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In painting, edges are color lines. They are gradations of color that demarcate objects and contribute to illusions of depth perspective. The rules of color edges are so familiar that a basic online art lesson can admonish beginners, “Many errors in painting occur as a result of providing the wrong information through inappropriate edges.”1 The idea of “wrong information” and, indeed, of an “inappropriate edge”—based in the idea of the proper, what is permissible—is linked to the political in a Rancièrian manner as it constructs the appropriate edge as speech (representation that is sanctioned) and the inappropriate edge as noise (outside of sanctioned discourse, logos, even apprehension).2 Abstractionists always are aware of this, creating torsion with formal conventions that demand tamed color gradations and familiar shading techniques to corroborate ideologically inflected views of reality. In his Paris painting Untitled-1969, however, the painter Beauford Delaney (December 30 1931–March 26 1979) enjoins Black art to engage inappropriate edges, reconfiguring W.E.B. Du Bois’s adage that the problem of the twentieth century is, in fact, the problem of the color line.3 In Untitled-1969, a tempura painting on newspaper, Beauford Delaney asks in what ways can the arts weaponize inappropriate edges, pitting visual abstraction against official language and history and materializing that which is outside of both, making visible the politics of enunciation.4
I first saw Untitled-1969 at a one-day exhibition and sale of Delaney works, held in downtown Knoxville by the Delaney estate.5 Mounted on white and one of the smaller works on display at only 11.5 x 16.75 inches, the painting is an abstraction done in greens, yellows, blues, and white. It riveted me, however, because as a tempera on newspaper, it was different than anything I had previously seen by Delaney. Beauford Delaney’s work went through many stylistic shifts in multiple media, from realistic portraiture to fauvism to abstraction, and the range as well as the quality of work is astounding. By the 1960s, Delaney was creating some of his most important abstractionist paintings, and he became famous for an impasto technique, layering paint thickly on a canvas to create color texture. Delaney in fact is known for this groundbreaking use and theory of color. The politics of Delaney’s work is subtle, made to speak through light, color, and, sometimes, subject.
Untitled—1969 is different. The four-color palette, dominated by the yellow and green colors that Delaney long associated with life and light, is tempera—a paint made from egg yolk, pigment, and water. Tempera is often used on paper that cannot be layered to build impasto, and unlike oil paintings it will not darken or change with age. But looking closely, one can see how Delaney attempts to defy medium by layering and thickening the paint. This effect is oddly enhanced by the wear and tear in this once-badly-preserved piece that has resulted in some flaking as well as a few small holes and rips. In this painting, edges of color and material edges fight against one another: the thick impasto of paint in tones of earth and sky sits in tension with the flatness and machinic artificiality of black-and-white typeface; the semi-permanence of tempura paint is in contact force with the ephemerality of acidic and fragile newspaper print; the value of a preserved painting is contrasted to the unimportance of torn, daily newsprint. Viewing the painting today produces an effect of temporal dislocation: Delaney’s painting sits on a precarious edge between permanence and impermanence, organicism and mechanism, the presentism of newspaper reporting and painting’s more enduring historical statements.
Figures 3A, B, and C. Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), Untitled-1969, close-ups of paint layering mimicking impasto technique and of torn spots in the newsprint canvas. Photograph by Amy J. Elias with permission of The Estate of Beauford Delaney, Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator
Edge work is in fact where the politics of this piece lie. Delaney overtly constructs an inappropriate edge between the individual and history, the artistic statement and sanctioned “news.” I found that the newspaper page is the front page of the May 24–25, 1969 edition of the International Herald Tribune, a daily English-language newspaper published in Paris for English-speaking readers (see Figure 4).6 This would include Delaney, who was living in Paris at the time and who never completely mastered French. At the top of the page are two stories about national security and scientific advancement. The lunar orbit of Apollo-10 gets pride of place, complete with diagrams of its journey around the moon, and at top left is a story about 23-year-old Air Force sergeant Paul Adams Meyer, who stole a Hercules turbo-prop plane and crashed in the English Channel.
