Still-life with Birdseed Box
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Grapefruit and Peppers
Synopsis of Professional Experience
Professional Painter: 1963-present
Museum Curator: 1998-2001
Art Writer: 1970-87, 1993-95
Producer/Moderator: "Artist and Critic," Manhattan Cable Television, 1975-92
College/University Teacher: 1967-85, 1994-1997
Visual Arts Editor, The Ashes, Phoenix, AZ: 1993-95
Senior Editor, Art World, New York City: 1982-87
Sunstorm Magazine, Long Island, NY; 1982-85
New York Arts Journal, New York City: 1975-79
Times Herald-Record, Middletown, NY: 1982-86
Applause Magazine, New York City: 1970-71
Manhattan Cable Television, New York City: 1975-92
"Monet at Giverny"
(in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
"Expressive Symbolism in Cezanne"
"The Mechanization of Art": Effects of Technology on 20th Century Art"
"Rembrandt and Van Gogh: The Self-Portrait"
and interviews with:
artists Isabel Bishop, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Jack Levine, Alice Neel, Raphael Soyer; critics Dore Ashton, Sophy Burnham, John Canaday, John Gruen, Cindy Nemser, Theodore Wolff, Peter Frank, Judith Goldman; collector Robert Scull; gallery owner Allan Frumkin
Bachelor of Arts: Arizona State University
Master of Arts: University of Iowa
A preliminary note: Casein is a long-established, water-based paint medium derived, in part, from an ingredient in milk. It is very permanent. Casein may be used relatively thickly and opaquely in an impasto manner, or nearly as transparently as watercolor. Like most media, it may be applied loosely and spontaneously, or in a more detailed way.
I have always tried to understand and paint reality. I have found this an incredibly difficult task. How can an artist, especially in a time of weakened artistic tradition, significantly express the pungency of reality, its intensity of color, structure, light and shadow, as well as our feeling for its beauty and poetry, its ugliness and horror? It is a daunting challenge to try to express the three-dimensional world on two-dimensional paper and canvas.
I have primarily used still-life to study and interpret reality because one can look intently at, and study, objects that do not move. And I have a natural feeling for real objects that are the subjects of still-life. But, I'm not a camera. I've never been interested solely in the surface appearance of things, but also their inner structural and emotional core, their density of form and feeling.
I personally see spiritual significance in this density of matter - there is something timeless, immortal about it - whether an apple, rock, the human head or the planet itself.
For years, I have used art books as elements in still-life. Their images add aesthetic and symbolic richness to the paintings. And I admire the work of the artists I use. Frankly, I feel more of a kinship with the great artists of the past than I do with most contemporary artists. The art of Rembrandt and Cezanne was - is - deeply attuned to their own lives and the life of their time, both physically and spiritually, whereas much contemporary art is based on fashion or theory disconnected from life.
For some artists, self-portraits form a significant portion of their body of work. Such artists tend to be more introspective - Rembrandt, Goya, Cezanne and Van Gogh come to mind, among many others. Self-portraits are, in part, the desire of the artist to understand and express himself through study of his features in the mirror during the painting process. I am temperamentally and poetically related to these artists, so it is not surprising that I have painted a number of self-portraits during my career.
The angels I have painted are a development from a series of pastels of constellations which I made during a period of nightly study of the stars. This led to my using moons and stars as backgrounds in my still-lifes. From there it was but a small step in the direction of things overtly spiritual that I found myself painting angels. I'm unsure whether or not angels exist (I suspect they do), but I felt a need to paint them. This is a cardinal rule for artists: paint what you feel you want and need to paint even if there is no rational reason for doing so. Artists should follow their gut instincts. It will all become clear later. Or, maybe it won't. But you need to do it anyway.
I enjoy flowers for their obvious beauty. They are also very expressive of our inner feelings and psychological state (I think of the wonderful portrait by Degas in the Metropolitan Museum of a thoughtful woman, hand to chin next to a large, picture-filling bouquet that clearly represents her inner life). I often paint bouquets in profusion, filling the canvas or paper with them to express an abundance of life and strong feeling. Flowers, since they bloom, fade and die so quickly, are symbolic of our own mortality, the temporariness of our brief lives. Artists and poets, for these reasons, have forever used flowers as a subject of their work.
