Bathed in golden lights

Beauford Delaney used yellow as his signature

Sunday, March 16, 2003

— Artist Beauford Delaney chose his worlds like colors from a palette: He glided through Harvard Yard and Harlem, from Greenwich Village to Paris, equally at home in smoky jazz halls as he was in art galleries.

His life was a rainbow of places and people. But in his art, one color defined him. Yellow -- the color of exuberance, of cowardice, of illness, of sunlight.

Many of Delaney's paintings, 29 of which are on view through May 4 at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, use the color -- sometimes as a highlight on a lip, sometimes as a muted backdrop or a patch of landscape, other times as an exploding cascade of texture and motion.

"As a painter, he had the rainbow as his palette. But this color seemed to have a particular importance and significance to him," said Richard J. Powell, professor of art history at Duke University, who organized the traveling exhibition. "I would argue that that if you look at the show, that we could have called it 'the colors yellow."'

Delaney, who died in 1979, may be most remembered for the years when he was enmeshed in the post-World War II expatriate community of Paris, where he mingled with his longtime friend, writer James Baldwin, and others, such as writer Henry Miller and musicians like Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald.

But the pastiche of his life is also stroked and tinted with his childhood in the South, his years training in Boston, and especially his two decades in New York City.

Crossing boundaries

Delaney grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., the son of the Rev. Samuel Delaney, a barber and Methodist preacher, and Delia Johnson Delaney, a former slave. He moved in the mid-1920s to Boston, where he studied at the Massachusetts Normal School of Art and the South Boston School of Art, and often visited Harvard's Fogg Art Museum.

He moved to New York in 1929 and was robbed of his artwork and paints within hours of his arrival. He promptly relocated downtown to Greenwich Village, an environment that was a bit more to his liking.

Delaney gained prominence with his pastel portraits, which earned him a place in several group exhibitions. He later had solo shows, including one at the Whitney Studio Galleries. His reputation grew among the literati of Manhattan that included illustrator Al Hirschfeld, fellow painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz.


AP Photo

A visitor walks through the Beauford Delaney retrospective exhibit at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts on Harvard University's campus in Cambridge, Mass. A portrait of singer Marian Anderson, left, among 29 Delaney paintings on view at the center through May 4, demonstrates the artist's love for the color yellow.

He lived in many circles, and while he moved among them with ease, he faced difficulty as a gay black man in a predominantly white world of painters, said Harry A. Cooper, the Fogg's curator of modern art.

"He struggled with his sexuality. It's a double whammy when you're struggling with being homosexual and being black in a world of largely white painters," Cooper said. "He really was crossing boundaries, and negotiating a lot of tricky ground."

Unexplained focus

It was in New York that yellow began emerging in his work. His 1949 painting, "Washington Square," shows a scene of what may be summertime idleness, with a swatch of yellow park at the center of the canvas. A 1951 portrait of singer Marian Anderson depicts her under the spotlights of a Greenwich Village exploding with color and energy, in a visual rendition of her amazing coloratura voice. A later Anderson portrait, from 1965, shows her in the center of the canvas, bathed in a golden glow, staring straight out at the viewer.

Delaney went to Paris in 1953 for what was supposed to be a short visit, but became a permanent relocation. His paintings began to show deep texture in overlapping daubs of paint.

One set of five Delaney portraits in the Harvard show display his different uses of color. In a 1965 portrait of Baldwin, the writer's face floats in a sea of bright yellow tones. When he painted Fitzgerald in 1968, her face practically disappears behind flat mustard and brown tones, as if the song stylist were lost in a yellow fog.

One of his late works, in 1971, portrays the artist himself as a kind of African king, draped in jewelry and seated upon what appears to be a golden shield, illuminated in light, although he was battling chronic depression, mental illness and alcoholism.

He spent his last four years in a Paris sanitarium and was in a hospital bed during one of the most important shows of his life, at Harlem's Studio Museum in 1978. After his 1979 death, many of his works were tied up for years in French courts because of the disarray of his finances.

Delaney never tried to explain his focus on yellow, Powell said.

"Delaney was really a kind of mystical individual. He was well-read and self-taught; he wasn't someone who spouted theory," Powell said. "He was very much his own man and appreciated his subject very intimately."