Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney

By David Leeming
ISBN 0-19-509784-X

Reviewed by Mark P. Fisher

In Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney, author David Leeming offers a tender and well written biography of the life and passing of a talented 20th century African-American expatriate artist.

Born in 1901, Delaney spent his childhood and teen years in Knoxville, Tennessee. He then moved to Boston, then to Harlem and other New York City locations, and finally to France, mostly Paris. We follow his artistic development and see him gain fame and notoriety as he spends his entire professional adult life as a painter of pictures. He dies on March 25, 1979, in Paris.

Along the way, Delaney befriends a young author, James Baldwin, and a lifelong friendship ensues. Likewise with author Henry Miller, who introduced many people to Delaney in his essay "The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney." These are but a few of the blue chip intellectuals to whom Delaney was kindred soul, friend, and mentor.

Predictably, early critics of Delaney's paintings lauded his wit and eye, yet insisted upon pigeon-holing him as a "Negro artist" -- handicap implied but never articulated. If we must categorize or label, let us call him a "black genius."

Delaney's love of and life carried him through many economic and spiritual crises. Early critics, reviewing his paintings, rarely put aside racial prejudices for Beauford. But then nonwhites and women of any race have never truly been admitted to the uppermost clubs of Western art history and the art market it serves.

A natural draughtsman, Delaney went beyond the rendering of likeness onto the rendering of feelings, of emotional temperatures. Truly plastic in his technical ability, Delaney worked both in the realistic and the abstract modes, with great kinaesthetic implications.

A selection of color plates at the center of the book show Delaney's great range as an artist. They reveal paintings that show great human strength in one, great human frailty in the next.

In Delaney, we find a metaphysical and metamorphic artist at work. There is great variety in what he eye sees. Indeed, in many it is as if he sees through different sets of eyes, not only his own. Some paintings are painted as a bird might have perceived the scene, or as a street lamp might. There is an active search for artistic truth going on here.

Like so many of us, Delaney suffered from alcoholism and its attendant problems. In the early 1960s he was diagnosed by one psychiatrist as having paranoid delusions aggravated by alcohol. Regardless of the psychiatric diagnosis, clearly Delaney was a very sensitive person stressed by slow art sales, friends departing, and his own poor nutritional habits. These predisposing conditions precipitated depression, followed by heavy drinking.

The book came to me via Marty N. of the Oakland Lifering Secular Recovery group. Marty obtained it from another American expatriate artist and longtime SOS member, Charley Boggs -- a longtime friend of Delaney's. Boggs helped his troubled friend with financial support, lodging and friendship during times that were some of the least graceful in Delaney's life -- when his mind and body were falling apart. This extension of friendship to a troubled friend is particularly poignant for myself as another person who shouldn't drink alcohol. If others hadn't been there for me, where might I be now? A toast to you, Charley!

Author David Leeming tells the story of Delaney's life clearly and without saccharine sentiment or needless decoration. Although tough times descend on Delaney over and over again, to dwell upon the sadness would obscure the phoenix of joy and humanity that springs out of Beauford Delaney's body of work.

Plates: Greene Street (above, left), oil on canvas, 20 x 26 in. Dark Rapture (above right), oil on board, 34 x 28 in. Top, book cover, Self-Portrait 1965, 23 x 19 in

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