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Art Essay: Ba’lls to the Wa’ll, Ya’ll

By Maureen Kelleher
ART TIMES online July 2014

“Yellow, Red and Black Circles”  by Beauford Delaney, 1966 Gouache on wove paper Signed and inscribed to James Baldwin
“Yellow, Red and Black Circles”
by Beauford Delaney, 1966 Gouache on wove paper Signed and inscribed to James Baldwin

I’m a lover of all things about James Baldwin, and, in particular, his biography by David Leeming. It’s Baldwin’s life force that keeps me going back for more, more, more. I’d guess I’ve read some parts of Leeming’s book five times, times two. I’ve used the photos in the book in my art (and so much more), I sometimes call up a story from his life to emphasize a point in mine. The man had balls. Big ones.

And his best buddy, friend, confidant, father figure, pal, great source of mutual [as in reciprocated] love, adoration, and respect: the painter, Beauford Delaney.

Baldwin met Delaney when he, JB, was sixteen years old. Delaney was about 35. Baldwin didn’t know which way to turn next in his teenage life, so he followed the advice of his friend, Emile Capouya, who had recently met or run into Delaney. Capouya gave “Jimmy” Delaney’s name and address. Shortly thereafter, Baldwin knocked on the door at 181 Greene St. in The Village, NYC. Delaney opened the door, and then his heart and friendship, to Baldwin and there it stayed for, oh, forty-plus years.

At Levis Fine Art, W. 24th Street, NYC, “Beauford Delaney: Internal Light” hangs, shines, glows. Yellow, Lilly Wei points out, was important to Delaney. A lot of these paintings are from Delaney’s years in Paris.

I saw the works the day before the official reception. I had a great sneak peek preview as I waited for Jim Levis to deal with NYC traffic and get to our meeting at the gallery.

I looked at the show, then sat in his office and started a letter. I had about thirty minutes. Of course, I looked up, down, and all around as I thought about what next to write to my pen pal.

I couldn’t miss the additional Delaney paintings that were in Jim’s private space.

On the office walls: art. I was surrounded by it. More compact, tighter, more dense than out in the gallery. Squashed up right against it. The best way to see it. Sitting in a comfy leather chair. Write another sentence, look at the paintings again. Think about the painter.

There was Beauford Delaney, looking at me. His big old head, a piece of sculpture by the door. Delaney was checking me out, too.

“Get up! Pay attention to these paintings!” I said to myself. “He actually touched these!” “These are from across the ocean! From a long time ago!”

Over Jim’s desk I leaned, and then my face was up close and personal with

“Untitled: Yellow, Red and Black Circles ,” I kept thinking, over and over, just like when I’m in a museum: “He made this stuff!” “He touched it!” “This painting was in Paris!” and I blurred back into mental fantasy of where / how / when this painting had moved in its ‘life.’ And now, it’s here, right over Jim’s desk, and I could touch it, if I wanted!

This was Delaney’s art. I had only read about him, and then only tangentially (to Baldwin), but here is the stuff he created, right here! I missed it the first time around – lost in my thoughts that I was “actually” in front of work that came from Delaney -- but Jim pointed it out to me, nice semi-Aristotelian style, when we got to talking about the Baldwin and Delaney connection.

“See what it says?” he asked, about the piece over his desk. I got up, I re-looked, and saw the signature in the bottom corner of Untitled. There it was! Damn! !! “For Jimmy, love Beauford” and a notation connecting the piece to Istanbul, 1966.

Ahhhh, the connection! So wonderful to see, via Beauford’s inscription.

There it was. The connection that I knew existed, and here it was, original source evidence, in Delaney’s hand. He knew Baldwin!

I had been drawn in by Baldwin; now it was seeping in: Delaney’s force was also a force to be considered, give more attention. Pay attention. There is, here is, this guy’s art, right in front of me! It’s here, it’s now. It is a link to back then, and back there. Surreal. Then is now.

And Delaney’s handwriting: wonderful. Soft, and lots of up and down. Easy to read; relaxed. It doesn’t convey a huge picture (no pun intended) of the artist, but to my sensibilities, I feel a little closer to a person when I see their hand-writing. His spirit, in another way, comes through. This is how he moves, how he moves his hand, when he holds a pen or brush and taps into the common symbols -making called the written word.

“For Jimmy” refers to James Baldwin, of course. The reason I was at the gallery, the reason I was in that office, the reason I became a visual artist, the reason I went to 181 Greene Street, retracing Baldwin’s search, looking for Delaney’s house? James Baldwin. James Baldwin. James Baldwin. He lights up some part of my soul, non-stop. “This little [art] light of mine” is fueled, in large part, by The Man with the big old bulging eyes (which weren’t, really, all that bulging].

