Gray Foy, “Untitled (Morphing Figures Inside a Tree-Trunk Structure)” (ca. 1945) (image courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York)

Clement Greenberg, then the critic for The Nation, dismissed Pavel Tchelitchew’s 1942 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with this salvo: “[his] latest oils with their shrill saccharine color and gelatinous symbolism set a new high in vulgarity.” Among the works that raised Greenberg’s hackles was the recently finished “Cache-Cache” (1942), which the public renamed “Hide-and-Seek.” The painting’s ambiguous figure-ground relationship exerted a profound influence on the young artist, Gray Foy, who was living in Dallas, Texas, at the time, and was likely to have read the review. It may have even inspired Foy to find out more about what Tchelitchew was up to.

In 1946, four years after Greenberg’s scathing dismissal of Tchelitchew, a pencil drawing (now lost) by Gray Foy was reproduced in the magazine View, along with works by Ivan Albright, Esteban Frances, Isamu Noguchi, Yves Tanguy, and Vincent van Gogh — heady company for the unknown young artist living far from the beehive of New York. View is credited with introducing Surrealism to the American public. The poet and novelist Charles Henri Ford, who was Tchelitchew’s partner, started the magazine in 1940 and published it until 1947.

Gray Foy, “Untitled (Interior with Morphing Figures and Animal)” (ca. 1944) (Private Collection, image courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York)

Although it was not apparent at the time, Ford, Tchelitchew and View magazine represented an aesthetic position under assault from a materialist perspective that rejected Symbolism, figuration, and Surrealism, in part because they were considered old-fashioned and European. For this and other reasons, Foy rarely showed his work in his lifetime and only received passing notice.

Between 1942, when he began drawing in a Surrealist vein, and 1946, when his drawing was published in View, Foy mastered an idiom that was being superseded by Abstract Expressionism. One effect of this sea change was the critical rejection of pictorial Surrealism, along with such artistic practices as representational drawing, in which fastidious attention to detail plays a role. Another effect was the dismissal of art that was considered literary and/or symbolic.

It might be said that Foy was out of tune with the times from the beginning of his career. This does not mean, however, that he did not get attention for his work, especially after he moved to New York in the late 1940s. In the annual “New Talent” issue of Art in America (1957), Foy, whose work was included, stated:

My working materials are quite limited–generally a hard pencil and untoned paper … Nor do I work in a fervid emotional state but rather clinically, as a surgeon might, with sharp instruments. Very seldom do I use a model or actual object as I draw or paint, relying instead on memory to evoke or recreate. I never sketch but begin from the outset, generally from a focused point which develops outward.

Foy’s drawings — remarkable hallucinatory statements — are the reason why you should go to Gray Foy: Drawings 1941 – 1975 at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art. Make sure to use the magnifying glass the gallery offers each viewer, and, most important of all, make sure you have spare time to linger over the drawings, which are arranged in more or less chronological order. Before leaving, you might want to consider purchasing the recently published, much needed monograph, Gray Foy: Drawings 1941–1975, with a foreword by Steve Martin and essays by Lynn M. Herbet, Don Quaintance, and Alexis Rockman.

Gray Foy, “Untitled (Botanical Globe with Emerging Life Forms)” (1960) (Private Collection, image courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York)

For all the inspiration Foy derived from the work of artists considered outré or eccentric — Dali, Tchelitchew, and Yves Tanguy — his use of graphite is unlike anyone else’s. His is a deeply personal approach that he continued to develop in the highly detailed, botanically inspired drawings he started in the 1950s. At the same time, I consider his drawings of the 1940s to be more than just well-done period pieces. What elevates Foy’s work from this decade — makes them more than stylistic oddities — is his painstaking merging of technique with a vision of decay and human pain.

Although Foy made these drawings during World War II, he makes no overt reference to this worldwide calamity. And yet, disaster is clearly pervasive in the work. In drawings such as “Untitled (Interior with Morphing Figures and Animal)” and “Untitled (Interior with Cabinets and Distorted Figure)” (both ca. 1944), which were done on printed shipping-form paper, he mastered a Surrealist idiom that originated with Dali and Tanguy. He learned the subtleties of emblematic distortion and centered composition, drawing precisely exaggerated figural forms inside a perspectivally skewed, stage-like space in images that recall Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (1931) and “The Burning Giraffe” (1937).

