"Cleve Gray: Towards an Art of Hope," A Retrospective Exhibition, on View Through May 22

Silver Breath_Cleve Gray

A retrospective exhibition, "Cleve Gray: Towards an Art of Hope," opened April 10 in the Perakos Family Cares Art Gallery at The Frederick Gunn School, featuring works by American Abstract Expressionist painter Cleve Gray.

An opening reception will be held on Thursday, April 25, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the gallery, which is located in the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center on campus. The gallery is open to the public free of charge, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Parking is available in the Upper Parking Lot off Kirby Road, with a limited number of accessible parking spaces outside the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center. Please see the Campus Map for details.

The show, which will remain on view through May 22, 2024, was curated by Gallerist and Visual Arts faculty member Lincoln Turner, Andrew Richards P’20 ’23 of the Visual Arts faculty, and Tim Schatz of the Mathematics Department faculty, with eight students in the art history course they co-taught during Winterim in December: Brigs Nye '25, Miles Perez '25, Elizabeth Tu '25, Rebecca Tu '25, Fiona Mbuyi '26, Martin Sun '27, Jenny Wang '27, and Paul Zhang '27.

The exhibit was produced in collaboration with the artist’s children, Thaddeus and Luke Gray, and the Cleve Gray Foundation, which was established by the artist’s wife, Francine du Plessix Gray, and his children following his death in 2004. The foundation’s mission is to amplify Gray’s legacy as an important artist of the post-war period, perpetuate the scholarship of his work by the viewing public, and provide an educational experience for students to enhance their knowledge and enjoyment of modern art.

Best known for his “calligraphic abstractions which melded elements of Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, and traditional Chinese scroll painting,” according to ArtNet, Gray lived and worked in the Northwest Corner and the greater New York area for his entire life. His works are held in the public collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York;  The Phillips Collection, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, and The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, among others.

Eight Decades of the Artist’s Work
The retrospective includes eight decades of the artist’s work, from a self-portrait he painted in 1934, when he was 16 years old, the same age as some of the students, through his final series, “Letting Go,” created in 2003 and 2004. These are gestural pieces, painted with oil sticks, which the artist smudged in places with his finger, a rag, or brush. As Luke Gray explained: “He was slowly losing his vision. He had macular degeneration. I often thought he considered oil sticks an extension of his finger. I think using oil sticks was a way for him to be more exacting when he wasn’t seeing as well, because the oil sticks are rigid and the marks are finer, so he had more control.” 

Another self-portrait of Cleve Gray, painted in 1999, when he was 80 years old, is being shown for the first time. “Those were things he just did from time to time, probably when he didn’t know what else to do. He liked to keep busy,” Luke Gray said. “The eternal struggle for the abstract artist is subject matter. You really have to grow your subject matter and it’s a whole process that can be very difficult at times, and very wondrous at other times. It was probably one of those moments when he did that self portrait.”

Turner pointed to a piece titled, “Rocks and Water #8,” which was inspired by the landscape near the artist’s home in Warren. “There’s a story. Creatively he was stuck. He wasn’t happy with whatever he was making at the time, and his wife came into the studio and she said, ‘Let’s go take a walk. I want to show you something.’ They had a beautiful piece of property in Warren and she took him out to where there was a stream flowing over some rocks, and it was surrounded by rocks, and you could see the sky through trees. That’s when he started making these pieces.”

Thaddeus Gray said he hopes that people will take away from the show a sense of the range and depth of his father’s work, and an appreciation for abstract art in general. “It’s also interesting to see how the work of an artist evolves over many decades, how it changes. It’s a very broad retrospective so I think it’s going to be very powerful.”

“I think a lot of people that haven’t studied a lot of art have questions about how any abstract work comes into existence,” reflected Luke Gray, who selected one of his own paintings to be exhibited alongside his father’s work. “What is the process by which an artist moves from painting landscapes and people to developing a language that is not specific to nature or the outside world? I think for me, one of the most fascinating movements in art history is when the painter Piet Mondrian developed his abstracts grids. If you go back and look at his early work the grids are found in trees and the way branches intersected in nature. Step by step, he took that away from nature to an entirely pure place that is completely abstract.”

“When I was a child, understanding where abstract art came from was a huge leap for me. A lot of people have questions about that process,” he said. For his father, it was different. Cleve Gray was a prodigy. He knew when he was three or four years old that he wanted to be a painter. The retrospective “traces his development and hopefully allows people to understand how and why he ended up doing what he did.” 

“The Art of Hope”
The title of the exhibit was inspired by the words of the artist, who said: “Abstract art is the art of hope," Turner said, affirming that we all need more art in our lives, of any kind, and the joy of looking at abstract art is discovering how you respond to it.

“The gesture of the brush strokes or the color combination — if you open yourself up to just enjoying it — how does it make you feel? If you like it, that’s all that matters,” Tuner said, adding: “Cleve was an intellectual. He was very interested in Greek mythology and Chinese history and a lot of his work, especially the gestural pieces like these, were influenced by calligraphic arts and he liked studying religions. If you were to talk to him about the work, he could describe to you what he was thinking about with each of these paintings. But you don’t have to have that kind of education to appreciate it. It’s just, ‘Do you look at it and like it?’” 

