Herbert Gentry, "Untitled" (1964), gouache on paper, 23 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches (all images courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery)

Herbert Gentry was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1919 and died in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2003, at the age of 84. In 2001, he moved permanently to Sweden because America lacked an adequate health care program. Otherwise, he would have likely returned to New York City. 

During his lifetime, Gentry lived in Harlem and Chelsea, Manhattan (in the latter he rented an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel); Paris, France; Copenhagen, Denmark; and various cities in Sweden. He had a New York exhibition at the Andre Zarre Gallery in 1974, but he never exhibited regularly in the city.

Gentry’s biography offers reasons why he does not fit into the common narratives of postwar American artists and should not be seen as working from traditions of either Abstract Expressionism or figurative expressionism, as exemplified by Lester Johnson, for instance. For all the different influences he absorbed, he is a remarkably independent artist. 

I mention these facts because I recently saw the exhibition Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond 1949-1978 at Ryan Lee (November 14, 2020 – January 23, 2021) and discovered an artist completely unknown to me.  

Given this expansive time span, I did wish there were more works from his first years in Paris, as this is when he began to define his identity.

Herbert Gentry, “Chez Honey” (1949), oil on masonite, 18 x 15 inches

Although the press release cites his friend Romare Bearden’s characterization of Gentry as “introduc[ing] the American concept of gesture, free invention, and the vivid dissonances of color to the European sensibilities,” and it connects him with Abstract Expressionism, I thought this muddied the waters, particularly as it never states who he might have influenced. 

The works in the show — particularly those on paper — suggest that he developed a style of calligraphic brushwork in the 1960s, after Abstract Expressionism had been eclipsed by Pop Art, Minimalism, and Color Field painting, all of which downplayed drawing in paint.

The heads and figures populating Gentry’s paintings from 1949, the date of “Chez Honey” (oil on masonite, 18 x 15 inches), as well as many works from the 1970s, hint that he was influenced also by the COBRA group, which was formed by Scandinavian and Belgian artists in Paris in 1948, including Karel Appel and Asger Jorn.

Installation view, Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond 1949-1978 at Ryan Lee, New York

The COBRA artists worked spontaneously. They often used bright colors and drew animalistic or childlike figures. I think this connection helps explain why Gentry began exhibiting regularly in Denmark and Sweden in 1959.

“Chez Honey” is titled after a jazz club and gallery that Gentry opened in the Montparnasse district of Paris (1948-51). According to the catalogue essay by Gretchen Wagner, “Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzie Gillespie, among other renowned names, performed there […].” Painted in gray-blues and reds, the work depicts a woman and a man, their heads close together. The woman, on the right, puts her manicured hand on the man’s shoulder, while she leans in to whisper to him.

While the woman is not instantly legible, a Dan mask from the Ivory Coast inspired her companion’s head, which takes up the left side of the painting. Pablo Picasso was also inspired by Dan masks, which he copied on the right side of his groundbreaking painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). I do not see Gentry’s use of the mask as a nod to Picasso, but rather as an attempt to recover African art from Picasso and other white European artists who had appropriated it.

The diminishing legibility within a compressed space evokes Chez Honey’s packed house. 

What is striking about this painting is that it does not look like anything coming out of New York at the time; it is not gestural, geometric, or influenced by Jackson Pollock’s drip technique. I think the starting point for considering Gentry’s work is to not bring in Abstract Expressionism. 

Herbert Gentry, “Cityscape” (1955), oil on masonite, 37 x 24 inches

“Cityscape” (oil on masonite, 37 x 24 inches, 1955), is divided horizontally. In the lower half, Gentry depicts a building with a peaked roof. Its facade is split into two rows of rectangles of different widths, some of which are further divided into quarters, each a different hue of brown, black, red, or dirty yellow. The upper half, in contrast to the building pressing against the picture plane, depicts a street receding until it reaches an open doorway or tunnel. On either side, the angled facades of building are visible. What compels our attention is a red rectangle in the middle of the street, about halfway between the opening and the rooftop from which it rises.         

The red rectangle — at once a stopping point in the receding street and an inexplicable presence — conveys Gentry’s painterly intelligence. He found ways to be fresh and hold the viewer’s attention. 

“Untitled” (oil on masonite, 29 ½ x 24 ¼ inches, 1961) is the first abstract painting Gentry made while living in Copenhagen, where he moved after he was invited to take part in a group exhibition. Consisting mostly of vertical and circular lines in a palette of yellow and dirty white, with red, brown, and black accents, “Untitled” utilizes marks that I would connect to Mark Tobey, rather than the heavier, thicker gestural painting associated with the New York school.

Herbert Gentry, “White Buffalo” (1963), oil on canvas, 57 x 53 inches

In the exhibition’s largest painting, “White Buffalo” (oil on canvas, 57 x 53 inches, 1963), Gentry has mastered a calligraphic approach for which he uses — counterintuitively — a dry brush on white ground. The marks and circular lines push toward figuration without crossing over, which is not like anything done by Tobey or the New York artists at the time.

Displayed in two adjacent spaces, the largely chronological layout of the exhibition suggests that Gentry’s work can be divided into roughly three periods, each lasting about a decade, starting around 1949, three years after he settled in Paris and began studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in the Montparnasse. This is likely where he met Ed Clark. 

Like Clark, who has received belated recognition in recent years, Gentry is one of a number of accomplished Black artists born in the first decades of the 20th century who existed largely independently of the New York art world — both downtown and in Harlem, where Black identity and, later, the Black Arts movement were emphasized. It is important for the legacies of both of these artists, and for ourselves, to discover all the ways these intrepid individuals navigated an uncomprehending, often unsympathetic situation in the art world, which demanded they emphasize their racial identity in the “right” way.

Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond 1949-1978 continues at Ryan Lee (515 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 23.

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,...