CLEVE GRAY: WORKS ON PAPER 1940-1986 by Linda Konheim Kramer, Curator of Prints and Drawings, The Brooklyn Museum


This exhibition, which covers the full span of Cleve Gray’s career up to the present, is the first retrospective of his works on paper. In it, one can perceive not only the development of his artistic style in general but also the evolution of his treatment of the medium of paper in particular.

Early in his career Gray used paper in a traditional manner. Consequently, the earliest works in the exhibition are drawings that he did from nature as preparatory sketches for paintings. After executing them, he went back to the studio, pinned them on the wall, and made paintings from them, using the information they contained and hoping never to have to return to the original subject. Not surprisingly, he usually worked on paper when he was away from home. Sketches that he drew in the bombed-out streets of London while he was a soldier in Europe between 1943 and 1946 and studies of Mont-Saint-Michel that he made in France in the early 1950s he carefully translated onto canvas upon his return to America.

Although the Oriental painting philosophy Gray studied while working on his Princeton University senior thesis on Chinese Yuan Dynasty landscape painting would later profoundly affect his art, there is nothing Oriental about such early works as his drawings of the London ruins or the pastel and charcoal portraits he made in 1939 and 1940 while he was still in college. Instead, these works display a Cubist angularity and a search for underlying structure that was subsequently reinforced by his postwar studies in Paris with André Lhote and Jacques Villon. During the 1950s, while making drawings of such European architectural monuments as the mosque at Cordova and the Alhambra, he continued to work in a style similar to that of Villon and the post-Cubist artists who made up the so-called School of Paris.

Gray’s first distinct break with this style is represented by a number of untitled oil-on-paper drawings of the early 1960s that he refers to as “red verticals.” Although these drawings are still considered studies for paintings and although they recall the influence of such members of the School of Paris as Frantisek Kupka and Nicolas de Stael, they represent an important turning point for Gray: they were the first works on paper that he did in a series and the first indication of the abstract sensibility that was to permeate the work that followed.

By this point in his career Gray felt a need to move beyond the rationalism of his earlier art toward greater spontaneity. Although he never felt comfortable with the nonobjective basis of Abstract Expressionism, he eventually came to see aspects of the Abstract Expressionists’ work that could be related to his passion for Oriental art. To attain greater freedom of expression, he began to work in 1965 on a series he called Reverse Drawings. These drawings were the product of a technique he had learned in art school in New York years before. They involved drawing on paper in opaque white watercolor, covering the drawing with India ink, and then washing the opaque white off so that only the ink was left. The resulting works contained hard edges rather than fuzzy watercolor or wash contours. Sometimes the artist dribbled the opaque white on; other times he applied it with an automatic gesture. According to Gray, the imagery derived from his love of Oriental painting and calligraphy.

With the Reverse Drawings, Gray had established the direction of his mature style. He has continued to work in lengthy series over extended periods of time, pursuing one idea as far as he can and then starting a new series in which he tackles an entirely new problem. Because he moves between such opposites as structure and the dissolution of form, color and noncolor, texture and nontexture, there are similar forms, colors, and concepts that tend to recur in his various formats. And yet the imagery of his works on paper rarely overlaps with that of his works on canvas. The switch from painting on canvas to working on paper depends on the problem he is trying to resolve, and he is always consciously reacting against what he did before in order to take a step ahead. Although he regards drawing and painting as equally important, he feels freer working on canvas and only turns to paper, which he considers more constraining, when he knows exactly what he wants to do. “Paper has a more demanding character than canvas,” he says. “You work with paper as part of the matière much more than you do with the canvas. You can have a fight with the canvas, but you can’t do that with paper because eventually it will disintegrate.”

After completing the Reverse Drawings, Gray abandoned paper for a long time, turning to the large paintings of his Ceres and Hera series. In these paintings, which were inspired by his travels in Greece in 1964 and 1965, he reexplored the brilliant color and upright forms of his “red verticals,” which now represented for him a female who was part goddess, part column, and part tree. So involved was he with these works that he produced nothing on paper through the late sixties except a few landscapes in watercolor that he made from nature while on holiday in Nassau in 1967 and Martha’s Vineyard in 1969. Although these watercolors contain certain qualities of color and form that reappeared later in his career, unlike most of his work they presented him with no formal problems. Indeed, he classifies them as “informal” because they were intended merely to capture a landscape he loved.

