The Last Bohemian

In August of 1953, the American painter Beauford Delaney was aboard the ocean liner Liberté, bound for Paris, the city in which he would spend the rest of his life. The ship’s purser asked Delaney if he wouldn’t mind regaling the other passengers with some jazz standards. Delaney, it seems, had written “artiste” on his travel papers—which implied that he was a performer. If he chafed at the assumption that any black artist must necessarily be a jazz singer, Delaney didn’t record it in his journal. Instead, he obligingly (and drunkenly) sang “Old Man River” for his well-heeled fellow travelers. But then again, Delaney wasn’t a man unused to performing for the white world: As an artiste, his most vivid creation was himself.

Delaney, whose work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, has slowly been creeping back into fashion decades after he died, penniless and largely unknown, in a French insane asylum. Such a critical rehabilitation is well overdue: Delaney is blazingly good—if more than a little perplexing.

Part of what’s confounding about Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris—which includes portraits and streetscapes, as well as the wild abstractions for which Delaney is best known—is that it seems to include the work of at least a half-dozen artists, each with his own distinct style and lineage. Delaney’s essentially chameleonic nature makes it nearly impossible to place him in any sort of art historical tradition. On the evidence of a 1958 piece like Abstraction (Autumn), in which whorls of red and yellow imply dense autumn foliage, you’d swear he fit best with the Abstract Expressionists. Then again, the playful, squiggly brushstrokes and bold colors of his wonderful 1946 Jazz Quartet suggest a painter under the spell of Matisse and Cézanne. Likewise, Delaney is difficult to classify according to any of the other usual categories. He was black, but moved with equal facility in both black and white circles; he was gay, but puritanical and self-conflicted about sexuality; he was American, but took much of his inspiration from Europe. Delaney’s restless, alchemical approach to painting makes one want to throw out those fussy taxonomies and just enjoy the damn stuff.

Delaney was born in Knoxville in 1901, the son of a former slave and a Methodist circuit-riding minister. Contrary to the later popular assumption that he was self-taught, Delaney actually apprenticed with an older painter in Knoxville, a Confederate apologist who specialized in landscapes. Later, this unlikely mentor facilitated Delaney’s formal art education at Boston’s Lowell Institute.

Life as an artist didn’t really begin for Delaney until he moved to New York in 1929, however. His welcome was not particularly warm; he was robbed of all his worldly belongings within a few hours of arriving in Harlem. In fact, because of his homosexuality, Delaney never felt comfortable in the relatively bourgeois milieu of Harlem’s black society. Instead, destitute and malnourished, he ended up in a decrepit Greenwich Village apartment. His was literally a cold-water flat: One winter, the pipes beneath the floor froze solid, and Delaney was hobbled by frostbite from walking on the frigid planks.

Even under such desperate circumstances, Delaney seems to have found time to befriend nearly every artist in New York. He was close with Henry Miller, acted as a kind of spiritual adviser to James Baldwin, and became at least acquainted with everyone from W.C. Handy and W.E.B. Du Bois to Anaïs Nin and Alfred Stieglitz. To them, Delaney was a smiling, gnomish eccentric; to Delaney, his friends were a source of money and food as much as companionship. Perhaps as a way to settle perceived debts, Delaney often painted flattering portraits of his friends and patrons. One of the finest in the MIA exhibit is his 1941 painting of a young James Baldwin, Dark Rapture. In it, a lithe and apparently nude Baldwin is posed as a classical Adonis in a sylvan setting. The colors—pastel purples and pinks, along with boldly deployed slashes of dark green—are pretty obviously influenced by van Gogh. The tone of the portrait, however, is pure Delaney: A sinuous intertwining of the erotic and the mystical, an adoration both spiritual and sexual.

