Joseph Delaney, Macy's Parade, Delaney Exhibtion, Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, January 2024 (Photograph by Luke Frazier)
(Today’s article is by recurring guest writer Luke Frazier)
Sometimes I’ll be reading a book and suddenly wonder if I care enough to continue. If I forge ahead anyway, very occasionally I’m rewarded with a sentence or passage that is so ridiculously good that I will literally stop and say to myself, “Oh, that’s why I’m reading this book.” And then I will add that sentence or paragraph to my collection of quote cards of great writing that I’ve kept for many years. Naomi Alderman recently provided this:
Wherever you are, the richness and complexity and inexhaustible, unplumbable thereness of the whole rushes in through your eyes and your ears and your nose and across your skin. Every single thing around you is right there and so are you…you have found the treasure. It is the world as it is.
I’m a real sucker for quality descriptions of “now-ness” and staying in the moment. This Alderman quote is strong because it captures gratitude in the present tense. It describes the rare moments in life when we get the opportunity to fully appreciate an intersection of the right place at the right time and feel the power of that moment in our deepest selves—the place poet Miller Williams (Lucinda’s dad) calls down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Recently I experienced this kind of moment in a small, well-lit gallery space inside the Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA). It is part of the reinstallation of the Higher Ground permanent exhibition of East Tennessee visual art that happened late last year. An entire room was given over to the work of two Knoxville-born artists/brothers: Beauford and Joseph Delaney.
According to KMA curator Stephen Wicks, the acquisition of about 50 works by Beauford between 2014—2018 kind of made it inevitable that the space would have to be reimagined, given Beauford’s growing significance internationally and the KMA’s decision to try and become an important center for his art. Fortunately, this effort has been successful—KMA is now established as the largest and most comprehensive institutional collection of Beauford’s work, and loan requests come in from places such as the Art Institute of Chicago and Centre Pompidou in Paris.
I had a chance to visit the exhibition again with Wicks after I read his wonderfully insightful essay on Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin that was written as part of an earlier, multifaceted project called Through the Unusual Door. He extended an invitation after I reached out in appreciation (just another example of how Knoxville is filled with friendly people). There’s no doubt I’ll be back many more times.
When you first walk into the room you’ll probably be drawn to the largest canvas, Macy’s Parade, an energetic depiction of the annual NYC Thanksgiving event by Joseph. There is so much fun happening in this scene that I wanted to jump in, buy a pretzel from a street vendor, and find a view to catch the upcoming floats. From there your eyes might flow to Joseph’s other New York painting, Marble Collegiate Church, which presents some of the best cloud-light combos you might ever see. When you catch your breath, you’ll realize there is something going on in this room that is singular and special: it is a room overflowing with love and generosity of spirit. The brothers had different styles, but it all works so well together. As Wicks explained in a follow-up email:
Although they spent most of their lives and careers outside East Tennessee, Knoxville-born Delaney brothers Beauford (1901–1979) and Joseph (1904–1991) represent two of the region’s most noteworthy and accomplished painters. They followed divergent paths personally and artistically: both overcame poverty, racism and other hurdles, going on to enjoy long and productive careers and, in Beauford’s case, achieve international renown. Beauford is generally remembered as an enigmatic, cosmopolitan painter of vibrantly expressive scenes, and Joseph as a free-spirited figurative artist who specialized in depictions of bustling urban gatherings and portraits of women. The two traveled in separate circles, following different aesthetic routes throughout their lives yet remained connected to each other and to Knoxville.
This few hundred square feet of space is packed with an energy of the moment that engages all the senses. While Joseph’s joyfully riotous vibes might initially catch your eye, it is Beauford’s abstractions that provide a ground of meaning. They are a product of his time spent in Paris and environs, and the work of an artist willing to experiment with color and form.
One highlight for me is Moving Sunlight, and if at first it appears a few shades of yellow, closer inspection yields a broader range of color. According to the note it is, “comprised of dozens of overlapping layers of yellow intermingled with red, burnt orange, olive, lime green and white.” There is a richness of texture and hue that confounds and dazzles. Similarly, Scattered Light does more than seems possible by creating movement where there is none. And for reasons I can’t begin to explain it presents contrasting colors in a unified whole. It is just so there that you can’t help but join in.
Finally, I have to mention Beauford’s incredible pastel portrait of James Baldwin. As curator Wicks explains in his Through the Unusual Door essay, the two men had a close and affirming lifelong friendship and were creatively simpatico. In his later years Beauford ended up struggling with mental health issues and Baldwin took him in. Beauford painted Baldwin a few times, and the one on display is an early one. Baldwin’s eyes absolutely engage, the note talks about “revealing the essential inner light.” Mention is also made of a Baldwin story of he and Beauford walking on a rainy street and the painter noting the beautiful swirling colors produced by oil in the gutter water.
That pretty much captures the essence of this room’s power: there is beauty in every moment, a la . Alderman’s thereness of the whole. It is a room of treasures, with spectacular views of horizons near and far.