It's hard to look at the crumpled black form that seems to be crashing toward the bottom of the canvas in Cleve Gray's Death of the Eagle (1977) and not see the eagle of the title. If Gray had given the big acrylic one of his more generic titles, we might have moved on, accepting the painting as just another of the artist's abstracts. But that title lingers and colors our perception — a taunt, almost, that dares us to make sense of the image, to resolve it into something recognizable.
Such are the warring impulses at work when we are confronted by abstraction as rigorous and near absolute as that of Gray, the subject of "Cleve Gray: Man and Nature," now winding down at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. There's precious little middle ground when it comes to abstraction this uncompromising. Either you're for him or you're against him. If you fall into the latter category, you might as well bypass Gray altogether and head down to the other end of the museum, where you're more likely to take comfort in the straightforward figurative work of Andrew Stevovich.
Nearly three dozen paintings make up this tightly focused retrospective, which covers Gray's career from 1975 to his death in 2004 at age 86. By emphasizing the artist's mature style, the show presents us with a fully articulated vision — a commitment to abstraction as one of the highest levels of expression.
Gray went to Princeton in the late 1930s, studying art and archaeology and producing a thesis on Chinese landscape painting of the 12th Century. Later, as a soldier in Paris after the end of World War II, he studied cubism under Jacques Villon, one of Marcel Duchamp's brothers. But it was the abstract art of the 1960s that most helped shape Gray, who was influenced by such artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. He embraced abstraction and, it seems, never looked back.
Like the artists who influenced him, Gray experimented with such nontraditional means of image-making as pouring or sponging pigment, staining the canvas, and using oversized brushes. As we can see moving through "Man and Nature," a signature style evolved. In painting after painting, we find a large, dramatic mark made somewhere on the canvas, usually off-centered, surrounded by an expanse of pure color and often set off by modulated bands of color along the edges of the image. There's a sameness to some of these paintings that will exhilarate you if you're a fan of abstraction or drive you to distraction if you are not.
Those large, dramatic marks I mentioned are enormously expressive. They're alternately suggestive of Rorschach inkblots or of Asian ideograms, compact little bursts of expressionist energy that celebrate the gesture of painting. It's not surprising to learn that Gray traveled extensively in Africa and Asia in the 1970s and '80s, often with his wife, writer Francine du Plessix Gray, and their friend Richard Avedon.
There's a reference in a wall-text panel to a marriage between "the discipline and discretion of Chinese art and the impulsiveness of Abstract Expressionism, which exist together... in an uneasy truce," and it's an apt summation of the artist's characteristic work. If you've ever thrilled to the fluid, graceful lines of Asian calligraphy, you'll pick up on the spare precision of Gray's abstraction, but you'll also get the spontaneity and freedom of abstract expressionism in the same package.
In the late 1990s, Gray was diagnosed with macular degeneration in his left eye. The resultant deterioration of his depth perception led him to begin playing with oil sticks. Hence the untitled works from near the end of his life, in which squiggly, chalky-looking lines of color seem to dance across vibrant fields of contrasting color.
According to supporting materials for this exhibition, which was organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York, Gray enjoyed his greatest critical success from the late 1960s into the '70s. Since then, he has disappeared into relative obscurity — I couldn't find even a single mention of him in the more than a dozen reference books I consulted. That's a shame, because on the basis of "Man and Nature," he's an artist who deserves to be remembered for his bracing contributions to abstract painting.