Knoxville Art Museum
Residents of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Paris, France, are trying to make sure Beauford Delaney doesn’t get lost in time.
He is one of many notable American artists of the 20and century.
Delaney interacted with the entire canon, using the techniques of Van Gogh, the color of Les Fauves, and the design principles of Abstract Expressionism. His work was based on spontaneity and emotion.
Knoxville writer and historian Jack Neely says seeing Delaney’s exhibit at the Knoxville Museum of Art in the 1990s opened his mind to Abstract Expressionism.
“That show kind of flipped a switch in my brain and I saw, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,'” he says. “It was like swimming, or something, in another world. It was like it was almost moving.”
The Knoxville Museum of Art has the largest collection of works by Beauford Delaney.
When you’re on the second floor of the “Higher Ground: A Century of Visual Arts in East Tennessee” exhibit and wind around two corners, you’re greeted by a self-portrait of Delaney.
“It looks like an Egyptian pharaoh sitting on something like a surfboard or a coffin in a yellow room,” says 11-year-old Jesse Wojcik. One of his classes went to Paris for an exchange program in 2018 to learn more about Delaney.
The self-portrait Cole is looking at is Delaney sitting in a public bath in Paris.
The painting sits next to Beauford’s well-known brother, Joseph.
The brothers learned to draw together on Sunday school cards at church.
Both have made their own journey through the New York art scene. Both are well known in some parts of the art world, Beauford more so than Joseph, and both could use a boost.
Joseph’s work celebrated the liveliness of lower Manhattan. He also did portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eartha Kitt and others.
Joseph and Beauford’s work is an international magnet for Knoxville.
Beauford Delaney left his hometown at the age of 23 and visited it sparingly.
“Knoxville himself was surprised at how the power and creativity of an African-American artist brought out the best in this part of the world,” said Sylvia Peters, art collector and museum administrator.
Beauford Delaney left home for art school in Boston. Then he headed to New York, where the energy of the Harlem Renaissance caught his imagination.
“Generally when depicting skin and especially darker skin, you get a lot more wild play of color,” says author Mary Campbell. She writes on religious themes in the work of Delaney. (She also happens to be Jesse Wojcik’s mother.)
While in New York for more than two decades, Delaney began to make a name for himself for his portrayals of well-known black people such as WEB DuBois. He also creates a lifelong mentorship with a young James Baldwin.
Life magazine picked up Delaney’s artistic buzz and profiled him.
This caught the attention of her hometown newspaper which then wrote that there would be a shrine to her childhood home.
But writer and historian Jack Neely says that was erased when the government wiped out black neighborhoods.
“People were interested in that in 1938, and 30 years later, we have completely forgotten about it,” he says.
In 1970, when Delaney visited the house, Neely says he probably saw his neighborhood was gone. Now his childhood home is the site of a federal credit union.
Two decades earlier, Delaney traveled to Paris on a fellowship trip to learn more about abstract painting. He made the city his home. Baldwin was also living in France at the time.
After the World Wars, America finally had the chance to lead an artistic movement with Abstract Expressionism.
But Campbell says straight white men have drawn attention.
“We persist in making this distinction between supposedly racially neutral American art and African American art as a totally false distinction,” she says.
Depending on where you look, some biographies limit Beauford Delaney’s story to the Harlem Renaissance.
When Delaney died in 1979 in Paris, Campbell said he had neither the money nor the connections to ensure his legacy was cemented.
“He doesn’t have a lawyer who writes a will to ensure that after his death his work will go into specific collections,” she explains.
But the communities of Paris and Knoxville are taking bold steps to make sure Delaney gets attention.
In Paris, there’s a self-guided tour that passes by Delaney’s former studio and includes other stops that recognize where he was in the city.
The Delaney Project sets up a student exchange project for students from both countries to get to know each other through creation and conversation. They also set up a biannual cultural event that promotes art forms related to Delaney’s legacy.
Next year, the Knoxville Museum of Art will lend his work to another museum.
Additionally, a museum is being built in honor of Joseph and Beauford Delaney.