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A painting’s long and personal journey

How Beauford Delaney’s “Twilight Street” got from 119 Waverly Place in New York’s Greenwich Village to the studio of art conservator Nina Olsson to the Portland Art Museum's walls.

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Image of Beauford Delaney's painting "Twilight Street," now in the Portland Art Museum permanent collections, after conservation treatment. All photos of the painting and caption information courtesy of art conservator Nina Olsson.
Image of Beauford Delaney’s painting “Twilight Street,” now in the Portland Art Museum permanent collections, after conservation treatment. All photos of the painting and caption information courtesy of art conservator Nina Olsson.

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This is what it says on the label next to Twilight Street, a painting by the man I simply called Beauford when I was a child.  

Beauford Delaney

(American, 1901-1979)

Twilight Street, 1946

Oil and mixed media on Masonite

Gift of Martha Ullman West in memory of Allen Ullman, 2021.51.1

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“Delaney frequently painted his Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York, often depicting the same street lamp, manhole cover, and corner building. He applied his bright paint thickly with short, repetitive brushstrokes in a way that captures the radiating energy in the city. Delaney was part of a tight knit, inclusive community of artists. The original owner of this work, painter Allen Ullman, was his close friend.”

Thanks to the magic wrought by conservator Nina Olsson, Delaney’s painting is now a shining presence on the second floor of PAM’s main building, part of the exhibition Throughlines: Connections in the Collection. This is a special exhibition the museum’s curators have put together with works from the permanent collection in order, as they put it, to explore the range of artistic innovation in the institution’s holdings. And no doubt keep the public interested while the Rothko Pavilion addition connecting the main and Markham buildings is constructed: It’s expected to open in Summer 2025.

Twilight Street was painted in what writer Henry Miller described as a damp—very—corner of a top-floor loft on Greene Street, decades before the area became fashionable, and as often happens, too expensive for artists to live in. Painted on what conservators call Masonite and my father referred to as poster board, the picture spent much of its life in storage, first in a closet of our large apartment on Waverly Place, where the wall space in every room except the kitchen and bathroom was taken up by my Dad’s work, then in the cellar of my parents’ house in Sag Harbor, then in the basement of my house in Portland. Dad bought the painting from Delaney in 1950, when Beauford was flat broke, couldn’t pay his rent or buy groceries, and Dad had just received a completely unexpected inheritance.

Left: Artist Allen Ullman, the author’s father, in his Sag Harbor studio. Photo courtesy Martha Ullman West. Right: Artist Beauford Delaney, Ullman’s friend and the creator of the painting “Twilight Street,” which is now in the collection of the Portland Art Museum. Photo: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not sure where they met: possibly at one of the Village bars, more likely at the Downtown Community School, where Dad taught art in exchange for my tuition and a small salary for the six years I was a student there. Beauford was his assistant in the art room for several of those years. I do have a vivid memory of meeting him on the street outside the Strand Bookstore, which was on my way home from school, when I was maybe 10, and was wistfully flipping through the pages of a well-used, illustrated copy of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.

“Do you want that book, Martha?” he asked in his soft Southern voice (he was born in 1901 in Knoxville, Tennessee). I said that I did, but I didn’t have the quarter it cost. (My allowance was twenty-five cents a week, and I’d spent it.) He reached in his pocket and handed me a quarter. When I told my parents later, they scolded the hell out of me for taking the money, and I’m sure reimbursed him. And without doubt invited him to come by for a drink, which would stretch into dinner and an evening of conversation about just about anything but the practice of art.

That being said, in the art room at Downtown Community School, an elementary school whose founders were committed to what we now call diversity, multiculturalism, and immersive, hands-on education, the two artists painted along with their young students, for whom art was not an elective.

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Looking at Twilight Street today, and the single painting of New York by my Dad that I have on my own walls, without discussing either vision or process, I believe they had some influence on each other. They certainly used the same materials: water-based casein paint, applied thickly, with brushes by Delaney, painting knives by Dad (he hated washing brushes).