In 1945, Miller wrote an essay about his painter friend, “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney.” Like a lot of Miller’s writing, it seems overheated; nevertheless, it made Delaney a Village celebrity. More than one acquaintance compared him to Joe Gould, a classic New York eccentric made famous by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell’s description of Gould—“a blithe and emaciated little man”—could indeed have applied equally to Delaney. For his part, Delaney cultivated the reputation of a bohemian guru and a gentle, Buddha-like sage. Even frequent episodes of sweaty, drunken delirium became part of his put-on persona (in addition to being a serious alcoholic, Delaney was likely an undiagnosed schizophrenic). There’s an often-repeated story about Baldwin and Delaney walking down the street in New York. Delaney pointed out a pool of filthy water in the gutter, iridescent with gasoline. When Baldwin didn’t see anything, Delaney said, “Look again.” Finally, Baldwin saw the shimmering reflection of the city. That same dreamy transfiguration of New York comes through in streetscapes like Delaney’s 1940 Greene Street. Here, the grimy workaday elements of the city—a manhole cover and sewer grate, for instance—are rearranged in a floating Kandinsky-esque dream landscape.

Given how Delaney responded to the vibrant environs of Greenwich Village, it’s hard to understand why he chose to leave America in 1953. Maybe he was seeking the racial and sexual egalité that Baldwin and Miller seemed to have discovered in Europe. Or maybe he intuited that his art was out of step with the macho primitivism that characterized the exploding New York art world: While Jackson Pollock and his fellow Abstract Expressionists were creating an art fit for the rhythm of American industry and the violence of the A-bomb, Delaney’s work remained suffused with the gentle grace of an Old Master. Or perhaps, as his journal suggests, Delaney originally intended to return to New York, but simply liked Paris so much that he decided to stay.

Paris has, of course, always represented some sort of resplendent Shangri-La—a “moveable feast,” in Hemingway’s words—to American artists. In Oscar Wilde’s memorable quip, it’s the place good Americans go when they die (bad Americans go to America, naturally). That wild bohemian Paris of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein was already a faded myth by Delaney’s time, but the air of Old World grandeur still clung to the city in the American imagination. Artists certainly weren’t chasing their muse to Akron or Frankfurt. Unlike Baldwin and Miller, however, Delaney thought of himself less as an exile than as a traveler. An exile, after all, carries the memories of home with him wherever he goes; a traveler maintains a passionate, childlike openness to the experience of a new place. In his journal, he recorded his first impression of France: “the light inscrutable, eternal, serene, wordless, yet sovereign, moving yet still including all things, silencing all things.” The light in Paris seems, in fact, to have triggered his most radical self-reinvention.

Not that his life was any easier in Paris: Delaney’s garret in Montparnasse was every bit as tumbledown as his New York quarters had been. He still relied on friends for food and money. At one point, in fact, he was so destitute that he turned his raincoat into a canvas (the painting he made from it is cleverly displayed at the MIA so that you can see the coat pocket on the reverse side). But the paintings he made in Paris are so unlike anything he’d done before that it’s hard to believe they were done by the same person: Almost purely abstract, these giant canvases are exp
losions of color. The sprays and squiggles of soft blues and warm reds give the heavily worked pieces an almost quilt-like texture. But unlike the similarly Expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock, there’s nothing violent or aggressive about them.

One of these pieces is named for Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” and it has the same cool, intellectual precision as that exemplary piece of music. During his time in Paris, Delaney also fell under the spell of Monet—particularly the now-famous water lily paintings displayed at the Orangerie, which Monet painted during his blind dotage. Delaney’s late abstractions have that same admixture of melancholy and serenity. Beneath their heavily worked surfaces and turbulent colors, these paintings work a synesthetic magic: Merely to be in a room with them is to feel Delaney’s beatific calm.

Delaney’s life didn’t end after a peaceful and prosperous old age, unfortunately. In the grip of worsening dementia, he took to wandering his Paris neighborhood, a wraith-like figure supported only by the few of his surviving friends who still lived in the city. But even knowing that his mind was probably slipping from its moorings as he painted his abstractions can’t diminish their radical freshness. If his subsequent tumble into obscurity seems like an unjust fate for an artist who probably should have been considered in the first rank of American painters, c’est la vie. In a weird way, it may even be the very qualities that made Delaney such a baffling cipher during his lifetime—his restless, protean approach to life and art-making, as well as his openness to influences both American and European—give the MIA’s retrospective its frisson of discovery. How else could you label such a vagabond spirit except as an American original?