Retrospective exhibitions are usually staged like a playlist of a band’s greatest hits. There is an attempt to include the artist’s most iconic pieces, loaned from individuals or other institutions. Everything is big and loud and often predictable but not always satisfying.
Gathering Light: Works by Beauford Delaney From the KMA Collection, at the Knoxville Museum of Art, is entirely different. Instead of being invited to an institutional mega-presentation, you feel like you’ve been invited to Delaney’s home. You get to hang out in his studio, where he lets you dig through his sketchbooks. You have dinner in his kitchen and then go outside to put up your feet, talk, and have a few beers. When you walk into the street-level gallery you get to personally meet this internationally acclaimed artist, not just a catalog of his most known work.
From the beginning, it has been difficult for KMA to develop a collection of Beauford Delaney’s work. Though he was born in Knoxville, in 1901, and received his first art education here with private lessons from renowned local artist Lloyd Branson, he left town for good at a critical age. He first traveled to Boston, to study at the South Boston School of Art and the Copley Society, then moved to New York in 1929. He slowly began to develop a reputation and a following.
After decades of struggle and work, he moved to Paris in 1953. There, he fell in with a group of expatriate American artists and writers; the freedom to be black and gay, to be not just accepted but embraced by a community, convinced him to stay. He died in Paris in 1979.
All of his mature work was created and sold wherever he moved and worked. After his death, his unsold work and the sketchbooks that were in his studio were packed up by his artist brother, Joseph Delaney, and shipped back to the United States, where Joseph let them remain for years in the shipping boxes. When Joseph became the original artist in residence at the University of Tennessee, this work came back to Knoxville with him.
Most of the work in this exhibit has never been on public view. The bulk of it is water media on paper, experimental work, and studies for larger work. Most delightfully, there were tiny notebooks full of notes, studies, and random drawings done from wherever he was sitting of whatever he was looking at, including several self-portraits. There are no large canvases, either abstract or realist. Delaney lived at a time where you had to transcend realism to be taken seriously, and he seems to have done it effortlessly; his experiments with abstraction predate the abstract expressionist movement.
The earliest work in the exhibit is “Untitled 1928,” a charcoal portrait in the academic realism style of the time. The latest is “Untitled 1972,” a watercolor and gouache abstract on paper. When the museum framed the work, they thoughtfully left all the edges, spiral notebook holes, and perforation edges intact, giving each piece a more intimate presentation. One small drawing, “Untitled (West African Figurine),” is rendered with ink on foil wrapping paper. The delicate drawing is undiminished by the wrinkled wrapper. A series of nine self-portraits, obviously rendered one after the other on consecutive pages of a tiny spiral paper pad, read as a kind of animation of his process. He fiddles and corrects line placement. He tries different head angles. He does versions with a cigarette in his mouth. He smiles at himself as he seems to relax while engaged in this intimate discipline.
More tiny sketches of people and locations and abstractions pulled from spiral paper pads are scattered not just among the framed work on the walls but also in a large glass-topped case. Some of these tiny pads are left open, displaying just one dynamic sketch or a rough layout of an idea with written notes. Photos of the artist and his friends and family are also mixed in. The one I found most delightful was a classic photo booth three-shot strip that Delaney had done of himself, first glancing to the right, then turning his head to the right, and then staring straight at the camera for the final shot, where he has burst out laughing.
A series of abstract watercolor paintings are the most formal grouping in the collection. They show Delaney at full power during his abstract period. The spiritual meaning of his use of color—he believed yellow is a source of healing and redemption—is in rich display. These paintings also show Delaney’s constant experimentation. In “Untitled 1960,” painted on black paper, he adds particles of powdered blue cobalt pigment. In most of them he adds gouache, a form of opaque watercolor with white pigment added, to give them the full atmospheric impact of what he was also doing in his oil paintings.
Gathering Light is the first of two Beauford Delaney exhibits KMA has planned. The second, scheduled for 2018, will feature work on loan from private collectors and institutions in Paris. It will be organized by Monique Wells of the French organization Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, which has been instrumental in helping the museum locate and catalog Delaney’s work in Europe.
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