“I think he referred to the word ‘hope’ several times in his life in interviews,” Luke Gray said of his father, pointing to his 1973-74 mural series, “Threnody,” created for the opening of the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, as “the primary example of hope surrounded by darkness.”

Described by the museum as “a lament for the dead” on both sides of the Vietnam War, “Threnody,” which is currently on view as part of the Neurberger's 50th anniversary celebration, includes 28 panels that stand 20 feet tall and 250 feet wide, filling an entire gallery. An anti-war activist, Gray conceived of “Threnody” as “a dance of death and life.” 

“All of the panels except for one central panel at the end of the room are based on dark, somber colors. The one with orange light — hope —was extremely important,” Luke Gray said, adding of his father: “He tried to be realistic when assessing people or the world’s situations, but he never allowed himself to be so depressed by it that he would give up hope. He was not a cynical person; he was not a negative person in terms of his energy. He was always trying to be positive; always trying to look forward. He knew that hope was the thing that gave us energy to move forward.”

A Rich Culture of Art
Students in the art history class were introduced to artists from the Renaissance through today and traveled to see examples of art from different periods, including abstract expressionism at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, where a special exhibit, “Connecticut Modern: Art, Design, and the Avant-Garde, 1930–1960,” was on view through early January. The show included pieces by Alexander Calder, who lived nearby in Roxbury, and a Cleve Gray painting from 1983, titled “Rocks and Water #8,” now featured in the retrospective at Gunn.

“It was a fantastic show. I didn’t realize how many amazing artists lived in Connecticut just before and just after the war. It’s really pretty remarkable that we had such a rich culture of art at that time here,” Turner said, noting the students viewed a Robert Motherwell show at the Bruce at the same time. “We also showed the students examples of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. We went to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where they have some beautiful paintings by Lee Krasner, and then we also went to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, where they have a wonderful collection of abstract expressionist art. So the students had a reference for what came before and what came after Cleve Gray. They got a taste of what abstract expressionism is, and where his work fits in. A lot of people think of Rothko or Jackson Pollack or Motherwell, but this is very much in that movement.”

The faculty and Luke Gray, an abstract artist in his own right who has exhibited his work at numerous galleries, including the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, Feigen Contemporary, and Gary Snyder Fine Art Gallery in New York, as well as galleries in Washington D.C., Santa Fe, New Mexico, and throughout Germany, helped to guide the students as they spent a day culling through the substantial body of Cleve Gray’s work, now owned by the Cleve Gray Foundation.

“I think the students responded a little more to his earlier work, which is more figurative, even though it has elements of abstraction to it, like Cubism,” Turner said. “But as the day went on, and as we started to look at his more recent work, made in the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s, they started to appreciate the more abstract expressionist work that he’s known for. It was a great experience.”

Luke Gray agreed, pointing out that most people are used to seeing art displayed in the pristine environment of a museum or gallery, and seeing the art in such an extensive storage space was a unique experience for the class. “It was wonderful. The way everything was organized, we knew where every painting was, and we just pulled stuff out. Slowly, the whole trajectory of the show took shape.”

Above: Cleve Gray, "Silver Breath," 1967, Acrylic and Aluminum Paint on Duck Cloth, 82x79 inches, courtesy of Cleve Gray Foundation


About the artist
Born in New York in 1918 Cleve Gray studied at Philips Academy and graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University, where he studied painting and Far Eastern Art under the acclaimed scholar George Rowley. Like many of his generation, he joined the United States Army during World War II, serving in England, France and Germany. After the war, he remained in Paris on the GI Bill, where he furthered his study of painting under the cubist Jacques Villon.

In the 1960s he formed a close friendship with Barnett Newman. It was during this time that he experienced an artistic metamorphosis, dissolving his earlier cubist compositions in a sea of distilled color. This dramatic body of work marked the beginning of an artistic meditation that would last for over 40 years. The rigors of French modernism, the ethos of Abstract Expressionism and the meditative restraint of Chinese and Japanese scroll painting commingle with astounding affect. The atmospheric, subdued tones of his 1960s paintings gradually gave way to bright, monochromatic fields of color, hazily washed onto the canvas in stain like swathes. Much of his work from the last three decades of his career feature striking graphic brushwork that conjures the influence of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy. The artist lived and worked in Warren, Connecticut for five decades with his wife, author and New Yorker staff writer, Francine du Plessix Gray.

– Cleve Gray Foundation

Additional Images

Cleve Gray, Hatshetsput Number 1, 1978,

Cleve Gray, Hatshetsput Number 1, 1978, Acrylic on Canvas

Courtesy: Cleve Gray Foundation

Cleve Gray, Facing It, 1999, Acrylic on Canvas

Cleve Gray, Facing It, 1999, Acrylic on Canvas

Courtesy: Cleve Gray Foundation

Cleve Gray, Letting Go, Number 13 2003, Acrylic on Canvas

Cleve Gray, Letting Go, Number 13 2003, Acrylic on Canvas

Courtesy: Cleve Gray Foundation