Color and light were their passions, and they shared an obsession with painting akin to the fictional Gully Jimson’s, the hero of Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth. Delaney’s painted expressions of light, color, warmth, hope and kindness, in fact, seem to have inspired extraordinary eloquence in such disparate writers as Henry Miller, James Baldwin (who was for a period of time his lover) and James Jones, all of whose portraits he painted.

Delaney had lived and worked in New York since 1930, where he was a participant in the Harlem Renaissance, showing his work at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, and also at a number of downtown galleries. 

He disappeared from our lives not long after we acquired Twilight Street. He moved to Paris, where he had a studio on the Rue Vercingetorix, which from photographs in the catalogue for a 1978 retrospective of his work at Harlem’s Studio Museum looks considerably more comfortable than the Greene Street loft. In 1966, when my mother went to see him there, he was so strapped for cash that he couldn’t afford art supplies. He gave her a pastel still life of fruit he had done on a brown paper towel, the apple and pear looking polished, shiny, and appetizing, full of life.

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Left: Art conservator Nina Olsson, who did extensive work on Beauford Delaney’s “Twilight Street.” Right: Martha Ullman West, author of this story, who donated Delaney’s painting to the Portland Art Museum.

Twilight Street was in very bad shape indeed when conservator Nina Olsson started working on it almost three years ago, after the acquisitions committee at the Portland Art Museum accepted it at the request of curator Sara Krajewski, who says of the acquisition: “The Beauford Delaney painting adds an important artistic voice to the Museum’s collection. Delaney was in the middle of innovative artistic circles in his day and he created a distinctive style of bold and expressionistic works that captured the energy of this environment. The provenance of this painting also speaks to the tradition of camaraderie and support artists have given to each other over time and the respect for that care that then passed down generations. We are thrilled to be entrusted with this work.” 

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The painting now glows with color and light and life, looking as if Delaney had painted it yesterday and is about to carry it up the three flights of stairs to our apartment at 119 Waverly Place, on a hot summer afternoon.

After Olsson started working on the painting, I was invited to her home studio in Southwest Portland to see her progress and learn how she does what she does, as a researcher and conservator of paintings, a profession she has practiced in Portland since 2001.  

From her bio:

“[She] has worked on the development and application of specialized heat transfer methods for art conservation since 2003. From 2011-2014, Olsson held a research position at the University of Florence, Italy, Department of Industrial Engineering, and co-led the IMAT Project, a research initiative funded by the European Commission to develop an innovative new heat transfer device for the conservation treatment of cultural heritage objects that integrates cutting edge nanotechnology with the special demands of art conservation. 

“Olsson earned her B.S. in Art History and Studio Art from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1987. From 1985-2000, Olsson was active in Florence, Italy where she completed the 3-year painting conservation program at the Instituto per l’Arte e il Restauro-Palazzo Spinelli (1990), taught courses in the structural treatment of paintings on canvas and inpainting at Palazzo Spinelli (1990-1998), and courses in the history of art restoration for the University of Michigan and Wisconsin Joint International Studies Program at the Villa Corsi Salivati, and was in private practice (1990-2000). Works treated by Olsson in Italy are conserved at Palazzo Pitti, the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, the Galleria degli Uffizi, the Museo di Montalcino, and many more historic sites. With experience on both sides of the Atlantic, Olsson is a regular contributor and speaker in the field in Europe and the U.S., with published research topics that range from the history of Italian restoration, conservation treatments of Italian 15th century to American 21st century works, to the development of new technologies and conservation treatment methods. She is currently researching the use of monoatomic oxygen for surface cleaning of cultural heritage, mild heat applications for painting conservation, shock and vibration attenuation, and working on multiple efforts to recover and conserve American New Deal masterworks in Oregon.”