In “Untitled (Morphing Figures Inside a Tree-trunk Structure)” (ca. 1945), Foy depicts a man seated on the right side of the drawing, leaning back against a wall. He is reading a newspaper, unaware of the strange transformations going on around him. A doll’s head appears to be resting on his crotch. What I find disquieting about the artist’s depiction isn’t the doll’s head, but how thin and undernourished the man appears to be, how — amid the turmoil around him, of horror, of figures undergoing transformation — he seems not to notice.

The man reading the newspaper is emblematic of what it is like to be living in a world rent by war. He seems to have accommodated himself to his physical condition, which is abnormally thin, as much as he has accustomed himself to the news of disastrous world events. His clothes fit him perfectly, suggesting that he has adjusted to his circumstances. Meanwhile, the ravaged figure emerging from the wall behind him has a stump for an arm, and his ribs are visible, as are the blood vessels in his flayed neck. The thin, seated man seems unaware. This juxtaposition embodies Foy’s understanding of what it means to be an artist. He wants to see everything clearly and distinctly, even as he opens himself to society’s collective nightmares and fears. In order to do this, he must, paradoxically, remain aloof, and approach everything with a clinical detachment. Only by being detached, by acknowledging that he stands apart, can he look at decaying and ruined bodies, scrutinize their skin and flesh, with a surgeon’s scrupulous attention.

Gray Foy, “Untitled (Fungi and Sprouting Botanical Forms)” (ca. 1970) (Private Collection, image courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York)

Whether working in a Surrealist mode or depicting botanical gatherings in which accuracy and fantasy merge, Foy’s meticulous consideration of minute textures of every imaginable kind is always manifesting itself in his work. Working with a sharp pencil, he can convey the smooth, porous surface of a stone, the filaments extending from a root, and the roughness of bark. When he stipples a surface, he seems to be doing it at the absolute of what can be achieved with a razor-sharpened point of graphite. This is exactitude raised to an almost microscopic level. His graphic intensity strikes me as a direct descendant of the linear perfection Albrecht Dürer attained in his copper plates. Every graphite mark that Foy made in a drawing, no matter how miniscule, was deliberate. At times, it is as if he is drawing with a mosquito’s stinger.

Around 1950, having moved to New York and met Ford, Tchelitchew, and others in their milieu, Foy moved away from his Surrealist-inspired dramas and began focusing on botanical subjects ranging from the fantastic to the idealized to the real — often mixing together all three genres so that the viewer cannot tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Even in these works, his love for Tchelitchew’s “Cache-Cache” clearly never left him. It is in the drawings that Foy did after 1950 that he arrives at something completely unique and unlikely: visions of nature in which the perceptions of surfaces and details are elevated to a heightened state that appears hallucinatory in its concentration.

Imagine a clump of vegetation containing within it each kind of fauna, flora and mineral, and you get an idea of what it is like to pore over one of Foy’s drawings. The drawings are strangely beautiful in their ceaseless inspection of surface textures. At the same time, what we know to be teeming with life has become its opposite, a perfect stillness. This is where Tchelitchew comes in and a magnifying glass proves handy — look carefully at “Thicket” (1958), and you will likely see a ghostly face synonymous with the undergrowth in the lower right hand corner. It seems that everything is undergoing metamorphosis, even if we are not cognizant of it.

Gray Foy, “Thicket” (1958) (Collection of the Columbus Museum, Georgia, image courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York)

Likewise, look carefully and you will see a root-like form in “Untitled (Fungi and Sprouting Botanical Forms)” (ca. 1970) become a three-legged creature with a tail. Foy’s playfulness adds another note to the drawings. As much as he brought into visibility, he seems acutely aware that there were limits to what he saw, and that his god-like omnipotence as artist could neither stop change nor prevent the unforeseen. Through his subtle, intermittent anthropomorphizing of natural forms everything begins to border on the apparitional. As a result, we slow down our looking even more, making sure we have not missed anything. After my first viewing, I circled back to the drawings.

Something of Foy’s compulsions filters into the viewer’s experience. Such intensity of looking is dream-like, almost dizzying. He has taken Tchelitchew’s visual puzzles to a new level. For one thing, he has scraped out all the schlock. The kind of looking that Foy’s drawings necessitate is unlike anything else. There is something soothing and disturbing about it, something darkly metaphysical.

Gray Foy: Drawings 1941–1975 continues at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art (24 West 57th Street, Suite 305, Manhattan) through November 16.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...