As America reckons with its racist history in a way it never has previously, the wisdom of James Baldwin (1924-1987) resurfaces.
His novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film from 2018. An unfinished manuscript of his was converted into the Academy Award-nominated 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” Both are enjoying a resurgence of popularity.
Endless contemporary reviews of his writings, speaking and thinking have placed him in the Black Lives Matter conversation.
Baldwin wrote fiction, essays and served as a prominent voice in the civil rights movement. An “out” gay man, he was also an early champion of LGBTQ rights.
One man inspired him more than any other. That man was an artist: Beauford Delaney (1901-1979).
Their relationship received exhibition treatment for the first time at the Knoxville Museum of Art in 2020 during “Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door.”
The pair had a 38-year relationship. The KMA holds the world’s largest public collection of work by Delaney, a Knoxville native.
James Baldwin Through the Unusual Door
The exhibition title, “Through the Unusual Door,” comes from a passage in Baldwin’s volume of collected essays, “The Price of the Ticket (1985),” describing the author’s reaction to his initial encounter with Delaney in the doorway of the artist’s Greenwich Village studio: “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.”
This first meeting encapsulates Delaney’s transformational effect on Baldwin’s view of himself and the world he lived in, setting the tone for the painter’s role in the author’s life.
“Baldwin entered Delaney’s world in 1940 at age 15 and from the beginning the two recognized in each other kindred spirits whose personal circumstances were strikingly similar,” Stephen C. Wicks, Barbara W. and Bernard E. Bernstein Curator, Knoxville Museum of Art, told me when I wrote about the show for Forbes.com. “Baldwin found in Delaney a father figure, muse and model of perseverance as a gay man of color who broadened his creative vision and opened for him the transformative possibility that a black man could become an artist.”
Baldwin, in turn, inspired Delaney with his fearless social conscience and commitment to civil rights causes.
“Delaney found in Baldwin a powerful intellectual and spiritual anchor who inspired some of his finest works and who provided vital emotional support and creative validation and who played a key role as ‘witness’ to the painter’s evolution, which he deemed ‘one of the most extraordinary personal and artistic journeys of our time,’” Wicks said.
Beauford Delaney’s artistic evolution
As an art museum, Delaney’s “evolution” as a painter takes center stage in the exhibit.
Baldwin witnessed first-hand the transformation Delaney’s art underwent in Europe, a move from New York to Paris in 1953 encouraged by Baldwin who’d already fled the limitations and humiliations racism placed on Black creatives in America. “A most striking metamorphosis into freedom,” Baldwin explained of Delaney’s European paintings which consisted of “elaborate, fluid swirls of paint applied in luminous hues… pure and simplified expressions of light.”
While no other figure in Delaney’s extensive social orbit, which spanned the Atlantic Ocean and included Georgia O’Keeffe and Louis Armstrong, approaches Baldwin in the extent and duration of influence, none of the previous major exhibitions of his work has explored in any depth the creative exchange between the two. “Through the Unusual Door” forwards the idea that Delaney’s profound stylistic change–“from descriptive realism to atmospheric abstraction as governed by his intuitive response to the subject at hand,” as described by Wicks–was in part inspired by his intellectual and personal relationship with Baldwin.
The exhibition incorporates previously unpublished archival materials and artworks that promise to extend the understanding of Delaney’s aesthetic agenda and range and reveal the extent of his ties to Baldwin.
Delaney influences Baldwin, Baldwin influences Delaney
The painter produced more than a dozen works depicting Baldwin, one of which resides in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., or inspired by him, and the writer dedicated several novels and essays to his mentor.
Baldwin’s short story collection “Going to Meet the Man” (1965) is dedicated to Delaney and Delaney is included in the dedication to Baldwin’s “No Name in the Street” (1972).
Baldwin shared a slice of the impact Delaney had on him in his 1985 essay “The Price of the Ticket:” “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken, but I never saw him bow.”
Sadly, Beauford was “broken,” not, ultimately, by racism, but by the mental illness which progressively plagued him. Delaney’s last years were spent in a sanitarium in France, Baldwin being appointed one of his primary trustees helping see to his needs. When the artist died in Saint Anne’s Hospital for the Insane he was buried in what amounted to a pauper’s grave outside of Paris.
Later in life, his work had nearly been forgotten, or systematically erased from the art history record due to his race, depending on how you look at it. Fortunately, beginning in 1978 with his first major retrospective exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Delaney’s genius was resuscitated. His work can now be found in the collections of most of America’s best art institutions.
“Many visitors to the exhibition will likely be surprised by the striking physical presence of Delaney’s paintings when seen firsthand thanks to his densely built and highly textured painted surfaces,” Wicks said. “Especially remarkable are Delaney’s inventive portraits, which range from descriptive figure studies based on direct observation to abstracted compositions that captured his emotional response at the expense of any physical likeness.”
The portraits, still-lives, street scenes and modernist interiors Delaney created in the 1940s and 1950s used a thick impasto paint and featured undulating lines and bright colors reminiscent of Fauvism. These vibrant, passionate works hovered between abstraction and the figurative.