Rachel Cohen

Weekend Glimpse Norman Lewis

Weekend Glimpse Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis, Easter Rehearsal, 1959. Pastel and ink on paper. Joyner/Giuffrida Collection. Photographed at the Smart Museum, Rachel Cohen.

This work in pastel and ink by Norman Lewis caught my attention one day at the Smart Museum of Art.

The story wears us down. Lewis grew up in Harlem, his parents were Bermudian, he studied with Augusta Savage. He worked alongside Pollock in the WPA and showed with Mark Rothko and went to the meetings of the Abstract Expressionists, he founded the gallery Cinque with Romare Bearden and Ernest Crichlow, he had shows in his lifetime at MoMA and the Whitney, but his work was not discussed in the official histories of Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism was so much bigger and more meaningful than it was allowed to be.

[Photo magnified and cropped]

[Photo magnified and cropped]

I saw this work for a few minutes one day -- I loved the feathered density of the lines, and the color that hangs across it like a curtain or a sky.

[Photo magnified and cropped]

Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin, Notes of Native Sons

Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin Notes of Native Sons

Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Village Street), 1948. Terra Foundation of Art. All detail photographs Rachel Cohen.

Between the thirties and the end of World War II, there was perhaps as radical a change in the psychological perspective of the Negro American toward America as there was between the Emancipation and 1930.

—Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America

When I looked at this painting, painted in 1948, Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (Village Street) at length this winter, I was very struck by the way one side of the painting is very clearly in color, and the other very clearly emphasizes black and white. The color division is so evident that you have to think about it.

I do not think it is clear what you have to think, though. You might think that is a kind of commentary on the way that black and white are invented, and that the world is actually enormous varieties of color. You might think that it is a thought about imposed divisions, or about the way political lines are drawn on city streets. Or you might not.

The group of lines which are most obviously evocative of a figure are a part of the black and white territory, but also have a lot of yellow around them, which was Delaney’s most significant color, and one he often used in conjunction with light and inner light.

I saw the painting, which belongs to the Terra Foundation, in the basement storage of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was hung down fairly low and I had to sit on the ground to see it, and to photograph it. It was also lit from the side by a conservation lamp, which allows the depth of the paint and the shadows cast by the paint itself to be discernible in the photographs.

**

Yesterday morning I reread James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son.” You will remember that one of the things it circles around is the death of his father in 1943. Between the day of Baldwin’s father’s funeral, and the day of driving his father to be buried, an insurrection broke out in Harlem.

“Notes of a Native Son” is partly about the different feelings in the streets that James Baldwin, in the heightened state of grief, tension, war, outburst, was able to discern, and, later, to write about. The essay “Notes of a Native Son,” was published twelve years later, first as an essay in a magazine, then in the book of the same title, both in 1955.

There has been a lot of historical analogizing lately, and I, too, have been trying to figure out what is happening in 2020 by considering the flu of 1918, the Great Depression, the events of 1968. Because I read Baraka’s Blues People a few weeks ago, and because I wanted to think about Beauford Delaney’s 1948 painting, Untitled (Village Street), I’ve turned to the 1940s with a different attention.

In the 1940s, James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney were close friends – sometimes like a father and a son, sometimes like a mentor and a student, sometimes with the closeness of lovers, though they were not lovers, at different times one was the caretaker of the other, they were always artist-friends. They formed ideas together, about many things, about city streets, reflection, about being a Black man and a queer man on a city street in the midst of a World War and a very difficult period of racial strife.

**

I had the idea of setting some quotations from “Notes of a Native Son” next to Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (Village Street) of 1948 that I began considering here on Monday, and which I am thinking about this week, partly as a way of remaining aware through all the parts of my life of the courage of protestors right now.

Yesterday, I was unable to complete this set of reflections with the time they required. I also wanted to honor the day of reflection that many were observing yesterday by not posting. I found on reading through “Notes of a Native Son” that I really just wanted to quote the whole thing. So there is a link to a pdf of it here and at the end of this essay. Baldwin's essay is a reflection partly about losing a parent in the midst of pandemonium, and about the 1943 insurrection in Harlem. It is a deep experience to read it now.

