An American in Paris: Herbert Gentry said his paintings possessed “a certain spontaneity” and reflected “the people I have met around the world”

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MANY BLACK AMERICAN ARTISTS, seeking a more racially receptive experience, flourished in Europe during the postwar years. A New Yorker, Herbert Gentry (1919-2003) was in the middle of the middle. In 1949, he founded Chez Honey, a gallery-club in the Montparnasse district of Paris, a popular gathering place that spawned many of his friendships and artistic connections. His circle included Beauford Delaney, Romare Bearden, Ed Clark, Larry Rivers, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Eartha Kitt, Orson Welles, Duke Ellington, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

The place, where art was exhibited by day, jazz flowed by night, and American and European artists, musicians and intellectuals gathered without racial distinction, inspired one of Gentry’s paintings. “Chez Honey” (1949) is exhibited at the Ryan Lee Gallery in New York. He produced sullen-hued gestural abstraction the same year he founded the club.

“Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond 1949-1978” by Ryan Lee presents paintings and drawings retracing Gentry’s European years over three decades. Overflowing with expression and networks of calligraphic lines, the improvisational works channel the spirit of jazz. The presence of faces and figures suggests the artist’s cultural fluidity and the specter of the people in his orbit. The gallery is presenting works by Gentry for the first time, in cooperation with the artist’s estate.

The works channel the spirit of jazz, overflowing with expression and networks of lines of improvisation. The presence of faces and figures suggests the artist’s cultural fluidity and the specter of the people in his orbit.

Gentry was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father was a printer and her mother was a dancer. When his parents separated, he moved to New York. Gentry grew up with his mother and stepfather in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem where they regularly hosted artists and musicians in their home. She had studied ballet and modern dance and worked as a chorus girl, dancing for a time on the same line as Josephine Baker. Her mother counted Baker, Ellington, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson among her friends.

Gentry was in the United States Army on his first visit to Paris in 1944. After being demobilized in 1945, he soon returned and studied at the Sorbonne and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he later taught. He opened Chez Honey with Honey Johnson, a singer and painter who was the first of his three wives. In the late 1950s, he ventured elsewhere in Europe, setting up studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Stockholm, Sweden. In 1969, he moved into the famous Chelsea Hotel, dividing his between New York and Stockholm for the rest of his career.

Gentry spoke about his incredibly vibrant life in a 1991 oral history interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Reflecting on his childhood, Gentry said, “I have met almost everyone who was famous in Harlem during that time. He said he met Bearden years later at his Paris club. Back in New York, the artists became “close friends,” Gentry said, calling Bearden a “wonderful person.” He also spoke about his work.

“Well, there is a certain spontaneity that exists. I work with my, my subconscious plays a big role, I do not calculate, I am not a generalist and the form plays a big role. The numbers come into play, the faces come into my work, which I don’t think of as the types that appear, but the types that I have met in my life, ”said Gentry.

“My base is African-American so it’s in my paintings the people that I have met around the world, Americans, African-Americans, but I have met people around the world, who are my friends. actually I love and we did things together to make it show up in my work. CT

“Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond, 1949-1978” is on view at the Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, NY, from November 14, 2020 through January. 23, 2021

TOP IMAGE: HERBERT GENTRY, “Dance Turquoise”, 1978 (acrylic on canvas, 40 x 52 inches / 101.6 x 132.1 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery


HERBERT GENTRY, “Chez Miel”, 1949 (oil on masonite, 18 x 15 inches / 38.1 x 45.7 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery


HERBERT GENTRY, “Untitled”, 1961 (oil on panel, 29 1/2 x 24 1/4 inches / 74.9 x 61.6). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery


Installation view of “Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond, 1949-1978”, Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, NY, November 14, 2020-Jan. 23, 2021. | Courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery


HERBERT GENTRY, “Cityscape”, 1955 (oil on masonite, 37 x 24 inches / 94 x 61 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery


HERBERT GENTRY, “Buffle blanc”, 1963 (57 x 53 inches / 144.8 x 134.6 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery


Installation view of “Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond, 1949-1978”, Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, NY, November 14, 2020-Jan. 23, 2021. | Courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery


HERBERT GENTRY, “Mask (Woman with Child)”, 1959 (oil on linen, 81.3 x 64.8 cm / 32 x 25 1/2 inches). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery


HERBERT GENTRY, “Copenhagen”, 1960 (oil on panel, 33 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches / 85.1 x 59.7 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery

BOOKSHELF
The publications accompanied exhibitions of Herbert Gentry’s work at Boston University Art Galleries in 2014 (“Making Connections: The Art and Life of Herbert Gentry”) and at the GR N’Namdi Gallery in 2008 (” Herbert Gentry: The Man, The Master, The Magic Mass ”). Gentry’s work is also mentioned in “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson.

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