Now I was bumping up close to Baldwin’s navigator, his wing man, his source, his rock: Beauford Delaney.

Beauford painted “Untitled: Yellow, Red and Black Circles,” I’m told, during his first trip to Istanbul, where he visited and stayed with Baldwin.

Some possible sources of inspiration, behind the work, for Delaney? Let’s gird our loins; okay. That’s enough. Let ’er rip, and let’s see what this work is.

It is existential.

It’s phallic, it’s penis and scrotum. It’s long and lean, with a big old tip and the line down the middle. It’s swimming amidst the circles. It’s balls on either side.

It’s yellow, it’s egg, it’s yoke.

It’s male and female, kind of swirly, bumping up right against each other. It’s a fried egg!, Sitting in front of two balls. Mr. Penis wriggling his way through the players, and across the canvas.

It is the beginning of LIFE.

It is sunshine and light. It is the birth of “this little light of (yours and) mine.”

It’s where all sentient beings, you and me included, got our start. It is my life, Day One.

It is me, way back before I knew what the f--k was going on. It is from whence I sprang, from whence I swam and made my way, disconnected from, and not yet dependent on, air. A little fish swimming around, fluidy and cellular, with not a care in the world, yet. Not in the world, yet. Not in it and not of it, yet, but forces preparing ‘me’ and getting ‘me’ shaped by the two components seen here, sharing the canvas, as shared way back, when I was exactly this same configuration.

It is my self portrait. It is Beauford. It is Jimmy.

It is the masculine.

Delaney and Baldwin: MEN! Of course, their private parts are of utmost importance. Half kidding, and half….. not.

The Half-not part: It is apropos to paint what we care and think about. We definitely care about our organs, and our sexual organs, very definitely.

Females feel particularly close to their female parts (a la Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" -- a vulva on /is every place setting). So many women artists throw in a vulva here, a vagina there, and the ubiquitous breasts. Boobs galore. Nipples hither, thither and yonder on the canvas and throughout all the art genres. Men artists make wax allusions to a woman’s pubic hair, braided so artfully. The hyper-awareness of hair, hair, hair. Pubic hair does not go unrepresented. And the hips, the roundness, the squishyness of the female parts.

We, women and men, are proud of our bodies.

Men: the phallus, the totem, the up and down, the longer and thinner, the rod, the stick, the hard, the rigid. With two balls, -- circles, bulbous, round, softer, gelly-like -- on each side.

We love ourselves; we love our equipment. We love our bodies, [for the most part!]

We like to point out the part that makes us fecund beings. We like to show our ability, or rather from where we have the ability, to produce more like us.

Oh my god! It’s unbelievable! If I hook up with a guy, I can make another me!

1-2-3. Just that simple, in the span of about, oh, three minutes, if that.

Below the belt: it is a magical place, we all come from there, and no matter the slang, or the profane, or the straight-up biological slant of it, we adults of all beings are equipped to create more of us. We self-duplicate. Pretty damn amazing. We can do it, over and over and over (!), if we want.

Baldwin and Delaney’s biology between their legs: for the most part, similar to every person on earth: A One-Stop-Shop for

--fecundity (if they chose to go for a straight up, biological hook up, to create a fertilized egg)

For the heterosexual act, the genitals mean, in part: the ability to create human life. For the homosexual act, the genitals mean: the ability to love, connect, be human, sans the fruit of the womb.

--a source of pride (I am who I am! Hooray! and proud of myself. I’m not weird. I am comfortable in my own skin. So there.),

and, when used for sexual activity,

--a celebration of what makes each of us particularly unique, vis-à-vis his specific body and his choice for his expression of the personal love, the personal commitment, the personal connection with the world, vis-à-vis one other person, on his particular terms. What he likes to get close to, what smells good to him, what offends his senses, what makes him lean in more, what colors he likes to see on the special other person, the way he likes the other person to talk and laugh, and react to him, etc., etc. His own particularness lets him honor and choose, according to his desires, the very particulars in the other he chooses to spend time with.

But the key difference for Baldwin and Delaney: their sexual organs --created an identity, an i.d., that rooted them outside the majority.

-- the unambiguous mark of the outsider, another kind of one who does not fit the “norm,” one who is not in the main, and doesn’t use /experience this equipment for the most obvious result of f--king around: i.e., making more of us.

His genitals do mean his maleness, but they don’t mean membership in the bigger male pack.

Quite the contrary: these balls don’t go where most go. They take a turn, and go to parts frequented by fewer of the males. These organs pluck him from the bigger group, and put him in the smaller group.

Beauford and Jimmy’s reality: their genitals meant a helluvabig statement, a huge billboard, an advertising, a constant reminder, one more thing that screamed they were not in the “norm.”