If you are still here, then I will say a few things about Baldwin and Delaney’s relationship and the Delaney painting. Then I have put some passages from the Baldwin essay, and especially about what the streets looked like after looting. And this let me think a bit about meanings of abstraction and jaggedness, and perhaps you will find that idea is worth something if you get to it.

**

Baldwin had first met Delaney in 1940, when Baldwin was fifteen. He began spending quite a bit of time with Delaney in the Village, which was a different set of streets than the ones in Harlem where Baldwin had been raised, more Bohemian, less confined and restricted in racial terms.

Toward the end of his life, in the 1985 essay “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin wrote about what it meant to him to first go through the door of Delaney’s studio, and to meet a Black man who was an artist, “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.” They walked the streets of the Village together, Baldwin learning from Delaney, and Delaney from Baldwin, and Delaney told Baldwin to look at the puddles, the oil in the city puddles, the way the colors refracted the city streets.

In “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin circled back to 1943 and its conjunction of different griefs and transformations, “When my father died, Beauford helped me to bury him and I then moved down to the Village.”

Part of what I am asking myself and my images of this painting today is, does this untitled landscape, which parenthetically states a location in the Village, Greenwich Village, also carry Baldwin’s memories of the streets of Harlem, as they were at different times, including the time of the insurrection?

**

Baldwin published one of his earliest essays “The Harlem Ghetto” in February of 1948, presumably before this painting was finished, perhaps even before it was begun. So that Delaney would obviously have had Baldwin’s ideas about city streets in his head as he worked.

“The Harlem Ghetto” is unlike the first published essay by any other writer in history. Still, it is profound to then read “Notes of a Native Son,” and to see the writer Baldwin had made himself into by 1955.

And, or, also, did this painted streetscape, or even the potential of this streetscape, help to conserve or transform for Baldwin something of his own understanding that he would carry with him when he went abroad to France later in 1948 to go on becoming the writer he became, who would look back and write “Notes of a Native Son”?

**

Notes of a Native Son opens:

On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.

The second section begins:

I had returned home around the second week in June—in great haste because it seemed that my father’s death and my mother’s confinement were both but a matter of hours….

All of Harlem, indeed, seemed to be infected by waiting. I had never before known it to be so violently still. Racial tensions through this country were exacerbated during the early years of the war, partly because the labor market brought together hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared people and partly because Negro soldiers, regardless of where they were born, received their military training in the south. What happened in defense plants and army camps had repercussions, naturally, in every Negro ghetto. The situation in Harlem had grown bad enough for clergymen, policemen, educators, politicians, and social workers to assert in one breath that there was no “crime wave” and to offer, in the very next breath, suggestions as to how to combat it. These suggestions always seemed to involve playgrounds, despite the fact that racial skirmishes were occurring in the playgrounds, too. Playground or not, crime wave or not, the Harlem police force had been augmented in March, and the unrest grew—perhaps, in fact, partly as a result of the ghetto’s instinctive hatred of policemen….

I had never before been so aware of policemen, on foot, on horseback, on corners, everywhere, always two by two. Nor had I ever been so aware of small knots of people. They were on stoops and on corners and in doorways, and what was striking about them, I think, was that they did not seem to be talking….Another thing that was striking was the unexpected diversity of these groups…. Seventh Day Adventists and Methodists and Spiritualists seemed to be hobnobbing with Holyrollers and they were, alike entangled with the most flagrant disbelievers; something heavy in their stance seemed to indicate that they had all, incredibly, seen a common vision, and on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow.

The churchly women and the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense men had children in the Army. The sleazy girls they talked to had lovers there, the sharpies and the “race” men had friends and brothers there. It would have demanded an unquestioning patriotism, happily as uncommon in this country as it is undesirable, for these people not to have been disturbed by the bitter letters they received, by the newspaper stories they read, not to have been enraged by the posters, then to be found all over New York, which described the Japanese as “yellow-bellied Japs.” …. [E]verybody felt a directionless, hopeless bitterness, as well as that panic which can scarcely be suppressed when one knows that a human being one loves is beyond one’s reach, and in danger. This helplessness and this gnawing uneasiness does something, at length, to even the toughest mnind. Perhaps the best way to sum all this up is to say that the people I knew felt, mainly, a peculiar kind of relief when they knew that their boys were being shipped out of the south, to do battle overseas. It was, perhaps, like feeling that the most dangerous part of a dangerous journey had been passed and that now, even if death should come, it would come with honor and without the complicity of their countrymen. Such a death would be, in short, a fact with which one could hope to live….