Last November, I interviewed Olsson via email, after I saw Twilight Street hanging on the wall of a gallery on the second floor of the Belluschi building.  I began by thanking her, from the heart, not only for bringing this beautiful painting back to life, but also for restoring some lovely memories of my “boho” childhood:

What brought you to Portland in 2001?

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I traveled several times to Portland and found it to be a really lovely and vibrant city. It is right on the 45th parallel, like Florence, so the plants and gardens made it feel somehow familiar and homey. On Halloween of 2000, I moved here permanently to join my (now) husband.

Image of the painting in UV induced fluorescence. Several modern oil paint pigments may be identified with UVF which are characteristically water sensitive such as cobalt green (appears bright yellow-door surround), chromium oxide green (appears black-bottom right edge, manhole contour etc), zinc yellow (appears pale yellow/green-wisps above right building), cadmium yellow light (appears orange-moon crescent). Delaney also used lead white extensively, which fluoresces brightly when used alone or mixed with other pigments.
Image of the painting in UV induced fluorescence. Several modern oil paint pigments may be identified with UVF which are characteristically water sensitive such as cobalt green (appears bright yellow-door surround), chromium oxide green (appears black-bottom right edge, manhole contour etc), zinc yellow (appears pale yellow/green-wisps above right building), cadmium yellow light (appears orange-moon crescent). Delaney also used lead white extensively, which fluoresces brightly when used alone or mixed with other pigments.

How did you become interested in this highly rarefied field?

I always knew that my path would travel somehow through the arts. Mom was a potter and printmaker so my sister and I spent our childhood playing in hippie artist co-ops, attending Saturday morning art classes, helping out at our university’s art gallery, and when our family traveled the itineraries were often centered on the arts. Dad is a physicist and encouraged me to “keep my options open” by including chemistry and mathematics in my undergraduate course load. 

These disparate areas of interest and study coalesced when I studied abroad in Florence, and I met people who studied and practiced in the restoration field, which blew my mind. Close examination and contact with Old Master artworks! White lab coats!  Scaffolding!  A community of like-minded people! I was star-struck, and all in right away.

Detail of the painting after treatment showing vivid wet into wet color mixing and high relief topography of the painting.
Detail of the painting after treatment showing vivid wet into wet color mixing and high relief topography of the painting.
Detail of the painting after treatment that shows the signature and date, initial blue drawing, and wet into wet mixed paint application.
Detail of the painting after treatment that shows the signature and date, initial blue drawing, and wet into wet mixed paint application.

You used the word “dire” to describe the condition Twilight Street was in when you started rending your magic.  

Twilight Street’s condition suffered from the inherent instability of some of the materials Delaney used, a less-than-ideal application method, and exposure to various environmental conditions during the work’s lifetime. Delaney had repurposed a painted Masonite support, which contributed to the complex stratigraphy of the work, and the painting was unvarnished, leaving the paint more vulnerable to environmental circumstances. From a structural perspective, the paint layer was quite compromised with severe cracking, lifting, and loss in discrete areas that were painted in casein, which is a medium that remains water-sensitive and was not well adhered to the substrate. 

Delaney’s beautiful and riotous color mixing included chromium oxide green paint, cobalt green, cadmium yellow, and cadmium red, all of which are documented modern oil paints that are particularly sensitive to humidity. Some of Delaney’s original color relationships have shifted due to changes in the paint surface. For example, the cadmium yellow and red which he used to portray luminous features like a street light or the moon have formed cadmium oxide layers that today appear dark.

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The paint surface was covered with carbon soot, a pernicious form of soiling to remove. Delaney portrayed his own studio with a coal or wood stove in other paintings, so the soot may have been there from the beginning. Finally, the work had been stored for an extended period in humid conditions here in Portland, causing structural faults to develop.

That said, the work is so rare, powerful, and exciting that there was no question in my mind that the painting merited the work necessary, and that the PAM would be thrilled to have a piece by Delaney from his golden New York period in their collection. 

