This portrait by Delaney is suffused with the color yellow, the artist’s signature hue, which came to dominate many of his paintings after he left New York for Paris in 1953. While the artist’s transatlantic relocation coincided with his radical embrace of abstraction, Delaney continued to paint portraits of his friends and acquaintances, a genre that had first brought him recognition in the United States in the 1940s. His later portraits typically reflected his newly developed abstract language: in Portrait of Howard Swanson, one finds the same agitated networks of swirling brushstrokes and brilliant pigment featured in Delaney’s abstractions, what the artist described
as “lava-like smoke and fluid color.”
A fellow African American expatriate in Europe during the 1950s and ’60s, Howard Swanson was an important composer of classical music and one of Delaney’s closest friends. Delaney shows little interest in reconstituting his subject’s exact likeness or individual psychology: instead, he prioritized the evocation of Swanson’s distinctive personality and aura. A luminous, vibrant homage, this painting also conveys a striking sense of loss and absence. Swanson appears as a ghostly figure, his massive head and torso seemingly dissolving within the yellow surface. Made soon after Swanson’s definitive return to the United States, and hence probably painted from memory, this portrait pays affectionate tribute to a departed friend.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)