From the Washington Post - June 11, 2003
An Imagination Freed in Paris

By Jessica Dawson

Herbert Gentry got to Paris late. He showed up in 1946, when the city's indubitable title of global art capital was proving dubitable after all. Had Gentry stayed in New York, which had just begun rearing up on its postwar haunches, he would have rode the cusp of a creative explosion. Instead, he headed to a city with its fame on the wane.

But Gentry didn't go to Paris to be cool. Or because Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti still had studios there (though that helped). The painter arrived and stayed because of what Paris could offer a black man from the United States: freedom from bias and segregation. Paris gave Gentry, Lois Mailou Jones, Beauford Delaney, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Romare Bearden and the countless other African American artists who ventured there in the 1930s, '40s and '50s a place to just be.

And did Gentry live. The Pittsburgh-born painter, surrounded by dancers and performers while growing up in Harlem in the 1920s, arrived in France courtesy of the GI Bill (he'd served in the Army). He studied art at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and, informally, with Cubist master Georges Braque. Gentry dabbled in entertainment, too, running his own jazz club, Chez Honey, in 1949. Duke Ellington and Zoot Sims performed there. Richard Wright and Jean-Paul Sartre listened in. The club was short-lived, though. Painting was his main concern.

The style that Gentry developed in Paris stuck with him. Abstracted figuration, I guess you'd call it. You can see it in his later canvases on view in a small survey of 13 paintings at Georgetown's Parish Gallery. Canvases painted three years ago, just before the 83-year-old Gentry was hospitalized for Alzheimer's disease, could be mistaken for the earliest ones in the show, from 1978. All are direct descendants of the Paris paintings.

In Paris, Gentry painted crude, primitive, African-inspired figures in bright colors. It was Picasso, of course, who famously mined -- some would say fetishized -- African art as early as the first decade of the 20th century. The Spaniard's canvas colonialism, shocking at first, was by Gentry's day accepted artistic fashion.

At Parish, Gentry's palette is vivid, his shapes reduced. Blue, purple, red or yellow paints dominate, often vibrating against one another. The artist distilled faces to essential geometry. Mouths are semicircles. Eyes are dots or circles. The canvases, full of figures that seem to pop in and out of view, suggest parades or ceremonies. Some, such as the rich blue "Around Centered One," remind me of Marc Chagall's earnest spirituality. But, like the surrealists before him, Gentry was interested foremost in the subconscious. He used the masks, birds, signs, symbols, totems and glyphs of African art to explore the territory of the mind.

It takes a while to decipher a Gentry painting. You may never figure one out. The artist's imagination took circuitous routes to arrive at these images. One figure's neck turns into the top of another figure's head. A bird beak looks like a man's nose, and vice versa. Gentry's pictures are a visual stream of consciousness.

Although Gentry's images are steadfastly African, his palette and brush stroke seem tuned in to Europe and America. "Middle Man" has the primary color palette of Piet Mondrian -- more yellow than blue, red and white, but still something like the Dutchman's stormy cousin many times removed. Gentry's gestures, though, remind me of Willem de Kooning's wild strokes, minus the arrogance. A Gentry canvas is a bravado-free zone.

There's a heady mix of influences here. But, more often than not, the artists who influenced Gentry or worked alongside him got more attention -- sometimes rightly so. Still, questions of circumstance, and, inevitably, race, leave me wondering if Gentry didn't deserve more than he got. A Gentry canvas may have just a few notes, but they're played with gusto.
Copyright 2003 The Washington Post

From the New York Times - February 18, 1996 ART VIEW
Black Artists At Home In Postwar Paris By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN

PARIS IN THE YEARS AFTER World War II still evoked la vie de boheme for countless Americans. They cheerfully looked beyond the realities of that convalescent city, where, after liberation, Parisians were the hungriest they had been since the Prussian siege. During the late 1940's, 50's and 60's, American art students went there in droves, lured by the residual fame of the great School of Paris.