I appreciate rocks for exactly the opposite reason. They are beautiful in their varied shapes and forms, the way flowers are, but, instead of expressing the fragility of the passing moment, are "eternal," "timeless" in their massive solidity, permanence, durability, "immortality." Even a pebble may be seen as seemingly lasting as a mountain.
Still-life objects - skulls, cans, books, etc - are solid the way rocks are, and therefore also express timeless qualities and ideals of solidity and permanence. Fruit and vegetables, while looking and feeling as solid as rocks -- a characteristic of form in them that I respond to -- are ultimately as fragile in their way as flowers. They, too, age and fade. Most things - natural or man-made - have beauty and emotional significance. At least I have always felt that way. Give any object more than a passing glance, whether a light bulb, sardine can or pair of levis thrown in a tangle on the floor, and significance of form and feeling can be found there. The longer we look, the more we see.
Fruit and vegetables, like rocks, have a massiveness of form that appeals to me, but they too age and fade, like flowers and flesh, so they express the solid, but transient beauty of life. The greatest artists have always been aware of the profundities of life and death - consciously and unconsciously. It is this awareness and their expression of it, together with their highest level of ability, that comprise their genius and make their work meaningful through the ages on many levels for those prepared to respond to it.
I have painted an extensive series of paintings using art books as important elements in still-lifes. I respond to the intrinsic beauty and significance of art created by the great artists. Their paintings, or segments from them, also add a great deal of beauty and expressiveness, enriching and expanding the meaning of the other still-life objects, and the resulting painting as a whole.
In another way of looking at it, why not associate ourselves with artists of this stature, living or dead? Why not join with the best, the highest, the deepest, when as artists -- or any other vocation, for that matter -- we are spending our lives trying to express, as significantly as possible, our response to the same reality and mystery of life? Why not, since we live only once, associate with the best?
The greatest art is always both timeless and contemporary. It is timeless in its pursuit of the unchanging values, truths, aspirations and needs of humanity. It is contemporary in its expression of the changing particularities of our experience of these truths from person to person, and era to era.
Thus great art of all periods has in common certain qualities and characteristics of solid form, profundity of feeling, powerful drawing, richness of color, originality, honesty and passion of concept and perception, modified by the artists' personalities and the time in which they live. Rembrandt and Cezanne, for example, are very similar in their concerns for these and so many other aspects of timeless art and human values, but different in overt style due to differences in society, personality and art in the 17th versus the 19th Centuries.
With regard to my writing, whether art essays or poetry, I try to express what I see as the realities of life and art, whether positive or negative, in a well-written way. As a painting should be profound in both content and aesthetics, the use of language should also be profound in the beauty and effectiveness of its search for, and revelation of, truth. I tend to have a serious view of art and life, so both the essays and poetry reflect my deepest concerns, and I suspect, the deepest concerns of many people.
Essentially, in writing I am exploring the meaning of life as I do in painting. However, essays like "Art Curriculum for the End of a Millennium," "Great Moments in Art" and "Yellow Canary Art Dictionary," present what I hope are pungent truths in (what I also hope is) a funny way. In my poems, I'm not so much interested in rhyme, although it sometimes occurs, as I am in expressing, as profoundly as I can, a world that both inspires and troubles me. I try to do this through language that is as beautiful, rhythmic and potent as I can make it.
|Review of Artist's Work: |
The Philadelphia Inquirer: "These emphatic works feature a greater virtuosity in paint handling than we commonly see today."
New Jersey Daily Record: "His larger-than-life portraits are staggeringly good - alive with bold color and dramatic layout."
Art News: "Although the concept of the 'masterpiece' seems to have gone out of style, this is a word that constantly comes to mind in confronting Gray's major works."
