Cleve Gray was an American painter, sculptor and writer who lived and worked in Connecticut. Often termed as ‘lyrical abstraction’, the majority of his oeuvre is consists of abstracted compositions, completed on a large scale and in striking and vivid color palettes. Bringing together a unique collection of sources and aesthetics, Gray’s paintings display a subtle balance between fluidity and sharpness, spontaneity and contemplation.
Gray studied at Princeton, graduating summa cum laude in 1940 with a degree in art and archaeology. Studying under the noted scholar George Rowley, one of his main academic interests and final thesis topic was Chinese painting. This interest in eastern art would continue throughout Gray’s career, and was formative for his own artistic development and creation. In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he would go on to serve in Britain, France and Germany. Even throughout this period, Gray was artistically active, spending his evenings sketching the devastations of war. After leaving the army in 1946, Gray remained in Paris and studied under André Lhote and Jacques Villon, the late-Cubist artists who introduced Grey to the serious study of color, form and the intellectual value of painting. Working primarily in a late-cubist style in his early career, Gray’s aesthetic and process began to shift in the 1950s. Moving away from his focus on still life, landscape and cubist forms, Gray began to experiment with gestural abstraction. His friendship with Barnett Newman in the 1960s and subsequent introduction to the abstract expressionist movement led Gray to a preoccupation with the possibilities of color and abstraction that would continue through the rest of his career.
Though he is often considered an Abstract Expressionist himself, Gray was originally an ardent critic of the movement. In his essay ‘Narcissus in Chaos: Contemporary American Art’ in 1959 he criticized the group for ‘their focus on inner responses’ which took for granted that man’s ‘own ego and unconscious are worth contemplating, are more worthy of contemplation than the objective world.’ Shortly after however, Gray began exclusively creating abstract compositions. In light of his earlier views and his background in French modernism, critics have considered his work as a less ego-driven form of abstract expressionism.
Gray primarily used acrylics thinned with turpentine, which were then applied to cotton duck canvas in a multitude of thin veils. This process was key to the floating appearance of his abstractions, over which Gray would apply lines and color in a variety of dynamic ways: thinned, poured, brushed and sponged.
From the early 1960s Gray was particularly preoccupied with the Vietnam War, devoting the subject of many of his paintings thereon to the destruction and death that it caused. Along with his wife, Gray became increasingly involved in the anti-war movement, and he was regularly involved in protests, writing and charity work that spoke out against the atrocities of the war.
Gray’s work has been exhibited widely in the U.S. and internationally and he has had retrospective exhibitions at: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Brooklyn Museum, Columbus Museum of Art, Krannert Art Museum, Princeton University Art Museum, Rhode Island School of Design, and Wadsworth Atheneum.
Numerous museums throughout the country hold the work of Cleve Gray in their permanent collections, including: the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Brooklyn Museum, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Smithsonian, The Jewish Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Museum of Modern Art, The Newark Museum, The Phillips Collection, the Whitney Museum of American Art.