Maybe they didn't quite envision themselves in Gene Kelly's tap shoes, as Hollywood's sunny incarnation of an expatriate painter in the 1951 film "An American in Paris." But perhaps they fantasized about marching to Picasso's studio, as the writer James Lord presumptuously did in 1945, and befriending the great man himself. With Picasso and Matisse, Paris still had cause to regard itself as the center of the art world. Word was spreading only slowly to Europe that in fact New York had taken its place.

Many of the Americans who came to Paris -- hundreds, in fact -- were black. "Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965," at the Studio Museum in Harlem, tells their story. It is about race, the city and the era. But it's also about modernism, which Paris epitomized, and the sense of opportunity it represented.

The exhibition focuses on seven artists: the sculptors Barbara Chase-Riboud and Harold Cousins and the painters Beauford Delaney, Ed Clark, Larry Potter, Lois Mailou Jones and Herbert Gentry. Jones, Chase-Riboud, Clark and Gentry are still working. All of them had their art shaped by time spent in Paris. Much of the art they did was abstract. Some of it is beautiful.

Delaney, probably the best known of the seven, is represented by vivid portraits of James Baldwin and Marian Anderson, abstractions and landscapes like "Can Fire in the Park." Chase-Riboud has several strong works on view, surreal hybrids like "Plant Woman," a skeletal figure with a sprouting aloe for its head. Organized by Valerie Mercer, curator of collections at the museum, the exhibition includes 70 works, made when the artists were in Paris but also before and after their stays there.

WHY PARIS? FOR MANY reasons, not all of them esthetic. African-American artists started going there in the 19th century. They found they could work without feeling discounted, as they did in America, just because they were black. "France gave me my first feeling of absolute freedom," Jones is quoted as saying in the show's catalogue. Back home, even middle-class blacks could be indifferent if a black artist wasn't turning out the sort of conservative genre painting that they preferred. Paris, by contrast, was more open to different kinds of work.

After World War II, a new wave of African-American artists moved to the city. Many were veterans on the G.I. Bill, studying at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, the Academie Julian or the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. There were not many galleries in which to show their work, but, along with white artists, they formed their own, like Galerie Huit. An informal black community joined white Americans and the French in the cafes along St.-Germain-des-Pres. There were black musicians like Gordon Heath, who started his own club on the rue l'Abbaye, and great black writers like Baldwin and Richard Wright.

In the show's catalogue, Catherine Bernard, an art historian, cites the importance of African art in Paris for many black artists working there. African art had had a big impact on Picasso. It was at the root of the modernist tradition. Beginning in the 1920's, the influential black philosopher Alain Locke advised African-American artists to embrace both African art and modernism.

Jones was one artist who, for a while at least, took Locke's advice. In Paris, she recalled, "all the galleries, the museums were featuring African sculptures, African designs." She remembers showing some of her own African-influenced work to professors at the Academie Julian. They were skeptical about her abandoning the landscapes she had been painting (she did street scenes like "Le Moulin Rouge"), until she reminded them that Picasso and Modigliani had been inspired by African art, too. "If anybody had the right to use it," she told them, "I had it. It was my heritage, and so they had to give in."

But African art was only one reason that African-American artists in Paris felt a kinship with European modernism. Another was a belief that modernism was ecumenical, all-embracing. Nowadays blacks are often in a bind: they're called derivative if they paint abstractions and pigeonholed by race if their work deals explicitly with black subjects. For African-American artists in postwar Paris, though, painting abstractions didn't mean mimicking an alien style. It reflected their faith in abstract art as an instrument of cultural assimilation.

You can see this faith expressed in the exhibition (which runs through June 2, then travels to Chicago, New Orleans, Fort Worth and Milwaukee), in the works by Potter, Clark and Cousins. Potter's earliest pictures in Paris, from the 1950's, were in the style of proto-Cubist landscapes; their blocks of colored forms lock together. Increasingly his work loosened and got more abstract, the shapes becoming aqueous, the colors burnished. Clark started with abstract cityscapes, influenced by the Russian-born painter Nicolas de Stael, and moved on to pure, gestural abstractions and irregularly shaped pictures in which he splattered and pushed paint around with big brushes.

