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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fix Me Jesus: Beauford's Solace in December 1953


Happy Birthday, Beauford!
December 30, 1901


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In December 1953, Beauford and the rest of the citizens of Paris were experiencing one of the coldest winters on record. According to David Leeming's biography entitled Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney, Beauford tried to keep warm in his freezing room at the Hôtel des Ecoles by wrapping himself in a blanket. He wrote notes to himself to keep his inner voices of "paranoia and depression" at bay, and often copied the lyrics of blues songs and spirituals into his journal. One that he particularly favored was "Fix Me Jesus."

The video below shows two dancers from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in a moving interpretation of this song from the show Revelations. I think that Beauford would have loved the colors and the lighting of the set, as well as the voices that render this performance so powerful.




Happy New Year
from Les Amis de Beauford Delaney!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Where to Find Beauford's Art: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Merry Christmas
from Les Amis de Beauford Delaney!


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The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan holds a single work by Beauford – a portrait of Stanislas Rodanski:

Stanislas Rodanski
1992.296
Beauford Delaney (1901-1979)
(c) Droits réservés
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
George A. Hearn Fund, 1992


The painting is not currently on display.

The Met loaned this painting to the High Museum of Art for a solo exposition of Beauford’s work entitled The Color Yellow. The description in the catalog indicates that it is a “lively mix of complementary colors (yellow-green against red against ochre and orange paired with a hot yellow) and areas of frenetically painted dashes and daubs.”

Whether Beauford ever met Rodanski is questionable because the surrealist poet was confined to a mental institution in Lyon in 1953 – the same year that Beauford arrived in Paris. Beauford painted Rodanski’s portrait in 1963, which means that he may have relied on a photograph or other likeness of the poet, or perhaps even his memory, to create this work. The Color Yellow catalog notes that “of greater significance than the portrait’s biographical accuracy is its visual luminosity and Delaney’s successful representation of individual perception and sagacity.”

The Color Yellow exposition was shown at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia from February 9 through May 4, 2002; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York from July 10 through-September 15, 2002; the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C. from October 11 through December 30, 2002; and the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts from February 8 through May 4, 2003.

The Rodanski portrait also figured among the works displayed in the exposition called Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965. The catalog for this show describes the portrait as follows:

In a manner similar to that applied to the subject’s colorful jacket, Mr. Rodansky’s forehead and hands have been built up with thick paint in just as many colors, and the background resembles one of the artist’s contemporaneous abstractions.

Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965 was shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York from January 18 through June 2, 1996, the Illinois: Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago, Illinois from June 29 through August 29, 1996, and the New Orleans Museum of Art in New Orleans, Louisiana from September 14 through November 10, 1996.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why Are So Many of Beauford's Paintings in Museum Storage?

In my search for Beauford’s art in museums around the world, I have discovered that most of his work is not being displayed. Rather, it is in storage. (At the Whitney Museum of American Art, all of the Delaneys are in storage.) The more I searched, the more I began to wonder why. For those museums that present some pieces but not others, I wondered how they selected which one(s) to hang.

I asked a museum curator who is quite knowledgeable about Beauford and his works about this and received a detailed reply that I have paraphrased below. According to her:

The first thing to understand is that permanent collection gallery space at any and every museum is limited. Because the goal of museums is to convey as much of the story of art history within its purview (decades, centuries, etc), a certain amount of space has to be allotted to each movement, each period, etc. There may only be the space of one gallery available to show some movements.

Photo of Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris exposition
Display at Knoxville Museum of Art (2005)
Photo courtesy of Sue Canterbury

Works by the most famous artists are assured of exposure. “Big name” artists such as Jackson Pollack are generally favored over artists such as Beauford (both are abstract expressionist painters from the same time period) because Pollock carries more name recognition and may serve as a bigger draw as far as attendance is concerned.

Whether something is displayed also depends on the strength of the work. Not everything an artist creates is equal – all have their "off" days or experiments. A curator wants the best representations of the artist's work on view to show the artist at his or her peak. The goal is to always raise the bar of quality of the gallery overall.

If a museum owns several works by an artist and they all are reasonably good, one or maybe two will be hung. Assuming the museum doesn't have enough space to indulge in an installation of all the holdings for this artist (which most places don't), it could opt to rotate works every once in awhile to show all of them.

Works on paper cannot be permanently displayed. Watercolors fade with too much exposure and the paper used in prints and drawings can often start to brown prematurely with too much light exposure (depending on acidity content of the paper). I learned about this firsthand when I viewed the watercolor and gouache painting below at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is located in the museum's Prints and Drawings department. The colors of the work are badly faded, so the department keeps it covered and in the dark.

Photo of “Untitled” (1961) by Beauford Delaney
© Discover Paris!

The condition of the work also figures into the decision on whether to display it. Showing a damaged or dirty work would not serve the interests or image of the artist; most people cannot imagine what the work would look like without the damage and the dirt. As an example, viewing a painting with yellowed varnish is like looking at the work through a yellow filter: it extracts the blues from the colors. Thus, blue looks green, green looks yellow, red looks orangish and orange looks yellowish. Fresh yellow looks like dirty harvest gold. White, of course, looks yellowish. Thus, the palette of the painting is completely askew from what the artist intended. This altered color palette can even alter the way in which we read perspective and distance within a painting.

Add to this the fact that most museums are strapped for conservation funds to repair and clean paintings and other works. Things get dirty just by being displayed. Sometimes film deposits caused by the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system settle on the surfaces, "clouding" the appearance. There are the children who run uncontrolled by their parents and touch things, leaving prints (the oils from which collect dust and dirt and disrupt the continuity of surface appearance), write on them, sneeze on them, or even run into them, causing dishing or tears in a canvas. Museums prioritize the cleaning of the most important works that are already on display (iconic works, works by the most famous artists). Condition and upkeep is an endless, circular process.