For Beauford and Jimmy: their genitals were a reminder of yet another way they were outsiders.

“Get in line, all that is me!” they could scream out:

I’m black: outsider !

I’m poor: outsider !

I’m artistic: outsider !

and

I f--k men: outsider !

Delaney’s work resulted from his trip to Istanbul and meeting up with Baldwin. Untitled: Yellow, Red and Black Circles” is a pronouncement:

“I’m here and I’m queer” -- proud, loud, no shame. And ‘I got balls.’

He hooked up with his buddy, Baldwin. I can easily imagine each man feeling relief – “The cavalry has arrived! I have back –up! I’m saved! I’m normal! All is good with my world, now!” Validation. Affirmation. Hugs. Love. Kindness all around.

The glorious glow that takes one over when we see a person we love, walking toward us, after a long time apart, getting closer, closer, their face, we smile, we start laughing!, we get giddy, and then so thrilled to hug him/ her and have them in our arms! Glory be! I am loved! It’s all okay! You’re here!” “I am so happy you are here!” And that’s just the part that can be expressed in thoughts and words.

And for these two odd [American] balls, who so clearly rejected so much of what was “normal” back “home” in the old streets of the USA: to be within reach of each other was an affirmation of how they chose to live. Pure joy.

Each saw himself in the other, and enjoyed the validation from the other man when in his company, when he watched the other one move, be, talk, relate, eat, joke, drink, smoke, etc.

I can only guess there was an extraordinary vibe and understanding between them, shared: ‘you are me and I am you. Period. Thank god for you.’

I can imagine Baldwin gabbed on and on -- seriously, goofy, humorously, sardonically, subtly, deeply -- about his love for Delaney (and everything else). He was a talker, sometimes a bullshitter, a sharp-as-shit eye on everything, the voice of what was going on all around him and inside his head, heart, and probably in his loins, too. He talked, he wrote. He wrote more. And more. He got so much up and out. I doubt he would have held back in his verbiage when he met, head on, someone he loved. No lack of expressing the love.

Beauford’s self-expression? I imagine a lot of bear hugs! And jovial physical back and forth with all he came within arm’s length of. And, of course, he expressed through painting.

“Untitled: Yellow, Red and Black Circles,” aka: "Balls, and I’m proud of 'em."

Or

“Life, and I’m alive!”

Or

“I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m so happy to be.”

Or

“And this is where it all comes from!”

Or

“Life. Let’s get it on.”

Or

“I’m with Jimmy again! Wahoo! I’m so happy!”

Or

“I have no idea what this freaking life is really all about, but here I am. And here’s where it all started.”

Or

“I know what life is all about, and I’m living it. And here is where I got my start.

Thank you very much!”

Delaney’s epitaph reads: “I am home.” Clearly he thought about what he wanted to say to the world, when given the last shot.

“I am home.”

My life, his life, our being born: is the leaving of home and trekking out -- being pushed out -- into the world? Out into human existence we go! – to live outside of the home, and death is our happy return?

Death: the successful coming “full circle” – in which we get back to where it all started,?, i.e., I made it! I found it! I got back! I’m back!! He believed life was one meandering, decades- long search? An effort, the striving, working, to getting back to a special place?

The trail, the damn long road we each take once we make that first fluidy wriggle, from that first cell, that meeting of egg and sperm, that will become me? Fall out of the womb, get pushed out, and the trek begins? Striving, from that moment on, to get back in?

To my mind, home is where I feel safe.

While living, Delaney felt at “home” when in the presence of Baldwin. Of that, I feel certain. Baldwin validated so many aspects of Delaney’s being and his essence, too. And vice versa for Baldwin.

For Delaney, he envisioned death was home, and it feels like he looked forward to the relief dying and being back at “home” would bring.

Perhaps he looked forward to the place, the time, where / when he didn’t have to be afraid of and wrestle with and negotiate pain, poverty, demons in his crazy ass head, bills, hunger, the voices, and (I imagine) a monstrously long list of painful crap (that we’ll never know) that his life was chock full of.

Will we ever know the inspiration, Delaney’s real, deep down, inspiration, for this painting? One thing is certain: he dedicated it to Baldwin because he felt love for Jimmy. It is a love letter. It screams love on many levels. It was created while he was in a self-imposed exile, a self-made uprooting, and re-planting in Europe. And within that exile, an even more special trip, days long, to an even more strange (unfamiliar) country, to visit Baldwin.

I’m guessing it was relief, calm, tranquility, love, adoration and all-things- wonderful when one is in the company of a soul mate – in Istanbul in 1966.

And from this came “Untitled: Yellow, Red and Black Circles.”

 

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