KMA unveils exhibit celebrating legendary native painter

Beauford Delaney honored with career-spanning retrospective

Knoxville offers many avenues for outdoor entertainment and leisure. Locals and visitors alike enjoy World’s Fair Park, the constantly expanding Urban Wilderness area and the hustle and bustle of Market Square and Gay Street. People seeking a place to take a break from the heat while still participating in local culture, however, should look no further than perusing the free Knoxville Museum of Art.

KMA’s newest exhibition, “Gathering Light,” is a collection of approximately 40 paintings by Knoxville native Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) that will remain open until July 23. Considered by many to be one of the greatest American abstract painters, Delaney gained international recognition in spite of the struggles associated with his being a gay African American during an especially difficult and volatile time in the nation’s history for homosexuals and people of color.

Having seen the talent Delaney possessed, well-known Knoxville painter Lloyd Branson encouraged Delaney to further pursue his artistic career, which led him to leave Knoxville in 1923 and settle in New York City in 1927. Once in the Big Apple, he attracted attention and became friends with many cultural luminaries from different artistic disciplines, such as Duke Ellington, Georgia O’Keefe and Henry Miller. These friends eventually would become subjects of Delaney’s artwork, as would the various cities in which they lived. Also during this time, Delaney created several pieces of Africa-centric artwork, some of which are on display in the exhibit.

In 1953, Delaney settled permanently in Paris. While living there, his work began to fade into deep abstraction, focusing mainly on color. Delaney harnessed his continual struggles with mental illness in order to produce pieces of extremely vibrant hues. He believed that colors had unique spiritual significance. For example, he associated yellow with light, healing and redemption. Towards the end of his life, he painted more and more yellow in order to combat the growing darkness that engulfed him as a result of his deteriorating mental state. His friend, the author James Baldwin, described his change into color-focused art as a “metamorphosis into freedom fueled by a painted light that held the power to illuminate, even to redeem and reconcile and heal.”

The KMA exhibit features a multitude of Delaney’s paintings displayed in chronological order, which allows for a bird’s-eye view of his changing locales, his descent into mental illness and his career as a whole. Most of the pieces have never been seen by the public until this unveiling. Delaney’s estate also loaned the museum a collection of archival materials that assist in providing more information about Delaney’s life and that greater contextualize his life’s work.

KMA wishes for Knoxville to be an international center for Delaney’s legacy. It has received generous gifts from multiple donors, and the museum hopes to permanently house these fine works at some point. The ultimate goal is to make Delaney’s work more widely known both in Knoxville and throughout the world.

When people visit “Gathering Light,” they should make a point to browse the rest of the KMA, as well. Several other exhibits boast a varied collection of artwork, from interactive digital art to a history of art from East Tennessee and extending up through modern art. There are several areas in which people can sit and read, study or converse in a peaceful, aesthetically pleasing environment. The next time you are looking for a free way to participate in Knoxville culture on a muggy day, look no farther than the KMA.

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