Sometimes, a work by an artist may not fit well into the “narrative” or the aesthetic arrangement of the room in which it would be displayed – it clashes with the other works in the room because of its color palette or spirit.

We can’t forget about the “politics” of art – certain works on display could be on loan to the museum from an important donor/foundation that “requires” them to be on view. Otherwise, the donor could withdraw the artwork and possibly decide not to make permanent gifts of the desired pieces to the museum.

Finally, a curator may not like a particular artist's work and thus, decides to put it into storage.

So the fact that Beauford’s work is “off view” at certain institutions may not be an arbitrary decision. For specific answers, it is necessary to contact the individual institutions to find out why they are keeping their Delaneys in storage.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Where to Find Beauford's Art: Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan holds five paintings by Beauford. I was able to obtain information and images for four of them.

Among these works is the self-portrait that graces the cover of the David A. Leeming biography Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney.

Auto-portrait
(1965) Oil on canvas

The museum supplied the following text about the painting:

Delaney painted Auto-portrait when in his mid-sixties, while living in a studio that his friends helped him acquire in Paris. It was one of the most fertile phases of his career, even though he was recovering from a nervous breakdown he has suffered in 1961. In his self-portrait, Delaney seems uncertain, anxious, troubled. A cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth, as if forgotten. The hardships of his life can be traced in the craggy, heavy lines of his face. His eyes, bordered in thick, black paint, are just slightly out of alignment, giving him an unsettled, searching look.

Beauford undoubtedly painted this self-portrait in his studio on rue Vercingétorix.

Two of the Whitney’s paintings date from Beauford’s New York years:

Untitled
(1948) Oil on canvas


Untitled
(1950) Pastel on paper

Beauford's history with the Whitney began in New York in January 1930, a couple of months after he moved to New York from Boston. He approached a woman at the Whitney Studio Galleries (the forerunner of today’s museum) with his portfolio and was introduced to Mrs. Juliana Force, the director of purchasing and exhibitions, as a result. Mrs. Force immediately offered him a spot in a four-person show. Beauford displayed three oil portraits and nine pastels at this show. He won first prize for one of his portraits and honorable mention for the pastels that he submitted and received positive reviews from the press. Following the exhibition, the Whitney offered him a job as the studio’s caretaker and telephone operator, as well as studio and living space in the basement.

Paris Window (below) may well depict the rooftop across the street from the Hotel des Ecoles, where Beauford lived from 1953 until 1956. Regarding the location of the room, his friend Richard Gibson said, “If I remember rightly, the room was on the top floor and looked northwards over the rue Delambre. Actually, it was hard to see the street because of the guttering in the front of the floor. “

Paris Window
(1953) Pastel on paper

Beauford left this studio after an altercation with the owners of the hotel. Beauford had cooked a meal for several friends one night in December – James Baldwin, Bernard Hassell, Richard Olney, and Mary Painter – and they had a rousing good time fueled by the cognac that Baldwin brought along for the party. Baldwin did not leave Beauford’s room when the others did, and the hotel owners accused Beauford of having an overnight guest without paying for his stay. Beauford got angry and vowed to move. He vacated the premises for an apartment that Baldwin found for him in the nearby town of Clamart.

None of Beauford’s paintings are currently on display at the Whitney Museum. Scholars may view the works by appointment. To do so, contact Amy Weiss at amy_weiss[at]whitney[dot]org.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Where to Find Beauford's Art: Midwestern US

Several museums in the Midwest hold works by Beauford:

Minneapolis Institute of Arts - Minneapolis, MN
Art Institute of Chicago - Chicago, IL 
University of Michigan Museum of Art - Ann Arbor, MI
University of Iowa Museum of Art - Iowa City, IA

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) produced the most recent one-man show of Beauford's work.  It was mounted in 2004 and traveled to three U.S. museums (Knoxville Museum of Art, Greenville County Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art) before closing in January 2006.


Please refer to the following articles published on the Les Amis blog to learn more about this exposition:

Anatomy of an Art Exposition - Part 1
Anatomy of an Art Exposition - Part 2

MIA holds three works by Beauford.  The best known is the untitled abstract expressionist painting (1954) that Beauford created on a fragment of an old raincoat that he used for canvas.  Its viewing location is listed as G375 on the MIA Web site.  MIA holds two additional works by Beauford that are not currently on view:

Abstract composition (1955) Gouache and watercolor
Ciel (Sky) (1960) Color Screenprint.

I have presented the works held by the Art Institute of Chicago in a previous posting:

Beauford at the Art Institute of Chicago

including a close look at the astonishing self-portrait that hangs there.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art holds three paintings by Beauford.  Street Scene (1951) and House through Trees (1952) are oil paintings that predate his Paris years.

Street Scene
(1951) Oil on canvas

House through Trees (Yaddo)
(1952) Oil on canvas

Beauford painted Composition (1960) during the time he lived in Clamart. Though it was a turbulent year for him, it was also an active one - his works were shown in a one-man show and a group show at the Facchetti Gallery and two additional group shows in Paris.

Composition
(1960) Gouache on paper

The University of Iowa Museum of Art holds an untitled Beauford Delaney painting that dates from 1929.  It is classified as a drawing, and is not currently on view.  The orange and brown hues in this work remind me of autumn.

Untitled
(1929) Watercolor 
The University of Iowa Museum of Art
Gift of the Estate of James Lechay, 2003.5

Though this painting predates what is defined as Beauford's abstract expressionist period, you can see that it is definitely an abstract work.  Indeed, biographer David A. Leeming indicates in Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney that "in the 1920s Beauford was already flirting with a more abstract approach to painting."