Beauford Delaney: Blackness as a Colorful State

THE DAILY PIC: At the Studio Museum in Harlem, a portrait by Beauford Delaney reflects a moment when the color bar looked set to be raised.

THE DAILY PIC (#1709): Portrait of a Young Musician was painted in 1970 by Beauford Delaney, and it is now, appropriately, in the show called “Circa 1970” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. As soon as I saw it, I thought of the great paintings of Kerry James Marshall, on view for another few weeks at the Breuer branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – but I was struck by a contrast more than a sameness. Ever since the 1980s, Marshall has insisted on rendering the skin of his African American subjects with the blackest of jet-black paint. “You want black,” Marshall seems to be saying, “I’ll give you black, alright.” Whereas Delaney renders the true brown-ness of his musician’s face with a flock of rainbow colors.

I can’t help feeling that, with these two artists, we’re witnessing two different moments in race relations. In 1970, enough improvement had been made, over less than a decade, to imagine a bright and colorful future for America – a future that allowed for a rainbow of identities that might even find room for Delaney’s color-loving gayness. Over the following two decades, when Marshall began making his mark, the color-bar in American culture was starting to look as fixed as ever – stuck at a position that had white on top and black on the bottom.

For a moment this decade, Obama’s cappuccino solution seemed to provide some new hope. With Trump’s election, and his empowerment of white supremacist homophobes, there are dark clouds on the horizon again. (The Studio Museum in Harlem, gift of Ms. Ogust Delaney Stewart, Knoxville, Tenn.)

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