Beauford Delaney: Portraits Glowing With Inner Light

The earliest Paris painting here is “Composition Peinture (a.k.a. Light Blue to Gold Abstraction)” from around 1958, which shows abstraction taking over completely in a shimmer of colors that suggests an artist blissed out on nature. You’ll soon notice that the brushwork in Delaney’s abstractions is free-form; each surface has different rhythms. Two small abstractions from around 1960 share a light-shot palette of chartreuse, yellow and white but the surface of one is all bristling crisis-crossing strokes, while the other is a soft expanse of puddling blobs, almost like sunspots. Each painting feels fresh and experimental — a risky lack of predictability that is shared by very few of his contemporaries. In this show Delaney’s abstract techniques first register in his figurative efforts in a 1962 self-portrait, in which the background, as well as the artist’s face, sweater and French beret are pulverized in different color combinations. Each area could be expanded into an abstract painting.

Delaney’s dappled garments and backdrops also suggest auras, inner light. A thick radiant yellow becomes his signature color, whether in the glowing face of Bernard Hassell, the dancer who became Baldwin’s companion, seen against purple (around 1963), or the entire being of Ahmed Bioud, another friend, from 1964. Abstraction and portraiture achieve an amazing unity in a 1967 portrait of Baldwin in which the writer’s face and shoulders are little more than black outlines with touches of green on a pulsing field of yellow.

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