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Mellow yellow

Delaney show explores the emotions of a singular color

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The Color Yellow, on view at the High Museum, is an amazing eye-popper. In the late Beauford Delaney's work, yellow meets yellow, but it also makes love and goes to war with vivid orange, creamy white, acid green and smoky gray. Yellow pushes up against red and black, lavender and blue. From soft smudges of chalk on paper to thickly impastoed oil on canvas, his permutations of the color appear endless.

This show, like After the Scream, originated at the High. Guest curator Richard Powell, who co-organized the To Conserve a Legacy shows at the High and Clark Atlanta University two years ago, worked with local scholar and Delaney friend Richard Long to pull together a wonderful spectrum of paintings and pastels, each reveling in yellow.

The prolific African-American artist must have gone through crates of yellow paint and pastels. Powell calls Delaney a "color revolutionary." True, this show bares the soul of a zealot; Delaney turns yellow inside out -- plunging deep into its emotional, spiritual and psychological nuances. In his portraits and abstractions, yellow works to lighten and affirm as well as to unsettle the viewer. There's a poignancy to his obsession with yellow, by turns happy, sublime, anxious and despairing.

Delaney transcends categorization that might simply label him as homosexual and black. Stylistically frank and naive, his early figurative work reflects a personal affinity with the New York art scene in the 1930s. He attended classes at the Art Students League and became an active player in the city's artistic landscape. In this exhibition, boldly painted images of his close friend, writer James Baldwin, of Richard Long and a few revealing self-portraits are shown along with his musical muses: Ella Fitzgerald, dancer Bernard Hassell and singer Marian Anderson.

Baldwin's portrait from 1965 is particularly emotional. Caught in the thick of the civil rights era, the black American writer was continually called on to be a spokesman, remembers Powell. His brown face and yellow-clad figure, surrounded by vibrant greenish yellows, seem to tremble with angst.

The singular "Washington Square" shows how Delaney's style could slide into a child-like minimalism. Outlined in black and thickly framed in chalky blue and lavender, the New York landmark becomes a pastoral playground with a highly textured yellow field at its heart.

Delaney's visit to Paris in 1953 became a permanent move that turned his artmaking upside down. Immediately caught up in the postwar expatriate culture of the city, he made an astounding leap from the figurative style he'd developed in Greenwich Village. He began to create abstractions. His plunge into the nonobjective was equally intuitive, his use of yellow just as intense.

"Composition 16," from 1954, swirls with layers of yellow, red and green, all the movement centered on a central yellow aura. "Untitled" (1959) is softer, more pacific. A flatter application of color has a calming, muted effect. But most of the time, there's a 3-D expressionist vibe in his abstract paintings that makes them almost sculptural and certainly improvisional -- like the jazz that inspired much of his work.

The Color Yellow is a vision of art that streams with light, making Delaney's brilliant show the perfect antidote for our winter blues.

The Color Yellow runs through May 5 at High Museum, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. noon-5 p.m. 404-733-HIGH.

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