“We’ve been working on it and talking about it for so long, I can’t believe that Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin:  Through the Unusual Door is finally happening.” 
David Butler, KMA Executive Director

Building a significant collection of works by Knoxville native Beauford Delaney has been a longstanding goal for the Knoxville Museum of Art, which now owns more Delaney works than any public collection in the world.

The KMA’s holdings and loans from public and private collections around the country are featured in Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin:  Through the Unusual Door February 7-May 10, 2020.  This groundbreaking exhibition of 50+ paintings, works on paper, and unpublished archival material examines the 38-year relationship between painter Beauford Delaney and writer James Baldwin and the ways their ongoing intellectual exchange shaped one another’s creative output and worldview.

This is the biggest project the museum has undertaken since the installation of Richard Jolley’s epic glass-and-steel Cycle of Life.  Like Cycle of Life, the Delaney/Baldwin exhibition represents the highest and best expression of the KMA’s mission as an institution dedicated to the visual culture of East Tennessee and its connections to the wider world.


Beauford Delaney overcame poverty, racial discrimination, and mental illness to achieve international renown. The young Delaney’s precocious talent was recognized by Lloyd Branson, Knoxville’s first full-time professional artist, who mentored Beauford and his brother Joseph. By 1929, Beauford Delaney had settled in New York where he attracted a distinguished circle of cultural luminaries that included Georgia O’Keeffe and Henry Miller, but it was the much younger James Baldwin who had the most significant influence on the artist. Baldwin found in Delaney a father figure, muse, and model of perseverance as a gay man of color. Delaney found in Baldwin a powerful intellectual and spiritual anchor who inspired some of his finest works. Encouraged by Baldwin, Delaney left New York in 1953 and settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1979 and where artist and writer continued their long and mutually beneficial relationship. Through the Unusual Door presents the story of Baldwin and Delaney in a way that inspires reconsideration of their life circumstances and raises important questions about the nature of the racial and sexual identity barriers they faced

The exhibition title Through the Unusual Door comes from a passage in Baldwin’s volume of collected essays The Price of the Ticket (1985) describing the author’s reaction to his initial encounter with Delaney in the doorway of the artist’s Greenwich Village studio: “Lord, I was to hear Beauford sing, later, and for many years, open the unusual door... I walked through that door into Beauford’s colors.” This first meeting encapsulates Delaney’s transformational effect on Baldwin’s view of himself and the world he lived in, and set the tone for the painter’s role in the author’s life as a father figure and mentor. Baldwin, in turn, inspired Delaney with his fearless social conscience and commitment to civil rights causes. They helped each other to move beyond the pain and oppression imposed on them by the world.

While no other figure in Beauford Delaney’s extensive social orbit approaches James Baldwin in the extent and duration of influence, none of the major exhibitions of Delaney’s work has explored in any depth the creative exchange between the two.  Previous scholarship has almost exclusively emphasized the artist’s stylistic evolution from the 1940s to the 1960s as a function of his move from New York to Paris. Through the Unusual Door posits the idea that this profound stylistic change was in part inspired by the intellectual and personal relationship between Delaney and Baldwin. Ordinary daily observations--reflections in puddles in the streets of Greenwich village or the quality of light filtered through the window of Delaney’s studio in the Paris suburb of Clamart--sparked extraordinary creative exchanges between the two. The exhibition incorporates previously unpublished archival materials and artworks that promise to extend the understanding of Delaney’s aesthetic agenda and range and reveal the extent of his ties to Baldwin.

Additional events surrounding the exhibition include:

Friday, February 7, 6:30-8pm - KMA Exhibition Preview in conjunction with Alive After Five

Saturday, February 8, 11am-3pm - Winter Family Fun Day celebrating Through the Unusual Door

For more information and events on Delaney, head to The Delaney Project.