Image of the painting during treatment with white fills, prior to inpainting.
Image of the painting during treatment with white fills, prior to inpainting.

Is it the worst you’ve worked on?   

The treatment required extensive structural remediation and complex surface cleaning. Customary approaches to soot removal such as dry cleaning with a brush and vacuum were not possible due to the instability of loose paint in many areas. Areas of the painting are alternatively water-sensitive or heat-sensitive, and the paint topography is highly textured with impasto relief, limiting the possibility of applying pressure during consolidation.  The treatment was one of the more challenging I have worked on! 

I am currently involved in a European research project (www.moxyproject.eu) to develop a non-contact cleaning method to remove carbon-based contaminants from artwork surfaces, and I often thought about how this painting would be an ideal candidate. Unfortunately, this new non-contact cleaning methodology will not be fully developed and vetted for actual treatments for many years.

If not, what was the worst?

Perhaps the paintings in the worst condition I have encountered have been fire-damaged. Each project has its subset of conditions, problems, and challenges, which is part of the conservation problem-solving process. I enjoy working on multifaceted projects, and structural remediation of works on canvas has been the focus of much of my research.

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You have a B.S. in Art History and Studio Art from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  Had you wanted to be a studio painter? 

I did study painting, and that was an integral part of my being drawn to technical art history and ultimately to art conservation. In general, art conservators need a background in the studio arts to develop the knowledge to analytically examine and visually deconstruct the artworks in their care. I initially thought that restoration would be a related profession that would allow me to maintain a painting studio, but instead, it quickly became the main focus of my advanced study.

Micrograph of the streetlight center before treatment, showing deposition of carbon soot, and the formation of a crust of cadmium red oxide.
Micrograph of the streetlight center before treatment, showing deposition of carbon soot, and the formation of a crust of cadmium red oxide.

What made you train for this rarefied, difficult profession of conservator? 

I started my training and professional work on Italian Old Master paintings, and the conservation/restoration field pushed all my buttons, combining the study of the art historical context of the work, the visual analysis and interpretation of the works, and the development of the manual finesse of carrying out delicate treatment tasks. I was completely dedicated to the field right away. The work is intellectually engaging, demanding to perform, and purposeful in a profound sense. 

Working with experienced curators and specialists informs the process in a special way.  My formative years were spent in Florence, where there were many symposia, exhibitions, and work and training opportunities to keep things stimulating. It’s a field where new methodologies are always being developed, which keeps you in a lifelong professional development and learning mode.

How have the new technologies changed your profession? 

New technologies have been critical for the advancement of our field from its origins as an artisan craft to a more informed and refined pursuit, bringing a new awareness of constituent materials, and opening new treatment possibilities in our studio practice. Art conservation sees itself mirrored in the medical field, where new knowledge and technologies can lead to less invasive and more effective means of treatment.

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 Have they made the work simpler or more complicated or both? 

Certainly both!  But the field is hungry for more information and new treatment options to address the ever-expanding list of non-traditional materials used for contemporary artworks, and to prepare for the future and the changing climate with safer and more eco-conscious methods. With new imaging and analytical instrumentation, conservators and conservation scientists have gained knowledge about the artwork materials, the understanding of degradation processes, and the effects of prior treatments, allowing us to better assess the condition of artworks, model our testing and treatments, and preserve them in sustainable ways.

Through new tools, conservators can perform treatments that previously were not possible and achieve better results with less margin of risk.  I have been involved in the development of new treatment technologies, which is a fascinating process. 

And of course, the information technology that supports the digital transformation has made it easier for conservators to share and access research and treatments through online sources and virtual conference proceedings.

Micrograph of the crescent moon before treatment, showing deposition of carbon soot, and the formation of cadmium oxide on the surface.
Micrograph of the crescent moon before treatment, showing deposition of carbon soot, and the formation of cadmium oxide on the surface.
Micrograph showing the detail before cleaning test.
Micrograph showing the detail before cleaning test.
Micrograph showing the detail after cleaning test.
Micrograph showing the detail after cleaning test.

