He is best known for his sweeping, vibrant murals depicting the Black experience, but Louis Delsarte’s smaller works are equally evocative, and one of them will soon be on view at the Harvard Art Museums.
In 2018, Harvard acquired “Unity,” an offset lithograph print by Delsarte, completed in 1995 during his residency at the Brandywine Workshop and Archives in Philadelphia. The piece will be featured in an upcoming museums’ exhibition that spans more than three centuries of printmaking, and it was the focus of a recent talk in which Ph.D. candidate Kéla Jackson explored music, color, and interiority in Delsarte’s work.
Delsarte died of a heart condition last year at age 75, a loss that devastated “not only the Atlanta art scene [where he was an assistant professor at Morehouse College], but also a larger community of African American artists,” said Jackson, a student in Harvard’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture. Born in Brooklyn in 1944, Delsarte grew up in a community of “artists, musicians, and writers carrying on the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance,” said Jackson, and devoted much of his career to documenting “the many textures of African American life, weaving tragedy, hope, loss, and love into scenes of the everyday. His explorations pulled images of African American life from the margins and posited them as universal.”
That universality is central to “Unity,” which depicts an intimate family scene involving a mother, father, and three young children gathered in a sitting or living room. The piece is filled with motion because of the way Delsarte manipulated color on the woven page, said Jackson. The artist used 12 sheets of Mylar, a thin polyester film coated with different hues, to add depth and shading to the work. Those thin films would then have been transferred onto metal plates, then to an intermediate surface, and finally to print media, each color printed on top of another in succession.