Rachel Cohen

Beauford Delaney and Protest

Beauford Delaney and Protest

Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Village Street Scene), 1948. Terra Foundation of Art. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

In these hard days, the sounds of our neighborhood are of the unusual silence of the pandemic, the birds singing, of sirens, both ambulance sirens and police sirens, of the 7 pm neighborhood pot-banging in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protestors, the muffled greetings between neighbors, masked and at a distance, the imagined sounds of videos of police violence that I have not played, but have read about, the imagined sounds of protests that I have not attended, but feel I can hear from a few miles away, and the imagined sounds of shattering glass that I cannot hear, but know to be happening a few streets from here.

I am thinking, as I often am, about the relationship of art and protest. I want there to be art, I want there to be protest.

In February, I was a plenary speaker at a conference called Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: In a Speculative Light. It was an excellent conference, and I am still very actively involved with what I began to learn there – still reading books by the other speakers, still turning over in thought their stray comments and questions, which lodged in my mind.

I can hear helicopters overhead, as we did last night until late into the night

To write my remarks, I spent quite a bit of time with the four works by Beauford Delaney that I could see in Chicago. My remarks focused on a great self-portrait belonging to the Art Institute of Chicago:

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1944. Art Institute of Chicago. This, and all detail photographs, Rachel Cohen.

And on an important landscape belonging to the Terra Foundation of Art, which Delaney painted of the streets in Greenwich Village, where he lived and worked:

I take this self-portrait, painted in 1944, and this streetscape, painted in 1948, to say something about what it was to be a man whom others immediately saw as Black, and, it seems, a man who saw himself as Black, and to say something about city streets, and what kind of space and consciousness they may make for derogation and self-assertion.

I also think these works talk about other things that are not necessarily related to these subjects.

This morning, I have been reading Stephen Best’s book None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life, and in particular its chapter on works by the artist El Anatsui. Stephen Best is interested in thinking like and with these works. The book is having an effect on my thinking, though I am only in the early stages of being able to say what I am learning.

Months ago, when I stood in front of the self-portrait, it seemed to me that Delaney was urging me to think with paint, and perhaps that he was even amused at the literalness.

I have been writing about works by Delaney in different entries in this notebook. The first entry in the Frederick Project, and an experience from which this whole project draws continuing energy, was about a Delaney watercolor that belongs to the Knoxville Museum of Art. Another entry looked at a set of nine drawings, self-portrait sketches; another at an abstract oil painting; another at a self-portrait and its use of ochre next to a self-portrait by Berthe Morisot.

I think there are places where art and protest overlap, some where they are mutually illuminating, other places where there may not be much relationship, or a negative one. I think it would be a kind of pretense to say that art is redemptive, or that by studying art I may make progress or help others to make progress.

I try to hold to the sense that art and protest may both make room for reflection.

This week I am and will be thinking about the city streets around our house, which is in the Kenwood neighborhood built by meat-packing millionaires around 1900, and which is also on the South Side of Chicago, I am going to try to think very locally. About these two works – the landscape and the self-portrait. And about all the little areas of paint, which I am fortunate to have hundreds of pictures of. I wonder if it will be possible to make a kind of heterogenous topography, area by area, showing one neighborhood of meanings in a painting.

Acquisition and Time

Acquisition and Time
Working on a talk to be given at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – about the collection of Italian pictures that Gardner acquired with significant help from Bernard Berenson – has been the occasion for thinking again about the collector’s passion.  When one stands in a gallery in front of a picture one is not only affected by the passions of the painter, or made aware of the forces of history, one is directly confronted with provenance, namely, by what combination of human passions did this object come to be here?  

Isabella Gardner’s letters to Berenson came dashing across the Atlantic, mixed with a flurry of cables – “Of course I want the Giotto—” “if our stupid and impossible Art Museum does not get the Giorgione (the Christ head, you know) please get it for me…. They won’t move quickly enough to get it I fear.”  I’ve been struck again by the strange urgency collectors feel seemingly as part of their decision to buy a painting.  Before the painting presents itself, it is an ordinary day – one will play with the dog, read the papers – and then the opportunity arrives, an offering letter, cable, call, a dealer at a gallery makes a discreet suggestion – and suddenly there is frenzy, haste, all the wonderful uncertainty of romance, will they call, is one making a fool of oneself, to what lengths is one willing to go.

I think I can guess something of the feeling from my own experience of buying concert tickets, or books I want very badly.  Every aspect of the transaction seems fraught and significant – I can hardly believe the chance will not be snatched away for me, even when the white envelope with the tickets arrives in the mail, I feel certain I’ll lose them.  I always have a great stab of anxiety as I walk up to the usher to present these pieces of paper, my claim.

There is something fundamentally strange about acquisition.  One lives in a household of objects, in a soul full of experiences, a few precious, many not, and one feels these things as one’s familiars – books have a known heft, trousers carry the spot from a sandwich, a memory of a particular quartet arises unbidden and is pleasurable again.  Very mysteriously, one can promise something that one already feels a little uncertain is actually a possession, a portion of a number in an account, to some institution in another part of town or on another continent, and this can result in an experience or an object leaving the wide world and crossing over into one’s narrower private realm, to sit by the bed and be mulled over in the night.

Of course this has to do with the strangeness of money itself.  Something that can render dental services and turpentine and a Rembrandt into commensurate terms must occupy an oddly-shaped conceptual space. But what’s interesting to me at the moment is how much the anxiety of acquisition seems to affect and be affected by one’s sense of time.  The most important gambit for the salesman is that ‘time is running out.’  “If you don’t take it,” Berenson wrote to Gardner, “the Paris Rothschilds almost certainly will.” But this urgency only intensifies as one begins to take hold.  My feeling in acquisition at least is a desperate desire to get across the field of empty time and to the safety of possession.  I will decide to buy in part to ward off the sensation that to pause is fatal, and, once I have decided, it will feel that the time left to wait is unbearable.

It may be that these two fears are one fear, and that every negotiation to acquire is really a small negotiation with one’s own mortality. This whole train of thought would then just be another way of arriving at a thought that already feels familiar and likely: the great desire and anxiety unleashed in us by wanting to possess art is bound up with the sense that time is running out for me.