Louis Delsarte, American muralist, painted the Black experience to convey universal themes
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Louis Delsarte, American muralist, painted the Black experience to convey universal themes
Miriam, 2015. 22"x 30", circa 2015 , mm/acrylic, Private Collection.

by Steven Kurutz

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Louis Delsarte, a noted artist who celebrated African American history and culture through dreamlike paintings, drawings, prints and, above all, large-scale public murals, died on May 2 in Atlanta. He was 75.

His wife, Jae Delsarte, confirmed the death, saying he had had a heart condition.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Delsarte created monumental murals throughout New York City. Among his best-known pieces is a 20-foot-long mosaic, “Transitions,” installed in 2001 inside the Church Avenue subway station in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

Made of bright shards of glass, “Transitions” depicts sidewalk strollers, churchgoers and costumed men and women celebrating the West Indian American Day Parade in uplifting scenes of black life rendered in stunning color.

“Whenever I see Louis’ work, I see a bunch of black people looking good, from anywhere and everywhere in the diaspora,” said Arturo Lindsay, an artist and professor emeritus of art and art history at Spelman College in Atlanta. “Just showing black people looking good and happy is a hell of a political statement.”

Another of Delsarte’s glass murals, “The Spirit of Harlem,” depicts figures from the Harlem Renaissance, among them Cab Calloway and Count Basie, some of whom he knew through his parents. Measuring 10 feet by 30 feet, it was commissioned by North Fork Bank in 2005 for its branch at West 125th Street, across from the Apollo Theater.

In 2017, “The Spirit of Harlem” was bricked over by a Footaction chain store that had moved into the former bank. Outraged community members, including the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, led protests, and the shoe emporium, bowing to the pressure, restored the mural.

Delsarte first found fame in 1960s as a muralist in the bohemian downtown New York art scene. He painted the walls psychedelic inside the Electric Circus, the East Village nightclub frequented by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Delsarte’s circle of artists included Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom he studied at Pratt Institute, and Mapplethorpe’s roommate and lover, Patti Smith, who mentioned Delsarte in her 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.”

Delsarte moved out West for a time in the 1970s, painting murals in and around Laguna Beach, California, living in a commune and settling in Arizona, where he earned an MFA from the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 1977.

Long after he went back East, leaving his hippie days behind him, Delsarte retained that era’s gentle optimism and earnest belief in peace and love.

“He was a humble and lovely man, and a vibrant soul who could have been nothing but an artist,” said Gina Guy, who is the collections manager at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Delsarte’s cousin.

But unlike many fancy-free hippies, Delsarte was rigorously productive, creating a large body of work over the decades. His paintings show a masterly technique, blending figurative elements and depictions of the natural world with abstraction, layers of symbolism and fantastical imagery that defy easy categories.

“Louis reminded me of a cross between Ellington and Hendrix,” Kevin Sipp, the curator of Gallery 72 in Atlanta, said in an appreciation on the website Arts Atl. “Hendrix could take the blues and turn it into something cosmic. Louis did the same thing with a paintbrush.”

Louis Jessup Delsarte III was born on Sept. 1, 1944, in Brooklyn to Louis Delsarte II and Llewellyn (Johnston) Delsarte. His parents, both educators — his father was a sports superintendent with the New York City Board of Education, his mother was a teaching assistant at the Elizabeth Blackwell Junior High School in Queens — were friends with black artists and performers. Lena Horne would leave the family tickets whenever she performed in town.

Delsarte grew up steeped in the jazz records his father played at their home in Crown Heights and spent time at Greenwood Forest Farm, a historically African American country retreat in Orange County, New York. The poet Langston Hughes was among its summer residents.

Delsarte’s mother fostered his artistic talents, enrolling him at age 9 in classes at the Brooklyn Museum. From then on he was seemingly never without a sketchbook and pencils.

“Almost everywhere we went, especially if we went to a concert or dinner, any place where he’d be for more than two hours, he would sketch,” said Jae Delsarte, who met her husband in 1988 at a gallery show in Milwaukee and married him the following year. (His first marriage, to Janice Quinn, whom he wed at the Electric Circus in the late 1960s, ended in divorce.)

In 1990, Delsarte and his wife moved to Atlanta, where he accepted a tenured teaching position at Morris Brown College. He had been an assistant professor at Morehouse College, also in Atlanta, since 2008.

As an artist Delsarte made his mark on Atlanta as well, most notably with a 125-foot-long mural commissioned by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs for the Martin Luther King Jr. Natatorium. Speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Delsarte described the mural, which took two years and 100 volunteers to complete, as a “filmstrip of King’s life” and “an allegory of the people who made up his world.”

His work has been exhibited in many museums and cultural centers, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, also in Harlem, and the Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta. For 25 years he participated in year-round programs of the Faculty Resource Network at New York University, as both an artist- and scholar-in-residence, making summer visits to the city that he said he loved and missed.

In addition to his wife, Delsarte is survived by two daughters, Shanti Delsarte, from his first marriage, and Rachel Delsarte; and his sister, Eva Delsarte.

In an interview in Time magazine in 2019, Delsarte offered this self-assessment of his work: “I try to work toward peace, to say that art is the meaning of love, that living on Earth is a spiritual quest. I try to elevate the spirit of man and the spirit of humanity.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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