More typical of Gray’s oeuvre are the drawings of his Moroccan Series, which were inspired by a three-week tour of Morocco in 1970. Gray strove in this series to eliminate the separation between drawing and painting, to make the brushstroke and line become one. While turning away from color, he maintained the vertical shape, reading it this time simply as “woman” and superimposing it on a square, which for him represented a tile. Having resolved on canvas some of the problems presented by the vertical form, he felt comfortable working directly on Japanese paper.

The artist’s explorations of the vertical shape on both paper and canvas finally culminated in 1974 in a sequence of fourteen large paintings entitled Threnody. This series, commissioned by the Neuberger Museum of the State University of New York at Purchase, was the result of years of antiwar activity and the ultimate expression of Gray’s anguish over the tragedy of Vietnam. In content it harks back to his drawings of the London ruins.

Having spent almost fifteen years on the vertical form, Gray found that he could go no further with it. While vacationing in Vermont in 1974 he made a series of paintings on paper in which he decided to switch to horizontal forms, and gradually, in works like After Vermont, forms similar to those of the Reverse Drawings reappeared. Then, in 1975 in Jerusalem, he began a series of works on small sheets of paper (the Jerusalem Series) in which he broke totally not only with the vertical but with the horizontal as well. This series, which he continued as the After Jerusalem Series when he came back to the United States, employed gestural lines and circular, almost cosmic, forms.

After returning to canvas for several years, Gray began working with dry pigments on paper in 1979. These pigments, he discovered, blurred for him the distinction between the medium and the support. Similarly, when he went to Rome in December of that year as a Resident Artist of the American Academy, he incorporated into his acrylics the marble dust he found on the floor of the studio of the sculptor next door. The soft colors, varied textures, and scratchy, graffiti-like gestural forms of the resulting series, Roman Walls, were inspired by the surfaces of Rome’s old buildings.

Gray continued the colorful Roman Walls series for the next two years, but then moved into the almost colorless calligraphic works of his Zen Series (reminiscent of the Reverse Drawings) and iollowing a progression of experimentation similar to what he had gone through with the vertical form. In 1984, still using the same gestural forms, he returned to color and specific imagery in his Embassy Series, so titled because it was exhibited at the residence of the American ambassador in Prague. These drawings, inspired by the shape of the umbrella pine of Italy, were a continuation of the calligraphic style he had arrived at in his Jerusalem works.

While in Prague, Gray visited the old Jewish cemetery, an uncared for but tragically beautiful place in which one cannot help but visualize the centuries of bodies that were heaped on top of one another there. This experience, combined with the articles on Klaus Barbie and the Vichy government’s persecution of the Jews that his wife, Francine du Plessix Gray, had written for Vanity Fair in 1983, suggested to him his Holocaust Series of 1985. The figure, long missing from Gray’s oeuvre, reemerges here in the form of piled-up bodies symbolic of both the tragedies of the Jewish people in particular and the horror of war in general. Recalling the emotions that produced Threnody, this series comes almost full cycle back to Gray’s drawings of World War II London. It also represents one of the few times in the last twenty years that his works on paper have led to paintings.

Most recently, in Gray’s Resurrection Series of 1986, line has nearly overwhelmed the figure and white transparencies similar to those found in his Zen Series have obliterated most of the color. Once again, the artist is turning from imagery to abstraction, from color to black and white, from form to dissolution of form.

Such apparent stylistic shifts in the development of Gray’s work are in fact part of a continuous cycle when viewed in the context of his entire career. As Lawrence Alloway noted in a discussion of Gray’s art in 1970 “A consecutive logic emerges, highly convincing in retrospect though it is a form of logic impossible for the artist to predict during work."

- from the catalogue of the exhibition Cleve Gray: Works on Paper, 1940-1986 at The Brooklyn Museum, 1987