Oil on the Water: Light Reflections on Baldwin and Delaney

by D. Amari Jackson

I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, ‘Look”, recalled James Baldwin for The Paris Review, in the spring of 1984. “I looked and all I saw was water.  And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle.  It was a great revelation to me.  I can’t explain it.  He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw.  Painters have often taught writers how to see.  And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.” 

James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney, Paris, circa 1960. The Estate of Beauford Delaney. Image from Knoxville Museum of Art website

For  Baldwin, in many ways, Beauford Delaney was the light. As a teenager struggling with his impoverished circumstances and his own identity, the Harlem-born Baldwin showed up at the Greenwich Village studio of the nationally acclaimed painter on the recommendation of a schoolmate. Twenty-three years his senior, Delaney fast became a father figure for Baldwin, particularly given the established artist saw himself in the aspiring writer. 

“Baldwin had a very repressive stepfather who beat him mercilessly, so James grew up never believing that he would be a literary genius, and then came Delaney,” says Sylvia Peters, chair of the Delaney Project, the organization championing his art in Delaney’s hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. The retired school principal, activist, collector, and self-described Delaney-Baldwin “junkie” once sat down with Baldwin after a 1984 book signing for an hourlong discussion on inspiring children. “Beauford was a father figure and they loved each other,” explains Peters, noting “they were both gay men, but they were not involved, and I think that people always think they were.  But theirs was a very creative, artistic relationship.” 

The similarities were apparent. Both were soaring intellects with keen analytical minds and superior creative capabilities. Both were sons of ministers raised in the church and struggled with their sexual identity.  Both were visionaries, so much so they could gaze into an oily puddle to see the world around them, for all its myriad colors and light, and in that timeless moment, the elder could convey the gift of sight.

Baldwin by Khalif Thompson, 6ft x 6ft oil, handmade paper (abaca, Cotton, hemp), fabric, Gold leaf, construction paper on canvas. The Dorseys’ Black Art In America collection

Delaney’s near-instantaneous ability to see through Baldwin’s insecurities and recognize his extraordinary intellect was based in the older man’s capacity to see himself twenty years earlier, to see light emanating from darkness. In his 1985 introduction to The Price of the Ticket, Baldwin spoke to this unsettling scrutiny, recalling his first meeting with Delaney in the doorway of his Greene Street studio:  

I was terrified… A short, round brown man came to the door and looked at me. He had the most extraordinary eyes I’d ever seen. When he had completed his instant X-ray of my brain, lungs, liver, heart, bowels, and spinal column… he smiled and said, ‘Come in.’”   

Those words would prompt a four-decade relationship between two uniquely gifted artists, one where each would inspire and even sustain the other. While fully acknowledging the two had a “great influence on each other” given Baldwin’s later influence on Delaney’s social justice perspective, Peters clarifies that “Delaney was the person that told James Baldwin how to see things differently.” 

With his own traumatic background, Delaney was well positioned to do so.  The loss of two sisters at an early age, coupled with his identity struggles, was challenging enough for the growing teen. But, in 1919, two major events had an indelible impact on the reeling 18-year-old. In April, his father died suddenly from a heart attack. Four months later, his hometown erupted in the Knoxville race riot of 1919 and, according to biographer David Leeming’s Amazing Grace, “The Delaneys had a terrible time getting home on the day of the riot, and young Beauford was particularly horrified by what he saw…” The trauma contributed to lifelong nightmares and reoccurring battles with mental health.  Years later, wrote Leeming, “when in an acute paranoid attack, Beauford inexplicably threw himself onto the floor of a car I was driving and shouted, ‘Get down, they’re shooting from the roof!”        

Despite dealing with his share of darkness, Delaney was a master of light.  As an artistic conduit, light flowed through him, through his unique “X-ray” eyes, through his floating, masterful hands, anointing every canvas with its simmering foundational presence in layered golden colors, in reddened rays of sun. Consistently, Delaney’s paintings were characterized by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery as “expressionistic” with his abstractions having “clear ties to Monet’s studies of light” and “consisting of elaborate, fluid swirls of paint applied in luminous hues” as “pure and simplified expressions of light.” 

“Shine The Light” by Najee Dorsey

Peters stresses how both men were “very keen observers of light, Beauford through his painting, and James through his writing.” Each, she says, had a way of “layering” his work for increased impact, be it Baldwin’s masterful employment of timeless literary themes or Delaney’s rich, vibrant colors.  “Beauford’s paintings look like they were made last week,” notes Peters, “not 60 and 70 years ago. They’re just brilliant, they’re that vibrant. And I think that’s where Baldwin got the notion of writing for all times.” She points to how Delaney mixed his own colors in a special way to produce such an indelible effect under relatively crude circumstances. “I’ve never seen color like that,” says Peters, insisting what Delaney did to raise the level of abstract art was “otherworldly. It’s like moving away from this planet and into the cosmos. I’ve spent six hours in the Picasso Museum because I just thought Picasso was the greatest. But after looking at Beauford’s painting…”   

“This man was so far ahead of his time.  He knew how to layer the pigment on the canvas so that if you look up at a portrait from the right side, you see one view, from the other side we see another and, if you look straight on, yet another. It’s simultaneity of time, it’s like classic existence in space.”  Peters cites how 15th century Florentine artist Masaccio was acclaimed for his similar skill at producing such dimensionality in his early Renaissance works. “So you see three different images and it’s like telling a story, the beginning, the middle and end.”

Scattered Light by Beauford Delaney, 1964. via Knoxville Museum of Art website.

The middle of Delaney’s own story was spent in Paris as he and Baldwin were part of a growing community of African American expatriates and artists working in and around the city.  Despite being widely regarded, in the mid-20th century, as the most popular Black artist living abroad, Delaney’s celebrated reputation and productivity did not attract financial success. Consistently, the end of his story was nothing to celebrate. Drinking heavily, suicidal, and plagued by paranoia and depression, Delaney managed to labor through the 1970s with Baldwin’s support before succumbing to his poor mental and physical health. He died in a Paris asylum on March 26, 1979.

Ultimately, Delaney’s impact on Baldwin is best captured by the writer himself.  In The Price of the Ticket, the iconic writer eulogized that  “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil,” wrote Baldwin. “He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion… I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken, but I never saw him bow.”

Peters believes he never will, that Delaney’s light, with time, will only grow brighter. 

“Let me tell you something about Beauford,” she confidently offers. “I believe that Beauford, in the future, is going to be more prominent than Monet, Picasso and Rembrandt.” 

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