I am thinking, reading along here, that communities of color, and all thinking newspaper-readers, have been well aware for nearly three months, that people of color and workers whose jobs are not primarily at computers, are being asked to be “soldiers” on the “front lines,” to deliver the mail, the groceries, the factory-produced meat, the health care, the child care, the economy – and that at the same time these same people knew they were going to be left to die by their government and their employers, who could not be bothered to find them decent protective equipment or to get in place the testing and public health protocols and the economic support that might save their lives. That they had, in fact, been left to die for the last forty years and the last four hundred years and that the infrastructure had been deliberately misbuilt for all that time. And that backing all this up would be the systematic abuse of Black and Brown  people by the police.

I also felt very connected, as I imagine many people do right now to “that panic which can scarcely be suppressed when one knows that a human being one loves is beyond one’s reach, and in danger.” And when that danger – both the danger people I love face through the epidemic and the danger people I love face in continuing to protest – is the direct result of an authoritarian government’s systematic negligence and misguided use of force.

**

I want to include Baldwin’s description of the streets on the morning they drove his father to be buried with the money that Beauford Delaney had gotten to pay for the burial. But the description comes close to the end of the essay, and is full of considerations that become obscure without the rest of the essay, in parts of which Baldwin has been reflecting on his own struggles, internal and external, with violence, and the struggles he and his father have had with hatred and with pain. So that there is not a sharp judgment that might be taken from these lines when they are quoted and especially when they are quoted by me, a Jewish woman who has been living for a few years in a well-off part of the South Side of Chicago.

Along each of these avenues, and along each major side street—116th, 125th, 135th, and so on—bars, stores, pawnshops, restaurants, even little luncheonettes had been smashed open and entered and looted—looted, it might be added, with more haste than efficiency. The shelves really looked as though a bomb had struck them. Cans of beans and soup and dog food, along with toilet paper, corn flakes, sardines, and milk tumbled every which way, and abandoned cash registers and cases of beer leaned crazily out of the splintered windows and were strewn along the avenues. Sheets, blankets, and clothing of every description formed a kind of path, as though people had dropped them while running. I truly had not realized that Harlem had so many stores until I saw them all smashed open; the first time the word wealth ever entered my mind in relation to Harlem was when I saw it scattered in the streets. But one’s first, incongruous impression of plenty was countered immediately by an impression of waste. None of this was doing anybody any good. It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores.

It would have been better, but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash.

Part of what has caught my attention in these days is the way that the city streets carried, for Baldwin, the abstract understandings of the people who lived near those streets, reflections on the meanings of their lives, on the situation of their country, and on objects themselves, what kind of value they should have, how they could or should be splintered, shattered, made jagged and broken. I want to add that I am not aestheticizing violence and destruction, or arguing for violence or destruction, I am thinking that street jaggedness has significances that cannot be understood if one pretends that it has no abstract intentions, understanding, and meaning.

Amiri Baraka writes, brilliantly, about the kind of bebop music that emerged in the 1940s, and the meanings to be understood in the jaggedness and shatteredness of the sounds of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker (whose portrait and music Delaney painted.)

Abstraction has been so deeply misunderstood. Like all good things, and like all things which may be good and may be bad and may be made to be profitable, it has been made the province of the wealthy, the white, the western, the first world, the male, the straight, the sane, the able, the scientist, the technology worker, the orderly, etc, etc, etc. But just look at abstraction in the hands of a person who was none of these things in any expected way:

**

Perhaps in the coming days I will see a way to quote the last few pages of Baldwin’s essay, but today I can’t see how to do it. It feels too much like taking a detail photograph of a place of reverence.

Cézanne and Ponge: Wooden Table

Frederick Project: Tableau

Ceacutezanne still life

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Commode, 1887-88, Harvard Art Museums, detail photos Rachel Cohen

The painting is called Still Life with Commode. It’s from 1887-88, a strong period of Cézanne’s work. He was fighting hard with his canvases, and able to do some of what mattered to him.

He made two very similar versions of this painting, which was unusual for him; there is only one other still life pair where he worked through the same arrangement twice. So, the elements and their arrangement here were of unusual interest to him.

