Beckford Young became associated with the American Abstract Artists after he returned from an extended stay in Europe. The son of a builder in Petaluma, California, Young learned carpentry at an early age, and while still in his teens, built a house on his own. A high school athlete, Young passed up a football scholarship. Instead, he decided to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where he was influenced by John Haley and Worth Ryder. It was Ryder, Hans Hofmann’s former student in Munich, who arranged the summer teaching position that first brought Hofmann to the United States.(1) And it was Ryder who introduced Young to Hofmann’s ideas. When Hofmann himself arrived in Berkeley, he took Young under his wing. Hofmann advised Young to forget everything he had learned, and draw using only ink and a matchstick. When Hofmann returned to Germany, he convinced Young to join him, although when Hofmann decided to move permanently to the United States, his student remained abroad. In Berlin he met and married Janet Todd. From Germany, the couple traveled to Rome, and then to Positano, the art colony on the coast of Italy where Vaclav Vytlacil held summer classes. Later Young described his time in Positano as his most creative and prolific period. However, little of the work from that time remains today. In Positano, Young worked closely with Vytlacil and also studied fresco painting, attempting to duplicate ancient Pompeian techniques.
In 1937, with the political situation worsening in Europe, the Youngs returned to California, where Beckford joined theWPA.(2) His newly acquired expertise in fresco led to immediate employment on mural projects for federal buildings in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1938, he transferred to the Sacramento project, where he organized an art school and gallery. Although he also taught painting, his primary responsibilities in Sacramento were administrative. Subsequently Young managed a variety of WPA projects in Oakland and San Francisco, where he served as art director until the WPA came to an end.(3)
Young was deeply committed to the WPA’s concept of public art. He believed art should be integrated with life and should make a positive contribution to the community. Much of the work he did on the WPA was directed toward educating children to the beauty and enjoyment of creating works of art.
During World War II, Young did camouflage work for the armed forces and served in other art related fields. In the 1950s and 1960s, he completed mural commissions for various hotels and other public spaces. He also worked for a residential construction firm, and during the early 1960s handled remodeling projects for the Hilton Hotel chain.
Living in California, Beckford Young was a long-distance member of the American Abstract Artists and exhibited in several of its early annual exhibitions. He considered himself an experimental, rather than an abstract artist, who incorporated Hofmann’s ideas into a body of work that was, for the most part, representational. The dramatic white Construction, in which the artist attached architectural moldings, strips of wood, and other found objects to a door, was an unusual work for Young. It owes a conceptual debt to Russian Constructivism, yet is stylistically closer to Vytlacil’s constructed work of the 1930s than to that of Pevsner, Gabo, or Tatlin. Young’s admiration for Vytlacil is perhaps most clearly revealed in the Untitled gouache of about 1938. The compressed space of the figures, defiant of the implied dimensionality of the brick foreground and building, relates directly to a short-lived classical phase of Vytlacil’s work during the 1930s.
1. The biographical information about Beckford Young is drawn from an interview with Young’s widow, Eleanor, and his children Gayle, Mark, and Beckford, Jr., conducted by Mary Drach, March 1988, curatorial files, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
2. Beckford Young spoke at length about the California WPA art programs and the role he played in an interview with Mary McChesney, 19 May 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
3. Among the projects Young directed were a mosaic mural at the University of California by Helen Bruton and Florence Swift, the Beach Chalet murals by Lucien Lebaudt, and murals at Treasure Island and the San Francisco Federal Building. He also provided oversight for various sculptural and mural projects at the San Francisco Aquatic Park.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930 – 1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)