I was in New York for an annual symposium on American art in the spring of 2003. I went even though the IMA was still contemplating the purchase of a work that I had strongly advocated for the museum’s African American collection. The symposium was important, but so was the purchase, so I kept an open communication with the IMA via cell phone. The decision to purchase this painting was difficult because Joseph Delaney is not a well known African American artist.
At the time, his brother, Beauford had a broader reputation for his abstract canvases, but Joseph was just beginning to be acknowledged for his expressionist New York scenes populated with crowds of people. I had very few examples of this type of art in the American collection and none by an African American artist.
I thought this was a rare opportunity to acquire a painting that not only showed the expressionist style but also contained images of a group of Abstract Expressionist friends of Delaney that he had invited to his studio for a party. The party appeared to have turned into a heated discussion with Delaney at the head of the table facing away from the viewer. I also liked the setting which was Delaney’s Harlem studio complete with fire escape and kitchen interior typical of 1940s New York apartments.
The artists in the painting were tentatively identified as Adolph Gottlieb opposite Delaney, Willem de Kooning on the left and the most famous of all Jackson Pollock, who is the one artist in the scene whose identity is most certain. This would be the second painting supported in part by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Indianapolis Chapter fund. As in the previous blog other funds would have to be found to support the remainder of the purchase price, which would not prove difficult. There were numerous back and forth phone calls and voicemail messages between me, the IMA director and chief curator which resulted in a decision to purchase the painting.
Delaney’s work has since become more sought after, but that is true of much of African American art before 1945. It seems that museums and collectors have discovered this wealth of great art and are trying to make up for lost time. The Artist’s Party bring together the museum’s American and contemporary collections in that it leads to a discussion of Abstract Expressionism, the first art movement that is represented in the contemporary galleries and the first art movement that made America a leader in the art world and New York an art scene similar to Paris. It also leads to a discussion of the relationship between Abstract Expressionism and earlier art and what artists like Delaney, who still focused on representation, thought about this relatively new abstract art movement. It looks like that topic could be part of the heated discussion depicted in the painting.
You can’t miss the Delaney hanging in the American Scene section of the American galleries. It makes a striking contrast as well as a welcome addition to the other pieces in the gallery that focus on American life in the 1930s and 40s.
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