The back of the picture is the commode.

Which is very wooden. The brown is so rich with this green.

Illuminated with the jar and its underlaid white, the yellow and rose.

*

Yesterday, my friend Massimo Warglien sent me a note that was partly about Cézanne, about Merleau-Ponty and ideas of space and time. Massimo also mentioned the poet Francis Ponge, and a line from one of Ponge's poems that he thought went together with the Cézanne of Merleau-Ponty.

"I recently read a series of radio conversations by Merleau-Ponty (translated in English as “The world of perception”). Discussing the work of Cézanne, he claims it captures “a world in which regions of space are separated by the time it takes to move our gaze from one to the other, a world in which being is not given but rather emerges over time.” I like to connect it, as a kind of non-human mirror, to Francis Ponge: “Le temps des végétaux se résoult à leur espace” - again, resolving, a word I found in your notes on Cézanne."

I might translate that line of poetry: The time of growing plants resolves itself in their space. Ponge, the poet of things – of soap, shells, asparagus – trailing back and forth across the border we usually make between the animate and the inanimate. I love Ponge's poems, and I have thought of the work of Ponge as part of thinking about still life, but I don't think I have ever thought of Ponge and Cézanne together.

*

I woke early this morning. By my bed, a tiny book that has been there for months, a new translation of Ponge’s book The Table. Translated by Colombina Zamponi and published by Wakefield Press. It is in the form of a notebook. Meditations on the table, written and written again in 1968 and 1970.

In the second entry, Ponge remarks on the etymological relationship between la table and the French word for a painting or picture, le tableau. A painting is directly derived from a table, a rectangular area of consideration. I thought of the Cézanne I had set myself to think about this last few days.

The planes of wood are so evident. And the others almost hidden away.

I feel sure Cézanne noticed the resonance between his table and his tableau.

*

Ponge writes over and over about writing and tables, how he cannot write without a table, or a tablet, how the horizontal plane is an absolutely necessity. He says the wall on which the first paintings were made has come down to be the table. The second part of an entry from 23 Oct. 70 reads:

The Table is (also) the reversal from back to front (from behind man to his front) of the wall, its position no longer vertical but horizontal. (oblique, in fact: the way Braque's billiard table is broken from horizontal to an oblique vertical.)

In La Table, Ponge mentions two painters: Braque and Picasso. How Braque’s billiard table "is broken from hoizontal to an oblique vertical.” Braque studied Cézanne very closely, and the spatial inventions of Cézanne are always described as the foundation of Cubism. In Cézanne, it is almost as if the painted objects stutter around their edges and this lets them be true and independent without losing touch with one another. [A student of mine used the word stutter about a visual work last fall, though I can no longer remember which student, and I think that student in turn picked it up from an essay by Valeria Luiselli called "Stuttering Cities."]

Ponge’s writing in La Table is especially, deliberately, broken. It also stutters, rephrasing, underscoring, giving different possible iterations, going back the next day to extend or work through again.

*

It was still almost dark this morning when I woke, and I turned on the bedside lamp to read. Still lying down, I opened the little book at random, and Ponge wrote:

The Table

If not a table (—considering I'm writing this in bed, (and many other texts have been written in the underwoods or on the riverbank)—a tablet at the least is {necessary / indispensable (for this very piece of writing)} (notepad with a cardboard backing, rigid notebook, or, as I have been in the habit of using, a clipboard)}:

A tablet, therefore still a table.

I turned to the first page, to read through in order. I was moved that for Ponge, too, to begin was this time of day. Early in the dark morning. A time that it seems all my friends are in, very gray, where we are putting one foot in front of another, very uncertain.

In the first entry, Ponge writes of the emergence of color in things:

It is daylight, light to read (enough to read) and write (writing comes a bit earlier) about an hour before the sun (that can be seen out here, over the summits of the Roquefort or the Rouret) rises. (which is to say, at 8 a.m. on the dot)

No star left visible, not even the brightest.

Only Venus (and the Moon) still shine, but (as we know) with a light only lent to them.

The colors start to come through more or less around the same time

(first the reds

then the golds, the yellows

then the greens and finally the blues

(8 or 10 minutes

later) Venus is still shining

Broad daylight at 7:15 a.m.