The major stories at the bottom half of the newspaper concern two protest events. One concerns protests following the May 15th violence in Berkeley, California, on what became known as “Bloody Thursday,” when Ronald Reagan sanctioned police to open fire, with buck shot, on a large crowd of unarmed but angry protesters seeking to keep open People’s Park community garden on university land. Violence escalated, the crowd swelled to more than six thousand people, fifty people were shot, hundreds were arrested, martial law was declared, and twenty-seven hundred national guardsmen with unsheathed bayonets and live ammunition occupied the town. Interestingly, and almost irrelevantly, the article adds to its reporting of this incident a listing, at the end, of Black civil rights demonstrations at Penn State University, Seattle Community College, City College of New York, and Central State University in Ohio. The other story on the bottom half of the page concerns the May 23rd assault by police and national guardsmen on students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University—a Black college in Greensboro, North Carolina. Known today as the 1969 Greensboro Uprising, it was sparked at the nearby, segregated Dudley High School, when a Black student was denied his landslide victory as class president allegedly because school officials feared his activism in the Black Power movement. Reporting on the 50th anniversary of the incident, the North Carolina A&T Alumni News notes, “Despite being withheld as a polling option, Barnes received over 500 write-in votes. The closest candidate received 400 fewer votes but was declared the winner of the election. Students planned picketing sessions and school walkouts over an eight-day period.” The protest spread to Scott Hall at the A&T campus; on May 21, student protest near the high school was met with police in riot gear and use of tear gas, and sniper fire was heard in the early evening. A student was shot and killed the next day, and eventually five hundred national guardsmen, utilizing an armored personnel carrier and a helicopter, transformed the campus into a war zone. It was described at the time as “the most massive armed assault ever made against an American university,” taking place one year before the Kent State shootings. The story ran in all major papers with the same photo, which also appears in Delaney’s copy of the International Herald Tribune.7
Using this newspaper page as a canvas allowed Beauford Delaney to make multiple formal interventions. First, he manipulated the canvas itself. Delaney uses only the bottom half of the paper’s page to create a new canvas edge and foreground the political stories about Black protest. This inverts the relation between top and bottom: technocratic state history (on top) and people’s history (on bottom). If the newspaper headline implies that the police are the beleaguered good guys (“Snipers Hit Five Police, Troops Clear Dorm”), Delaney’s new edge creates a different historical horizon, a different edge of vision. The edges of the newspaper canvas actually show the fold that constructs this inappropriate edge recentering Black life and refusal (see Figure 5). Delaney’s inappropriate edge—a physical fold in the newspaper—begins to act as a Deleuzian Fold, constructing the “Folding-unfolding” that “no longer simply means tension-release… but [is an…] involution-evolution.”8 Inside becomes outside, bottom becomes top; a refolding of memory, the Blackness that is demarcated as outsider discourse becomes invaginated as the very center of the artistic statement. History here is made into a palimpsest rather than a ground, as the painting spatializes time (turning a historical accounting into a painting’s canvas) and makes history’s temporal abstraction into a physical object in time. I’m thinking here of how, in this painting by a Black queer artist, temporalities embedded in different material forms “touch” or brush up against each other, how a queer temporality is constructed through media, and how Delaney sensualizes and renders ludic, in yellows and greens, the short-lived temporality and risk of the dissenter.9
This fold allows Delaney to construct inappropriate edges between color and canvas as well. He paints his abstraction in colors of light, directly on top of the newspaper’s regimented columns and rows: creative imagination triumphs here over rationalized grids. Yellow in particular has been discussed by Richard J. Powell and others as Delaney’s signature color of life and creative energy. Untitled-1969, however, leads me to wonder if there is more to Delaney than an attempt to retreat into “a state of perfect bliss in nature and society” through this abstractionist art, as Powell and others sometimes claim.10 Unlike James Baldwin, whose debates counter language with language to construct a counter-public, Delaney speaks through visual art.
Delaney operationalizes a different vocabulary altogether, one comprised of color and form that overwrites language.11 Delaney, whose work was so informed by a jazz aesthetic, is saying something in this painting about how abstractionist assemblage can be a form of critical praxis. I’m thinking, in fact, that this painting shows Beauford Delaney at his most overtly political.
The painting dates from a year that Delaney’s friend of forty years, James Baldwin, was most engaged in civil rights actions. Delaney’s newspaper “canvas” was published a week after Baldwin’s famous interview with Dick Cavett, on May 16, and apparently only a few months earlier, Baldwin had clashed with writer James Jones, the National Book Award winner for the novel From Here to Eternity, about Delaney’s supposed lack of interest in politics. According to Delaney’s biographer David Leeming, Baldwin got into an argument about Delaney with Jones, who had said that Baldwin had spoken badly about Delaney’s political quietism. Baldwin denied this, saying that he had referred to Beauford’s lack of interest in politics per se, not to any lack of concern with the struggle for equality,” and he reminded Delaney that he had dedicated some of his writing to Beauford.12 It is tantalizing to think that Delaney might see Untitled-1969 as an implicit rebuttal to a charge of quietism, making political art that maintains his lifelong dedication and theorization of color as the touchstone of inner being, emotion, and creative energy.
The newspaper that Delaney uses as his canvas also is published only a few months after Baldwin’s famous February 1969 New York Times piece “The Price May be Too High,” in which Baldwin noted that “what black artists are rejecting… is that American system which makes pawns of white men and victims of black men and which really, at bottom, considers all artistic effort to be either irrelevant or threatening. It is very strange to be a black artist in this country—strange and dangerous. He must attempt to reach something of the truth, and to tell it—to use his instrument as truthfully as he knows how. [… The black artist] is in perpetual danger of lapsing into schizophrenia….”13 Delaney may be seen in this painting precisely to be rejecting the victimization of Black men, as he scrawls colors of life over stories of death and violence.
And Delaney suffers from a real and debilitating schizophrenia throughout his life, what he called his “voices” and “forces.” Fred Moten has read this schizophrenic turn not as a pathology, however, but as evidence that Delaney is “driven by a fugitivity,” a force that animates both jazz music and his canvases and lives in the possibility of the “voiced object.”14 For Moten, Delaney works through a synesthetic aesthetic that is itself a form of resistance; he makes the political move of turning noise into speech… or rather, giving a form to noise (the cry, the scream, the wail of the objectified subaltern who cannot speak) that is sits alongside official speech and originates in the Black experience.
