“Have been working and living with the many people who make up Beauford,” Beauford Delaney wrote to his great friend James Baldwin in September 1954, “and trying to merge them into some sense of composition and a workable form of painting.” Composition 16, a modestly sized work on canvas composed of swirling, wormlike strokes of yellow, red, orange, ocher, pale green, and blue paint, some squeezed directly from the tube, is a vivid example of Delaney’s quest to unite disparate aspects of his interior life and artistic practice while keeping a promise to continue “doing all that is possible with paint.” With its suggestion of ground, sun, sky, and allover painting technique, Composition 16 fuses landscape and abstraction, depicting light and color as ecstatic matter. The color yellow, scumbled liberally over the surface of the painting as a unifying element and predominating in many of Delaney’s abstract and figurative works from the period, seems to have held a particular fascination for the artist. Philosopher Rudolf Steiner wrote, “If yellow is to be painted—do not only apply yellow, but live in the colour itself,” and canvases such as Composition 16, like a yellow-hued Self-Portrait from 1962 and the yellow-walled interiors in St. Paul de Vence from 1972, show the artist embracing a Steiner-like dictate.
Delaney was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1901. He studied art in Boston in his twenties and moved to New York in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression. In 1953, financial support from friends and patrons allowed him to visit Europe. Paris was meant to be the first stop on a longer itinerary, but he was so enchanted by the city that he remained there until his death, in 1979. For African American visual artists such as Herb Gentry, Bob Blackburn, Ed Clark, and Bob Thompson, and for the writers Baldwin, Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and others, France served as a refuge as they sought to ease the bite of domestic racism after the end of World War II. Indeed, while Delaney had not intended to settle permanently in Europe, he quickly realized he had found there a more hospitable climate in which to pursue his craft. Asked about his experience as an expatriate he replied,
Expatriate? It appears to me that in order to be an expatriate one has to be, in some manner, driven from one’s fatherland, from one’s native land. When I left the United States during the 1950s no such condition was left behind. One must belong before one may then not belong. I belong here in Paris, I am able to realize myself here. I am no expatriate.
While Paris had in some sense liberated Delaney, there were sorrows he could not escape. “There always seems to be the shadow,” Delaney wrote to a benefactor, “which follows the light.” Although he was referring to the financial difficulties that plagued him throughout his career, the artist could also have been talking about his struggles with mental illness, which manifested as psychotic breaks and ghostly voices in his head, resulting in his confinement to a mental hospital at the end of his life. While Delaney was a mentor to Baldwin during the author’s early years, Baldwin later became Delaney’s protector, assisting him financially and emotionally. For an introduction to an exhibition in Paris in 1964 Baldwin wrote, “Perhaps I am so struck by the light in Beauford’s paintings because he comes from darkness—as I do, as, in fact, we all do.” The vibrant luminosity of Composition 16 is but one example of Delaney’s lifelong quest to find light in that darkness.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Glenn Ligon, independent scholar