*

Now I am sitting at my desk, which is a long piece of wood, an old door that Matt turned horizontal. On it, is my computer, the screen at an oblique vertical. Here is my notebook, showing writing and pictures, table and tableau at once.

Hiroshige's Views of Kyoto

Frederick Project: Reconstruction

Hiroshige

Hiroshige, Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizu), from the series Famous Views of Kyoto (Kyoto meisho no uchi), ca. 1834. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, photos Rachel Cohen.

In December of 2019, I went to New York for a few days and various reasons, and I went twice to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was covering their show Kyoto: Capital of Artistic Imagination, for which they had reinstalled their Japanese galleries with works from their permanent collection that partake in the long Kyoto tradition. Kyoto was for many centuries the capital of Japan – this capital was eventually shifted to Edo, which is now called Tokyo. The two cities were connected by a famously beautiful road, the Tokaido Road, and many artists traveled along this road, making some of the fifty-five stops along it and recording the views of temples and natural wonders.

This morning, I thought I would like to write about a set of four abstract Joan Mitchell paintings called “La Vie en Rose,” painted in 1979, which I had looked at while at the Met. But when I went to look at my pictures I couldn’t bear the tones – pale rose, white, lavender, black. Some other day they will be wonderful again, but not today.

Most of the other pictures were from the Kyoto exhibition, and I idled around in them for a while. Then I came upon three that I loved.

This was the tonality of this morning. It was gray out, there was a dull feeling of undertaking the routine again. I loved this brown, the way in one area it was blue-infused, and in the others combined with the under-green, like something from a pine woods. I loved the buff-colored space that had been left open in areas, the pieces of olive-gray that formed and scattered.

I was pretty sure these fourth and fifth photos were of the same print, because of the open spaces, the way the branches lifted across them, the palette of gray, and this yellow that made sense.

They were from a woodblock print that had been on the left-hand wall of one of the last galleries, among several, all by Hiroshige, each one under glass, with a glare, and quite hard to photograph. I had taken a few hurried shots on the first visit, and when I returned had forced myself to slow down and try to get better photographs, slightly from the side. I always photograph the wall text at the same time, so I know what my images are from, but hadn’t, on the second visit. So I spent a precious forty minutes combing through the 745 Hiroshiges that belong to the Met. Who knew they had so many. In the small thumbnails, blues were most apparent. I was skipping blue, though, looking for gray-brown with some under green, some yellow in the sky. Finally it occurred to me to search for Hiroshige and Kyoto, and I found it. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

It would have been easy to have looked most at the veranda and the larger figures, but I had loved the distant view, which is in the work's title. Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizu), from the series Famous Views of Kyoto (Kyoto meisho no uchi), ca. 1834. The reproduction from the Met is clear, and if you go to their website you can zoom in and get details and it’s quite nice. But, it does not have the warm tonality I love in my own pictures, which I believe really are closer to the original.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who lived in Edo, went several times to Kyoto. He made the trip along the Tokaido Road in 1832, and made several sets of prints about Kyoto.

The people on this veranda are looking across to the distant temple. They point, and, looking again, I can make out small ink lines of figures in the open space of the temple. These other lines of figure seem involved in their own observance, but perhaps a few are looking in turn at the figures we stand close to.

I realized that I couldn’t locate this detail, the one that had first caught my eye, whose blue seemed the necessary counterpart to the pine green of the others.

It must be in the print, the foliage so similar. But a little bit of writing lifted in the sky above couldn’t be made to fit. Another print then. More searching. Ah, the one that had been next to it. The Great Bridge at Sanjo, ca. 1847-52. From the Metropolitan Museum:

That was the end of the Tokaido Road. I had also taken this detail, of two working women carrying firewood.

When looking back through, I had amalgamated the buildings near the edge of the hill into the other print.

Fifteen years separate the two prints. In the Met’s reproductions there is not even a hint of brown in this later one, all is a slatey gray. But, because of a few accidents of juxtaposition and elision in my own records, I felt the details from the two prints were united. I can see how the artist might have thought of that earlier view across to the temple as he and his printers worked at this plate.

