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Gray/Grey Edition

Having a dual nature isn’t all its cracked up to be. As much as we personally approve of individuals who are multi-faceted in word and deed, other people dislike it, since it means they can’t classify someone into a category and be done with it.

Take the two artists we feature in our ‘Opening This Week’ category – both had wide-ranging interests combined with skill, talent, and good timing. They became internationally known for their primary achievements, but their intellects craved more, leading them into new areas of learning and creating. And yet, these two are hardly mentioned in the general art history books (the kind we call Inevitable-Historical-Timeline books) and may only get a sentence or two in a specialist book (and only if the author has done some very rigorous research). That’s where galleries pick up the slack, with shows that inform the public about all the artists that don’t get the attention or have the status they so richly deserve.

June 1971, 1971, oil on canvas, 53.5h x 65.75w in (135.89h x 167.01w cm). Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York. © Betty Parsons Foundation.

Betty Parsons trained to be an artist but ended up being a gallery owner, promoting the early work of Abstract Expressionism’s first generation and beyond. She had a fantastic eye for new talent and a way of describing the artists that was fanciful, yet accurate. Most people would have been happy with that: after all, she was in the middle of the action, writing art history with every exhibit in her gallery. But that wasn’t her way. Parsons knew she was an artist, and she had the mind and the eye to prove it. In Betty Parsons: Heated Sky at Alexander Gray Associates, work from the 1960s-70s showcases her innate ability to bend abstraction to her own taste and style, balancing color and form like no one else. The palette isn’t trendy and each canvas has a timelessness about it that is refreshing in this era of the instant moment.

Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici, E 1027, Au Cap Martin Roquebrune, 1926-29 from L’Architecture Vivante, no. 26 (Winter 1929), Paris: Éditions Albert Morancé, page 32. Centre Pompidou, Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Paris. Fonds Eileen Gray.

In doing our background research on Eileen Gray, we discovered that many people have a strong opinion about her and frame their statements accordingly. Some writers emphasize her independent income, provided by family (implying through subtext that it didn’t matter if she didn’t make a go in her chosen fields of interest), others discuss her omnivorous appetite for new ideas, designs, places. Some sound disappointed that she seemed to fade from public view relatively quickly after making a big splash in the 1920s (although she continued to work through the 1970s), others sound confused because her life seemed so exciting and fulfilling, despite or because of the barriers she faced. Still others are outraged on her behalf, being relegated to the ‘talented, of course’ but as a female ‘never had a proper chance’ category. We may be naïve, but for us, all those interpretations are just so much noise. Standing in front of one of her designs, whether it’s a sketch, rug, tapestry, furniture, or an extant building, the first thought that comes to mind is ‘how beautiful that shape is, those colors, the balance and logic of the design…it’s as though it wasn’t made but had always been there’. If you want an experience like that, head on over to the Bard Graduate Center Gallery to see their latest show Eileen Gray, curated by Cloé Pitiot.

Installation image, photo by Nick Papananias

And then there are those who are multi-faceted, not just because they can’t help it, but as a way to make sense of a chaotic world, where social and political rules may change from year to year or regime to regime. The artists in Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s – 1980s at the Grey Art Gallery follow this model, as their countries went on an accelerated modernization course, fed by the oil market, political changes, removal of colonial powers, and other events. Their interpretations of abstract art ideas give it new energy and focus, something it desperately needed. To learn more about these artists go to the ‘Gallery Shows’ section.