Cousins was affected by the welded sculptures of the Spanish modernist Julio Gonzalez. The least-known artist in the show, Cousins left New York for Paris in 1949, moved to Brussels in 1967 and died there in 1992. He made delicate open-form abstractions and handsome welded-steel ones in the shapes of Cubist grids, patinated to resemble polished leather.

For her part, Barbara Chase-Riboud has described the impact of seeing sculptures by the French artist Germaine Richier. Herbert Gentry looked at Asger Jorn and Karel Appel, the Cobra group, with their high-key, freewheeling abstractions. In other words, the show describes not only what African-American artists in Paris were doing during the postwar decades, it also indirectly tells us who else was working there then: namely Jorn, Richier, de Stael and the slew of other Europeans now poorly remembered in America, but prominent once.

The artists in the show turned the influences of these Europeans to their own designs. It's possible to overstate the significance of the Europeans: some had actually been influenced in the first place by Americans, others were unexceptional academics. Baldwin, in "Notes of a Native Son," writes sardonically about what American art students in Paris actually learned from them. "They are studying with teachers of the same caliber as those they would have found in the States," Baldwin wrote. "They are treated by these teachers with the same highhandedness. Nor can it be said that they produce canvases of any greater interest than those found along Washington Square." Which led Baldwin to suppose that it was "the legend of Paris, not infrequently at its most vulgar and superficial level" that attracted young American artists to the city.

Maybe so, but for African-American artists just being treated the same as whites was better treatment than they got in America. At least in Paris they could think of themselves as artists, first and last, without the discrimination that burdened them here.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times

From the Baltimore Sun - February 14, 2007 African masks inspired the paintings of Herbert Gentry By Glenn McNatt
African masks inspired the paintings of Herbert Gentry

By Glenn McNatt

Herbert Gentry was an African-American expatriate painter who helped bring Abstract-Expressionism to Europe in the 1950s when he abandoned New York for Paris to escape discrimination in his native country.

He is the subject of The Magic Within, an enchanting retrospective of about 40 paintings, drawings and prints inspired by African masks at the James E. Lewis Museum of Morgan State University.

Gentry died in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2003, a few months after a major exhibition of his works appeared at the Parish Gallery in Washington. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1919, but grew up in New York City, where his family moved shortly before he entered grade school.

In the New York of the 1920s, Gentry came of age amid the cultural and literary flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance, America's first important black arts movement. Working alongside his mother, he was, for a time, a child actor in some of the era's many theatrical productions featuring black performers.

Gentry's widow, the artist Mary Anne Rose, has written that his childhood recollections "recount a series of charmed episodes, like the hours spent backstage among showgirls and dancers at Broadway theaters, his mother the 'captain,' and Josephine Baker the 'end girl' in Florenz Ziegfeld extravaganzas."

Gentry served in the military during World War II and afterward studied art in Paris, where he also opened a nightclub that introduced European audiences to modern jazz. He returned to the states briefly in the early 1950s, but a few years later he settled in Paris again, where he became an impresario of musical and theatrical entertainment for the U.S. armed forces stationed there. In 1959, after his first one-man exhibition at a gallery in Copenhagen, Denmark, Gentry committed himself to painting full time and began to explore the motifs based on faces and masks that would occupy him for the remainder of his life.

"Gentry's allusions to faces and masks reflect an essentially human and social art, constructed from the poetry of daily activities and the dynamism of human relations," Rose writes of her husband's signature style. "Although the work can be linked to the autobiographical, it stretches to embrace life itself, to be true to humanity, to acknowledge the shared component of being human."