Out my own window, the tonality has changed entirely, sky now blue-white and branches lit from the sides with April sun. It was a frustrating little bit of morning, but I learned something about brown and its relationship to green, to buff, to olive. The yellow and blue in the sky matter, even though I could only see the tonalities I wanted when they had been set aside.

Abstraction and Eyes

One of the unusual aspects of Beauford Delaney’s work as an abstract painter was that even late in his career, when he lived in Paris and had moved very fully into abstraction, he also painted very specific and characterful portraits.  These two kinds of paintings were shown together during his lifetime – at, for example, the Galerie Lambert on the Île St. Louis in 1964 – and have been shown so since his death – in particular at the Levis Gallery in Chelsea last year, an exhibition, that, regrettably, I was not in New York to see. [Here are Dr. Ahmed Bioud, 1968, and an untitled work from ca. 1958-9.]

rcohen 122
rcohen 122















From accounts I’ve read, this alternating display of persons and abstractions asks something very particular of the viewer.  I caught a suggestion of the experience from watching a video of the opening at the Levis Gallery – it might interest the reader to look at it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0ZJcvenRpw

One thing that clearly holds the two approaches together is something essential about the paint itself, its handling.  Responding to the 1964 show, the French art critic Jean Guichard-Meili felt that, in the end, the two kinds of works “do not differ… Background, clothing, hands, faces, are the pretext for autonomous harmonies.”  Guichard-Meili describes the paint itself as having “movements of internal convection,” and says that the one experiences “the vibrations of underlying design.”  [This account appeared in the journal Arts and is quoted in David Leeming’s wonderfully gentle biography of Delaney, Amazing Grace, p165.]

A similar idea – that the patterning and movement of the paint is common to both the portraits and the abstractions – is to be found in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts catalog of its Delaney retrospective of 2004-2005.  Here is Delaney’s The Sage Black (James Baldwin) of 1967.  [Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

rcohen 122


The catalog says that, “Delaney superimposed a calligraphic outline on the abstract composition of reds, greens, yellows and blues.  Filled with all the colors of a flame, this incendiary, combustible background peers through Baldwin’s form…” This language seems to me to greatly simplify what I can tell even from reproductions of the work, which is that the colors shift dramatically between the ground and the figure, that the background does not merely “peer through,” but is transformed, condensed, reconstituted in and by the person.  I find it hard to understand the eyes in this painting.

                                                       *  *  *

In Paris, Monique Y. Wells maintains a wonderful website called Les Amis du Beauford Delaney, an important resource, and she has two entries on Delaney’s portraits of his friend James Baldwin.  This was one of the most significant friendships of either man’s life.  On the site, the art historian Catherine St. John offered comments on another portrait of Baldwin, this one backed in Delaney’s signature yellow.

rcohen 122


St. John writes two things that seem to me exactly to the point.  The first is her description of how to consider Delaney’s yellow: “His tactile surfaces of brilliant colors are prime carriers of light and space and it is in his use of yellow - ochre, cadmium, lemon - that we discover the substance of light in relation to spirit.”  She goes on to suggest a way of thinking about this relationship, of light to spirit, in terms of the figure.  “The isolated, self-contained image of Baldwin is the special intersection of the world of light and the subjective consciousness that Beauford Delaney brought to his portraits. It is a supremely expressive portrait in which the eyes, the most intimate and powerful feature of the face, act like magnets.”

This is a deeper understanding of the relation between abstraction and the figure in Delaney’s work and near to something Delaney himself said in trying to explain the single project that lay behind what seemed two divergent methods.  David Leeming says that “Beauford explained to friends that both approaches were studies in light revealed—the light that gave meaning to the individuals depicted in the large volumes of color in the portraits and the light considered directly as contained in the juxtaposition of minute and closely packed bits of blue, red, and especially yellow in the abstract paintings.” [Leeming, p164.]

There is much to be said, and much has been said, on the metaphysics of inward light in Delaney (and in Baldwin) but here I want to confine myself to one observation, which is that the eyes, in some important way, do not have it.  They seem in their dark opacity, or even in their dark brilliance, to reflect on light rather than to be lit.  Like magnets, they also have darkness, and draw us by an absorbing force that pulls inward.  And this seems very precisely understood.  For the eyes would have to be the very site of inversion, the very place where the abstract meets the formed person, the lens across which the inner and outer worlds interpret one another.