The New York Times: "The compelling intensity of Don Gray's figures makes an immediate, striking impression, and these paintings have a tendency to dominate the gallery. A sense of close-in focus, along with a pushed-up, shallow background thrusts the viewer into the scene rather dramatically. In the still-life compositions there are multiple perspectives as well as tipped-up angles, making these canvases very effective in extending the viewer's involvement.
Mr. Gray seems obsessed with references to history's great painters, and open art books frequently enrich content and composition."
The Christian Science Monitor: "... there have been only a few (still-life) paintings (in recent years) that reflect a genuine concern for both the tradition and the challenges of this form of art.
"Don Gray's 'Red Snapper, Cezanne and Van Gogh' is one of these. It is very large, boldly and sumptuously painted, and it commands the viewer's attention in an altogether forthright manner. It is also carefully and shrewdly composed, and it takes full advantage of each object's shape, volume, texture and color to build a thoroughly monumental image in the grand tradition of still-life painting."
"This is the kind of picture earlier artists produced to establish their right to be called 'master.' It is a diploma piece that proves this painter's worth, and that pays tribute to two past masters of still-life, Cezanne and Van Gogh, whose paintings can be seen in the open book at the center of this composition.
"It also is a statement directed at today's art world and its foibles and trivialities by a man who is not only a painter but a writer, an art critic, and a producer of a television program on art as well. As such, it has a point to make about artistic quality, integrity and truth, and makes it directly and well - by example rather than by painterly polemics or exhortation."
New Jersey Daily Record: "He offers many exquisite still-lifes that incorporate books, small portraits and a plethora of found objects...
"Gray's magnum opus in the show is a huge acrylic canvas called 'Still-Life with Rembrandt and Gauguin.' It is virtually covered by what seems like hundreds of forms and shapes that range from a nude female torso to a pair of gloves to a hurricane lamp to a vase to racks of clothing to books and so on. Each object vibrates against an intense red background resulting in an incredibly rich painting that is a statement of artistic virtuosity."
Art News: "'Still-life with Rembrandt and Gauguin' is a 70 x 84 acrylic filled with a myriad of objects on brilliant red cloths... The Rembrandt book is open to a nude Danae so beautifully modeled that it does not conform to the surface of the page but takes on a life of its own... The Gauguin self-portrait is an allusion to Gray himself, as an artist, and the need for contact with other art as an antidote to isolation and even loneliness."
Art News: "Thus Gray may be termed a symbolic realist, able to find truth or deeper meaning in simple, ordinary things -- natural, man-made, animate and inanimate -- meaning that is missed by the thoughtless surface glance and revealed only by means of the prolonged looking, or contemplation, of the artist and his emotionally charged interaction with his world."
The New York Times: "Mr. Gray sometimes seems driven to fill every inch of his acrylics and pastels with active, lively forms. This can be an effective way to stimulate visual interests and heighten emotional intensity, and is particularly successful in the smaller works, such as 'Grapefruit and Peppers' and the more restrained 'Books and Cans,' with its cubistic structure underlying a bright but remarkably subtle color scheme."
Art News: "... he is a master of acrylic, pastel and casein, often pushing these mediums beyond their customary limits. For example, 'Self-Portrait with Jessie and Chow-Chow', is a pastel unusual for its size and scale, brilliance of color and intensity of feeling. The male and female figures pressed together in the supercharged space suggest both the masculine and feminine sides of the artist, while a devout concentration on the physicality of things... suggests the artist's quest for 'an impossible blend of pattern and form.'"
Kurt Vonnegut: "I was so stimulated and beguiled by what Don Gray said on television that I declared myself a fan of his... a lot of what he said, being so fundamental, was applicable to arts in general, including my own, which is writing. He is obsessed by the actual content of works of art, as contrasted with technical advances they may represent, and so am I.
"I made it my business to see his paintings, which are regularly on show around New York City. He is an able and moving painter in the currently unfashionable representational mode. He can draw. It shows. He has ideas. They show.
"... an admirable painter who can speak with more clarity about the actual content and effects of art than any critic I know."