The Morgan show includes a fine selection of Gentry's large oil paintings from the 1960s and '70s that explore the mask motif, as well as more recent paintings and drawings from the 1980s and '90s, when the artist's previously somber color palette of dark greens and blues lightened considerably with the addition of yellows, oranges and pinks.

The change is evident in Gentry's 1998 painting Befriended, a delightful acrylic-on-canvas concoction of pale pinks, reds and pastel green that combines the charm of a Matisse lithograph with the flowing calligraphy of a Brice Marden abstraction. "The Magic Within" runs through March 25 at the James E. Lewis Museum in the Murphy Fine Arts Center on the campus of Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. Call 443-885-3030.
Copyright 2007, The Baltimore Sun |

In the Rochester CITY Newspaper - Feb. 13th, 2008 ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT - ART
ART: Herbert Gentry & Rocky Simmons exhibits: Lives of art and activism

By Rebecca Rafferty

The U of R's Rush Rhees library currently is home to two exhibits featuring the artwork of - and in-depth looks at the lives of - two inspiring African Americans. Trust librarians, ever-amazing at researching and making sense of the world, to go above and beyond the usual scope of an art show.

In the main lobby of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, several display cases organize and lead us through the life of the Rochesterian Steven Wynder "Rocky" Simmons. . .

The library also hosts a collection of Herbert Gentry paintings, along with several works by his contemporaries, and an abundance of material illuminating his life and influences. Raised in Harlem by his single mother - a Zeigfeld dancer who held informal art salons with friends Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Louis Armstrong - Gentry was practically born to be an artist. But he found America's segregated society to be stifling, and after his service in WWII, he moved to the more accommodating Europe.

As a student, Gentry found that in Paris he could live as a free man, if not one embraced by the white-owned galleries. Undeterred by racially based rejection, he opened "Chez Honey," his own gallery-by-day, club-by-night establishment, and introduced modern jazz to European culture. The club hosted Duke Ellington and Lena Horne, and acted as a cultural hot spot, fostering the kind of magical chemistry that happens between creative minds. Richard Wright, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and Orson Welles were regular fixtures.

The previously restricted galleries soon opened to Gentry, and by 1954 he was making his living solely by his art. Abstract Expressionism was a logical turn for Gentry, who worked closely with jazz greats, and at times penned the music to be played at his club. In a perceptive piece written specifically for this exhibition, author Clarence Major notes the important link between jazz's emphasis on improvisation and the quick, capture-the-moment way in which the painters worked. Major also philosophizes on the psychological result of war on the human mind, and declares that the "results of the juxtaposition of anxiety and playfulness [in the art] are a pleasing and sophisticated irony," an aspect also found in the "bitter-sweetness" of jazz.

This anxious optimism is most apparent in two of Gentry's paintings included in the show. "Man's and Animal's Earth" captures complex emotions with rapid, impulsive brush work and the blending of bright, restless color with faded, haunting tones. Animal and human features seem to emerge from and recede into an imposing forest shot through with beams of sunlight. Ironically, Gentry's work explores the theme of alienation through overcrowded space, hinting at the failings of seeming "togetherness." In "Speech," the massive surface holds the features of a listening crowd, with craning necks and expressions ranging from bored to curious - but each face is relatively closed off from the rest. The caustic red of the painting provides the buzz of a crowd in a sort of backward synesthesia. This work refuses to be overlooked; it shouts from across the room.

The tension of collective space/inner isolation is repeated in much of Gentry's work, with layered faces often sharing features with each other, though still maintaining a private, desolate thought-world. The show's title work, "Facing Other Ways - E," is a drawing consisting of hasty Expressionist lines, but with the distorted, confused, and distraught expressions found in many Cubist pieces. Simmons and Gentry worked around the social forces that threatened the fullness of their lives. Neither man was daunted by limitations based on his race, and both did much to pick away at social barriers. This valuable exhibits offer a rare opportunity to enjoy artwork, and also learn about the socio-cultural context in which the artists lived and created.
Copyright 2008 Rochester City Newspaper|

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