Flagstaff's Arts & Entertainment Weekly

March 14-30, 2005     Volume 11, Issue 12


A lived history of light
Biography of Beauford Delaney
reviewed by Qayyum Johnson

‘Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney’
    By David Leeming
    Oxford University Press, N.Y. 1998
    “The innumerable varieties of adventures we are compelled to make, and the initiations we are obliged to go through … begin to make sense and add up so long as we can keep working and accepting the various elements of living which make up the great wide canvas of our life.”
    – Beauford Delaney
    After being deeply moved and exhilarated by the theatrical performance of Calvin Levels in his show, “James Baldwin- Down From the Mountaintop” at Theatrikos Theatre Co. in January, I was eager to learn more about the man whom Baldwin cited as his artistic and spiritual father. It was Beauford Delaney who fully acknowledged and encouraged the aesthetic and heart aspirations of the young man who would become one of the most passionate, clear-thinking and articulate writers of the 20th century.
    The beauty of Levels’ play was myriad. He fully communicated the poignant humanity of Baldwin as he evolved through the visceral challenges of poverty, Jim Crow racism and a society antagonistic to the idea of viewing homosexuals as human beings. The play impressively conveyed the struggle of an individual attempting to remain faithful to the lived experience of searching for truth—however terrifying or joyous the journey may be.
    I hope that Theatrikos will continue to present productions which possess such invaluable social commentary and that Flagstaff will come and support them in this venture. I believe stories which affirm our mutual interdependence are critical to cultivating a proactive sense of community that refuses to allow its members—our neighbors—to go without having their basic needs met. Reading “Amazing Grace” is an act that will foster a deeper appreciation of our kinship with one another.
    Delaney was born the eighth of 10 children in a family headed by a traveling minister in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1901. Before his death in 1979 in France, his life was one lived in extremities. An early affinity for drawing led to formal study and his leaving the South for Boston, where he painted, worked and became acquainted with some of the greatest black intellectuals and activists of the time. Later he would settle in New York City where he lived for years on the Lower East Side, gaining increasing renown as one of the first African American abstract expressionist painters.
    His biographer, David Leeming, writes intimately of Delaney’s life by extensively citing the artist’s own journals and through interviews with the wide circle of friends for whom Delaney was a warm, magnetic sun around which to orbit. Leeming is also the only authorized biographer of Baldwin, having served as his assistant during the early ’60s, during which time he first met Delaney.
    Perhaps most importantly, Leeming keeps himself out of the picture enough so that it feels as though one is exposed—as much as ever possible in biographies—to the subject himself and not simply the biographer’s version of him.
    In straightforward prose that reveals a substantial amount of research, Leeming presents Delaney as a complex artist whose primary obstacles in life were being poor, homosexual and black in a systematically racist, homophobic and economically unequal society. Art critics repeatedly pigeonholed his work as that of a “black painter,” perennially perceiving so-called “primitive” or “African” influences in his paintings. He encountered this type of labeling early in his artistic life and would never quite be free of it. The combination of these pressures seems to have resulted in, or exacerbated, paranoiac tendencies wherein he suffered, especially in his later years, from feelings of persecution, crippling lethargy and mental dislocation.
    Through reading Delaney’s life story, one is immersed in a roiling history of America. Delaney watches the funeral parade of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston, sees a teen-age Josephine Baker in a musical, and befriends the poets Countee Cullen and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Henry Miller writes an essay about him and they remain lifelong friends, and he frequents Alfred Stieglitz’s “An American Place” and the jazz clubs of Harlem in New York.
    What stands out most is his profound commitment to self-expression. As minorities and the poor are oftentimes forced to do, he lives a double life between his economic needs and his artistic ones. Painting is never easy and certainly not when one’s studio apartment has no heat in winter.
    The copious journal entries included in “Amazing Grace” are testimony to his compassionate, ever-curious spirit in the face of such hardships. In them he revels in Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith records as much as he eagerly notes the brush strokes of the painter Arthur Dove or the light of Monet; all influences seem to be ingested, savored and integrated into his canvasses. Included in the book is a collection of color prints of his works from throughout his career.
    “Amazing Grace” is a wonderful meditation on the life of an eminently generous man. It is appropriate that a book about an artist whose primary concern was capturing the spiritual nuance and breathtaking richness and mystery of light should be so wholeheartedly sincere and inspiring.
    This book is available at Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library. For more info, call 523-6802 or see


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