In 2008 The Phillips Museum of Art received an extraordinary gift — a painting by Cleve Gray titled Jonquil. This large, (90” x 90”) gestural, color based abstraction, was created by the artist in 1976 and was given to the Museum by the artist’s widow, noted biographer and novelist, Francine duPlessix Gray, who was married to Gray for 47 years.
Gray was born in NYC in 1918, attended Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, and graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University where he studied painting with James C. Davis and Far Eastern art with George Rowley. From 1943-46, Gray served in the US Army in England, France and Germany. Afterward he studied painting with Andre Lhote and Jacques Villon (brother of Marcel DuChamp) in Paris.
The abstract expressionists were instrumental in relocating the center of the art world from Paris to New York. Inspired by them, Gray was part of the next generation — the color field painters. In time he moved to calligraphic gestures, influenced by Buddhism and Chinese calligraphy.
Gray’s monumental anti-war piece, Threnody, was created in 1972-73. (Threnody is a title derived from a form of musical composition that is a lament for the dead). Threnody is installed in a heroic space measuring 100′ x 60′ x 22′ high which was built as a cathedral room for meditation- at the Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY in Purchase, New York. The work is exhibited by the Neuberger every five years.
Said the artist, “a sense of tragedy in the sixties and seventies insisted itself upon me as the subject matter for the walls….”
On December 8, 2004, on his way to the studio, Gray fell on the ice and suffered a fatal head injury. On his easel that day was a large, red painting with calligraphic lines. In 2008, again with generous assistance from Francine duPlessix Gray, that final painting of Gray’s, Untitled Red, (92” x 60”) became part of the Museum’s permanent collection.
This week’s blog post was written by Phillips Museum of Art, Curator of Exhibitions, Claire Giblin