to Baldwin. Alcohol didn’t help. And in 1975, Campbell writes, friends had him committed to a Paris psychiatric hospital.

“In Thursday Sane.”  Stephen C. Wicks in his catalogue essay references David Leeming’s twin portraits of the two friends in James Baldwin: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) and Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney (Oxford University Press, 1998).

The catalogue also mentions essays by Delaney’s friend from his Greenwich Village days, author Henry Miller, who – like Baldwin and Beauford – spent years in the ‘City of Light’, and by African American art critics Richard A. Long and Richard J. Powell, as “providing a context for this study.”   

And then there is the self-proclaimed ‘Black Surrealist Griot’ Ted Joans (1928-2003) and his “Lost & Found” 1976 poem In Thursday Sane (Swan Scythe Press, 2001) on his visiting Delaney “… In custody/ In hospital prison/ In Sainte Anne’s Pinel Salle// … // He followed me to the door/ He told the nurse/ He was ready to leave/ He was refused and the door locked // …”

The door remained locked. And on March 26, 1979, at the age of 77, Beauford Delaney passed away at St. Anne’s Hospital for the Insane.