When you were in Florence, did you work on any of the art that was damaged in the 1966 flood of the Arno? You were there almost two decades after that, but so much was damaged in 1966 I’m betting there was still plenty of conservation work to be done.

Already in the 19th century, and during the better part of the 20th century, Florence was a driving force in the evolution of art restoration theory and practice, through the work of art historians like Ugo Procacci, Cesare Brandi, and Umberto Baldini that codified the core concepts of the emerging field in their writings, and in their work as ideators and directors of some of the most influential restoration and research institutes. That work culminated in the organized response to the flood of November 4, 1966, that made Florence into a global center for restoration and fulcrum of knowledge exchange as experts and amateurs converged on the city.

So naturally my formation as an art conservator in 1980s Florence was profoundly affected by the legacy of the taught experiences of my instructors who participated firsthand in the emergency response in 1966. In particular, my maestro Massimo Seroni was an inspirational source of information on how they intellectually framed the problems, studied the “natural history” of art degradation in the flood aftermath, and formulated their elegant treatments of Italy’s masterpieces. Even in the late 1980s and 1990s when I was his student and teaching assistant, Seroni had been assigned the uniquely qualified status to treat some of the remaining wood panel paintings damaged in the flood, and I assisted him in executing some of those unusual and extreme treatments.

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Do you have anything to add?  Feel free!

Thank you for introducing me to this painting, and for sharing it with the public! The connection between you, your parents, their boho cohort, Delaney, the Village, and Portland is an incredible provenance.  I feel lucky and honored to have been a teeny-tiny stop on that journey. It was such a pleasure to dive into Beauford Delaney’s paintings and to work on this piece. 

During my treatment, I had the opportunity to discuss specific technical questions with colleagues who have worked on Delaney’s paintings, and with experts in the field of modern oil paints. Complex treatments like this one take place over many months, and the conservator develops an intimate understanding of the piece: any number of small details, color combinations, unique passages, audacious paint strokes, unusual aging patterns, an embedded hair.

It is really a treasure to cherish.

Image of Beaford Delaney's painting "Twilight Street" before treatment by conservator Nina Olsson.
Image of the painting before treatment.

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[UPDATE: The reopening of of the Throughlines exhibit, which had been scheduled for Feb. 1, has been pushed back to Feb. 8 because of construction at the museum.]

Twilight Street will be on view on the second floor of the museum’s main building from February 8 until November 1, part of the Throughlines exhibition. From the website description:  “Throughlines [brings] together artworks from across the Museum’s collections to explore the range of artistic innovation. From diverse geographies, cultures, and time periods, artists have consistently created images, objects, and experiences that ask us to consider ourselves and the world around us from different perspectives.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Dance

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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5 Responses

  1. This is such a multi-faceted treat! A deep look at a work by an artist who doesn’t always get as much attention as his colleagues, and another detailed look, this time at the process of conservation. Wow!

  2. Martha,

    Thank you for this wonderful article and for your incredible generosity. Our Museum and community are forever grateful!

    And, Nina, thank you for your work on this significant painting. The result is excellent. We are fortunate to have you in Portland.

    Brian Ferriso
    Director
    Portland Art Museum

    1. Brian, I would add that my daughter and son-in-law, who found the painting in the basement of my former home, and John Goodwin, whom we all met after the Ursula Le Guin commemorative stamp ceremony, at which I was a speaker, had a great deal to do with the donation of this painting to PAM.

  3. I love it, “Close examination and contact with Old Master artworks! White lab coats!” Thank you for making this painting come alive again and available for all. You probably hear about this all the time–I’m a fan of the fiction series about Gabriel Allon, master spy and art conservator. I’ve often wondered how accurately art conservation is depicted in the book. There’s not nearly as much detail as you describe here, and mostly the same technique is used from book to book, but still, it’s an interesting side note to an espionage series.

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