In Untitled-1969, we see Delaney picking a very specific newspaper page for his canvas, and not only formally manipulating and transforming it into a palimpsest for art, but also making the language of form and the language of speech appositional. He turns language into visual art, overwriting the official voice of public news with color and form. I am thinking here about the legacy of such form in Black abstractionist aesthetics discussed by Adrienne Edwards, Glenn Ligon, Darby English, Kellie Jones, Leigh Raiford, and others, in how Delaney transforms the figuration of photojournalism, and the realism of newspaper accounting into a new voicing.15 I’m thinking with Moten in the break, and with Delaney as he makes a visual statement overwriting racial violence and disenfranchisement with the fugitivity and boldness of Black abstraction.
I’m thinking of how in this painting, a hard edge is not a break, but an address.
This is part of the cluster Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture. Read the other posts here.
- Dan Scott, “Edges in Art – Everything You Need to Know,” Draw Paint Academy, May 28, 2019, https://drawpaintacademy.com/edges /
- See Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
- W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, “The Forethought,” in The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 5th edition (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1904), vii.
- Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1901 to a large family, the painter Beauford Delaney attended segregated schools but was able to take art lessons, and in the early 1920s he moved to Boston to pursue classical training. In Boston he connected with most of the luminaries of the art and writing worlds. As a queer Black artist relocating to New York immediately following the 1929 Wall Street crash, Delaney settled in Greenwich Village, where he worked for two decades. It was in New York in 1941 that he met James Baldwin, then 15 years old, and they were close friends, even family, for nearly forty years. Encouraged by Baldwin, Delaney left the US in 1953 and settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1979. Throughout his life he suffered from a form of schizophrenia and lived in poverty, even though he was respected by, and traveled in the circles of, most of the major writers, actors, and painters of his time. Tragically, however, after Delaney died in 1979, he was nearly forgotten. Today, his reputation is being restored worldwide, and his work is now understood to be a groundbreaking response to various subfields of Abstract Expressionism, as well as a major force in twentieth-century Black art.
- My thanks to Derek Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator for the Delaney Estate, for his friendship and incredible generosity in letting me photograph this painting after the close of the public exhibition. To my knowledge, no one to date has written about this work.
- International Herald Tribune, subcollection International Herald Tribune, Saturday-Sunday, May 24, 1969-May 25, 1969, Issue Number 26859, page 1, Paris, France. Source Library: The New York Times Company. Gale Primary Sources, Gale Document Number GALEIPSTJAS807204365.
- See Jadarius McCoy, “Fifty Years Later the Class of 1969 Reflects on the Greensboro Uprising,” North Carolina A&T Alumni In the News, June 27, 2019, https://ncatsualumni.org/fifty-years-later-the-class-of-1969-reflects-on-the-greensboro-uprising/ and Martha Biondi, quoting a journalist at the site in The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 125, ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/utk/detail.action?docID=928946.
- Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1988). Quote from Deleuze, Gilles. “The Fold-Leibniz and the Baroque: The Pleats of Matter.” Architectural Design Profile No.102:
Folding in Architecture (1993): 18, cited in Matthew Krissel, Philosophy of Materials and Structures 05-03-04, https://digitalprocess.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/gillesdeleuze_fold.pdf
- Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Duke UP, 2010); Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (NYU Press, 2005), esp. Chapter 1, “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies.” See https://caringlabor.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/judith-halberstam-queer-temporality-and-postmodern-geographies/
- Richard J. Powell, curator, “Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow,” exhibition catalogue introduction, Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow debuted at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta on February 9, 2002. Powell writes, “Delaney’s career-long decision to enshrine himself, loved ones, and the art of painting itself in a succession of radiant, joyous, magnificent, and painfully alive shades of yellow attest to his work’s greater, post-Abstract Expressionist mission. … [He] sought in his work and throughout his entire life to experience that state of perfect bliss in nature and society, to reach that nearly unattainable note or apogée of emotional discernment in the arts, and to know that ecstatic feeling of ‘excessive and deliberate joy’ in life.”
- See Jurgen Habermas, “Discourse Ethics: Notes on Philosophical Justification,” in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhart and Shierry Weber-Nicholson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), pp. 89-90.
- See David Leeming, Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 175.
- James Baldwin, ‘The Price May be Too High,” in forum titled “Can Black and White Artists Still Work Together?” The New York Times, Sunday, February 2, 1969, D9.
- Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
- See especially Adrienne Edwards, ”Blackness in Abstraction,” Art in America (January 5, 2014), https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/blackness-in-abstraction-3-63053/; Kellie Jones, curator, ”Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA OCT 2, 2011–JAN 8, 2012, introduction at https://hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this/essays/now-dig-this; Leigh Raiford, “Burning All Illusion: Abstraction, Black Life, and the Unmaking of White Supremacy,” Art Journal Open (January 14, 2021), from Art Journal79, no. 4 (Winter 2020), http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=15113#fn-15113-6.