This artist transformed a trash can fire into a pulsing vision

Beauford Delaney was friends with Georgia O’Keeffe and James Baldwin. He never got his due.

This wild and colorful painting by Beauford Delaney seems to be caught in a life-or-death struggle with darkness. It’s insanely vivid. But at the same time, it’s wobbly, untethered. I saw it recently hanging next to a lovely Willem de Kooning at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Mass. The de Kooning, all swooshing brushstrokes, was resplendent, imperious, like Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” Sheer, confident sensuality. The Delaney was nervy and skittish. I thought it might go into a brief spasm before flying off the wall.

It’s called “Abstraction (Greene Street)” and it seems to be a version of an earlier Delaney painting, called “Can Fire in the Park.” That one is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and it shows a group of Black men warming themselves around a fire in a trash can.

In the Rose Art Museum’s picture, you can still see the figures, standing or seated and silhouetted by firelight. You can make out the heat emanating in waves from a fire and what looks like a moon overhead. But the space is indeterminate and the whole thing’s hard to read. Much of the painting harmonizes blue, purple and red, but the clashing acid green and orange used for the fire set you on edge.

It’s very odd. It’s almost as if you’re looking at a spiritual vision in the moment after it passes. The transporting experience starts to wobble and sour as gravity comes back to your body and the cold fingers of sobriety regain their grip. What was that thing I just saw? A mirage? Is that why it wobbles? Where am I? Still around this stupid fire? Ugh. Maybe it was just a hunger swoon, or fumes from the fire …

Beauford Delaney grew up poor and Black in Knoxville, Tenn. His mother was born into slavery; she could neither read nor write. His father was a Methodist preacher and a barber. The couple lost six of their 10 children before they reached adulthood.

Beauford made it. And it turned out he could paint. After moving from Knoxville to Boston, where he trained as an artist, he settled in New York in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression.

This was 15 years before abstract expressionism broke out and New York became the center of the art world. But modernism had been gathering steam. Distorted forms. Non-naturalistic color. Increasing abstraction. Similar innovations had been happening in literature. Delaney got to know and befriend an array of modern artists and writers, from Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis and Alfred Stieglitz to Henry Miller and James Baldwin. He divided his life (a painful division) between the excitements of the Harlem Renaissance uptown and his own, partly furtive life as a gay man in Greenwich Village.

He lived on Greene Street and worked at various jobs, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But he remained mired in the same poverty that had marred his childhood in Tennessee. In 1953, he moved to Paris (like Baldwin and like so many other creative Black figures who could experience freedoms in France that were denied them at home). But over the next two decades, his mental and physical health deteriorated.

“He has been menaced more than any other man I know,” wrote Baldwin (who looked to Delaney as a kind of mentor as well as a friend), “by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive.

“And more than any other man I know,” Baldwin added, “he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness.”

Pictures can be so amazing. This one vibrates with a yearning to burst out of those rings of darkness, both inner and outer.

Abstraction (Greene Street), 1950
Beauford Delaney (b. 1901). At the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.