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Cleve Gray

By John Russell

In 1944, Cleve Gray, then 22 years old and in the American Army, was billeted in Neuilly on the outskirts of Paris. He was everything that a young American in Paris should be. He was alert, modest, observant, and appreciative; he was also very good looking. Like many another young American in Paris, he longed to meet Picasso. There was at that time in Paris a Red Cross center that could put young Americans in touch with people in Paris that they wanted to meet. Picasso was not on the list. But they suggested that Cleve should call on a painter called Jacques Villon, who lived not far away. Cleve had never heard of Villon, but when he was told that Jacques Villon was Marcel Duchamp’s brother, he decided to go and see him.

Cleve found Villon to be absolutely marvelous, both as an artist and as a human being. The two of them became very good friends thanks to Cleve’s good manners and his un-bohemian ways. And Cleve always remembered Villon and his wife as the host and hostess who had spent a whole month’s food rations on giving him a truly memorable lunch. The Villons were also invaluable in finding other French painters who could interest Cleve. Sometimes they were rather abrupt: André Lhote said to Cleve that he had painted “like all Americans: in black and white.” But even when Lhote slashed paint all over something that Cleve had spent a week on, Cleve persevered. Later, he said that that was how he came to understand what the school of Paris meant by color.

Villon was a senior artist who was always interested to meet young American painters, and he took them seriously. He himself was learned, unaffected, always good humored, fond of a good joke, and constructive in all his comments without coming on as a teacher. From Villon and Lhote, Cleve learned the difference between color value and color intensity. “I wanted,” he said later, “to get as close to Villon’s paintings as I possibly could.” And Cleve’s studies paid off. In 1946, when the gallery Durand-Ruel in Paris had a group exhibition of work by American painters living in Paris, Cleve was included. Villon enjoyed seeing Cleve Gray and Madame Villon baked him a wonderful cake for his last visit. But Villon thought that “like all the Americans,” Cleve was not yet a colorist. Cleve Gray said later that even in the late 1950s he himself was still trying to paint like Jacques Villon.

Like many another young American serviceman at that time, Cleve Gray knocked on Picasso’s door without an invitation and was admitted. Picasso was just getting dressed and he happened to admire Cleve Gray’s boots. Cleve said later that he thought for a moment of taking them off and saying “please keep them,” but then he thought of walking across Paris in stockinged feet and decided against it. Picasso teased him by saying that at a critical moment in World War II, Russian tanks were much more effective than American tanks. Cleve Gray said later that Picasso terrified him. “I didn’t like him,” he said; “I never went back.” He got on very well, though, with Gertrude Stein. He persuaded her to come and talk to some G.I.’s. Like everybody else, they never got over Ms. Stein’s way of talking.

Cleve was longing to see London and toward the end of World War II he got to visit there. He was struck by the delicate balance between the charm of the little streets and the damage that had been done here and there by German bombers. Where an outer wall had been blown away, he could often glimpse at the color and the design of what was left of the interior. By getting very close to the damage, Cleve could achieve an almost ferocious intimacy.

In later life, Cleve used to say that he matured very late as a human being, as an artist, and as a careerist. When in school as a Jewish boy in Andover, he had had some difficult moments. At twelve, he had burst into laughter at the sight of a Matisse in the Museum of Modern Art. He was to correct this as a grown man when he said that, “Matisse is the greatest artist of our time, along with Cézanne, much more than Picasso.”

Cleve never stopped trying to go one further in his work as he did as late as 1987 with his four portrait heads in acrylic of the composer Anton Bruckner. He had been faithful to oil paint until 1966 when it began to give him unbearable headaches. He said later that it took him ten years to be comfortable with acrylics, but many of those who enjoyed his work could not tell the difference. Cleve Gray mastered all the many tricks and singularities of acrylics. Other paints can also be added on top of acrylics, so too can Duco enamels, for example, or conventional oils, both of which Gray used from time to time. There were nine consecutive separate stages throughout which Cleve Gray would bring a major painting to fruition. The painting would be started on the wall, continued on the floor, and put back on the wall for further study. Contemplation alternated with action while events moved in and out of one another in organic and ambiguous shifts. Thomas B. Hess said in 1977:

[Some of Cleve Gray’s later paintings] can be considered as vast watercolors: he spreads and thins pigments through the medium of water; he works on pure white, absorbent surfaces. These are related with effects of pooling, washing, and dry-brushing translucent coats of bright color. And beyond John Marin, among his predecessors, there is Whistler, and beyond both of them the old American longing for the east—for Chinese colors and black ink thrown on ice white silk in gestures that trap simultaneously a grasshopper and a noun, a reckless swipe and a meditative adjustment. We are lucky to have Cleve Gray with us to paint those pictures in which his past and his present become a part of our future.

Read by Rosemund Bernier at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2005.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters