Don Gray as Artist, Critic, Poet:

An Essay by Theodore F. Wolff, Artist, Art Critic for Christian Science Monitor...excerpts



 Since the mid-twentieth century, willingness to concede to artistic fashion has played an increasingly significant role in determining who will and who will not be rewarded with art world celebrity. The result is a rich profusion of styles and approaches ranging from the frankly derivative to the wildly improvisational and experimental, with every imaginable variation in between.


 Not surprisingly, limitless choice affects artists in different ways. What some see as unrestricted freedom, as permission to create art in any way, shape or manner they please, others see as an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with some of the best art of the distant and recent past. For these individuals, art not only demands serious engagement with the best of what has gone before, it often also calls for a deep and continuing commitment to the realities of the world around them.


 Some of the best but also some of the most underrated American art of the past several decades was produced by individuals with just such a commitment. A few have achieved modest success. The majority, however, are not so fortunate, and find themselves continually battling art-world indifference and, in some instances, downright hostility.


 Their crime is their insistence that art must be grounded in reality. That art must involve more than passion, imagination and skill, that it must, by its very nature, confront and deal directly and intelligently with the appearances and imperatives of the natural world.


 Not, they would hasten to add, in an imitative or flatly descriptive manner. Mere resemblance to the model, no matter how "truthful" doesn't interest them. Realism, in short, is only their starting point.


 Don Gray, one of the most accomplished and successful of these artists, puts it this way in discussing the genesis of his work: "I was after an intense realism that had as much of the intensity of reality as I could get, not only the reality of form, color and substance, but the deeper meaning I sensed in things . . . I felt reality itself had a truth, a meaning, a substance and resonance that I was trying to translate into painting through the filter of my character, perception and feelings . . . I simply wanted to discover the nature of reality while painting it . . . and express my feelings about what I saw and discovered, its beauty and poetry, its structure, form and color, the meaning— and brevity— of life."




 When I say that Gray is objective, I don't mean that he is detached and coldly analytical. That would be far from the truth. If anything, he is deeply involved in the character and individuality of his subjects and is often warmly empathetic. It would be closer to the truth—even if it sounds a bit hyperbolic—to say that he is an artist who really looks and really sees, and not only with his eyes, but with his entire being.


 As he puts it, "Though a committed realist, I never was an 'objective camera' minus an artistic temperament . . . I never had a formula. I worked from my feelings, the reality and inspiration of the moment, as well as my underlying, enduring beliefs."




 At the same time, he is analytical, especially when it comes to structure, composition and the rendering of three-dimensional form. For instance, the painting, "Red Snapper, Cezanne and Van Gogh," is completely filled, one might even say stuffed, with numerous, generally unrelated objects, from dead fish at the bottom to various fruits and vegetables, bowls, draperies, a lamp and, to top it off, an art book opened to a page containing four color reproductions of paintings by Cezanne and Van Gogh. Now, with so much detail crammed into such a small space, one would reasonably expect this canvas to look cluttered and disorganized. But it doesn't. In fact, it is remarkably compact and wonderfully "all of a piece," thanks largely to a composition as carefully structured as that of a Renaissance master.




 Also, unless we've been conditioned to notice such things, it's unlikely that we'd spot how skillfully Gray has utilized one of the Renaissance masters' favorite compositional devices, the central triangular format often used to create monumental religious works. In those paintings, the saints and worshipers were generally arrayed at bottom right and left, and the object of their veneration—Christ or the Virgin Mary—would occupy "center stage" at the top. Only here, that position of honor has been given to Cezanne and Van Gogh in the form of four color reproductions of their work.




 In a very real sense, this canvas can legitimately be described as a devotional work of art. Not, certainly, for traditional reasons—it includes no religious imagery or worshipful celebrants—but for the quietly celebratory manner in which it pays tribute to nature's generosity and to two of art's greatest masters.




 As demonstrated in "Red Snapper, Cezanne and Van Gogh," Don Gray has a particular affinity for still-life painting. He explains: "To me truth resides in simple things . . . like fruit, vegetables, sardine cans, etc. . . . I see meaning in them, spiritual, poetic. This is why I admire, feel a connection with, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Chardin, Cezanne, etc.—all artists who seek to translate the substance of apples, crockery, fabric, flesh into the substance of paint . . . Even as a five- to seven-year old, I drew vegetables with Crayola crayons but gave them human characteristics. Beets, carrots and potatoes walked hand-in-hand. Vegetables, fruit and other related objects obviously have a deep psychological meaning for me."


 Of course, what matters is what he does as a painter with these various manifestations of nature's bounty. What he does is at least remarkable, and at best superb. A case in point. "Three Tomatoes, Chicken of the Sea" is a 1980's painting, 28" x 32" ("Red Snapper, Cezanne and Van Gogh," in comparison, is eight feet wide), which depicts three tomatoes and an unopened can of tuna fish set against a dark, grey/black surface. Nothing could be simpler or more unprepossessing as a subject, and yet it is one of Gray's finest paintings, an outstanding example of what can be accomplished by an artist who really looks and really sees, and a perfect demonstration of Gray's very special ability to transform perception into paint.


 Others of Gray's paintings may be bigger, more impressive, more provocative or more thematically meaningful, but none is better. This is Gray at his best and most essential. In fact, I am tempted to add that this is who Don Gray the painter really is.


 Everything about this work proclaims both Gray's mastery of color and form and the "accuracy" of his perception. These definitely are three tomatoes and a tin can, no doubt about it, but in his hands they also become something else, something very special. They become art. And they do so because what Gray saw and felt about these humble objects was translated through the language of paint, line, texture and form into a painting that is as much a painting as a tree is a tree and a rock is a rock.




 I've paid particular attention to the painting "Three Tomatoes, Chicken of the Sea," because it so clearly demonstrates the sensitive and thoughtful manner in which Gray "deconstructs" perceived reality and then "reconstructs" it as a painted image on canvas. The very simplicity of this image underscores the care he takes with every inch of canvas. More complex works may include other, more traditional ways of delineating form through the manipulation of light/dark tonal transitions, but many of Gray's finest creations owe much of their powerful impact to the heightened volumetric and coloristic effects achieved by this more focused and analytical approach.


 Both of the paintings discussed were produced in the 198Os and prove that at that point he had fully mastered the skills needed to accomplish his objective of "trying to understand life and the world and make significant art from it." Indeed, one might say that "Three Tomatoes, Chicken of the Sea" embodies that mastery in one of its simplest manifestations, and "Red Snapper, Cezanne and Van Gogh" embodies it at its most complex.




 In New York City in 1962, Gray's enthusiasm for New York as the art capital of the world was diminishing rapidly. While he was enthralled by the electric energy of the city streets and the seemingly endless number of subjects to draw and paint, he was appalled by the triviality of much of the art in the galleries. He had come to New York expecting to learn and be inspired, only to find the galleries and museums of contemporary art given over to artificial and formulaic art that had little if anything to do with responsiveness to nature and the world. As he put it, "Much of the work I saw seemed rather jaded, reeking of artifice and the decadent end of a once vital modern painting tradition that had begun with Manet and the Impressionists, moved through Cezanne, Van Gogh and the other Post-Impressionists, only to become more limited and diluted with each passing decade.


 "I sought refuge in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the small but jewel-like Frick Collection, and 19th and early 20th century paintings at the Museum of Modern Art . . . I couldn't believe that the great tradition of art that had spiritually and aesthetically sustained Western mankind for several thousand years had found any significant continuation in aesthetic manipulation for its own sake or in the most bizarre extremes."


 Even so, there can be little doubt that, in the long run, Gray's unpleasant initial encounter with the New York art scene turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Looking back some years later, he wondered whether "my own painting or thinking would have their present qualities had I not been thrown into the cauldron of New York City art and ideas. Conversely, I may not have survived such an experience with my art and character relatively intact without the grounding I received from growing up in Arizona. There is something fundamental and genuine about nature in general and the desert in particular. It seeps into one's being and forms it for the better, without our necessarily being aware of it."




 Gray's problem was that he didn't fit in anywhere,  hardly a good situation for a young artist confronting a largely conformist gallery and museum world. Even those who advocated a realist approach to art didn't know what to make of him, especially since the majority of these individuals preferred an academic or illustrational form of realism, and so found him too direct and emotionally expressive for their tastes. Most surprisingly, the New Realists who, if one believed their stated objectives, should have been supportive, also found him too intense and passionate.


 All this acted powerfully upon Gray. Isolated from the predominant art of his time, and committed to a creative ideal that allowed for no compromise, he became increasingly aware that to fully achieve his goals he would have to re-examine and redefine for himself what the phrase "painting from reality" actually meant.


 He realized also that he was now very much on his own, that no art-world miracle would come his way. Not surprisingly, that didn't deter him. As he explained later, "After much doubt and struggle . . . I had to proceed with what I knew, or at least sensed, was true for me and try to create an art that would be meaningful to me at my deepest level, and hopefully, at some future time, to others."


 Of one thing he was certain: Nature and reality would have to be the starting point, the source of whatever significant art he would produce.




 By the time he entered the l980s, Gray was a master-painter. And not only of still-lifes, but of most other kinds of representational art as well. It was to still-life painting, however, that he devoted a great deal of his time during the decade—and often with remarkable results.


 "Rembrandt, Gauguin, Fabric," is almost as large (seven feet wide), as sumptuously painted, as fully packed with apparently unrelated objects, and as rich in allusions, as "Red Snapper. Cezanne and Van Gogh". Most particularly, however, it is a celebration of all things physical in the world of paint, from color, volume, and texture to such subtle and often illusory things as light and space. In discussing this work, Gray indicates that "this still-life, like all my still-lifes, resulted from a search of the house for objects that caught my attention. Art books are a major element, along with the cow skull . . . I put boxes under the fabrics to create different elevations. My overriding desire was to pack this still-life as full of things as I could. I hung many of Jessie's dresses as a background, to subtly activate even that area of the painting . . . . Clearly on display is my love of color and a three-dimensional substance that also reflects the design shape of the objects. I have always refused to sacrifice the intensity of reality as it impinges on my eye . . . . This painting is my comment on the beauty of the world."


 It's very likely that one's first reaction to this work would be that Gray put "everything but the kitchen sink" into it. And in a way he did, considering the fact that he included a large hornet's nest in the lower-right corner. Tucked into this complex composition and given only slightly more attention than such things as pieces of crockery, several tin cans, and a half-dozen slices of bread, are two color reproductions of paintings exposed to view in open books. The larger is of the central portion of Rembrandt's "Danae," the smaller of a Gauguin self-portrait.


 For all its complexities, Gray managed to instill this painting with subtle undertones and allusions. In order to accentuate the feminine blessings Rembrandt's "Danae" appears to bestow so generously from her position at right-center, he deliberately painted her more three-dimensionally than the surface of the book in which she appears would normally allow. The result is a touch of humanity that enlivens and warms the entire canvas. And just as important, the Gauguin self-portrait becomes an extension of Gray himself surveying the richness of the world he creates through art,  but also, he suggests, "protecting myself from the world by hanging back behind the barrier of objects I've created, behind their protective substance and beauty."




 "Renoir, Picasso and Five Dollar Bill" is dominated by a reproduction of a painting of a dancing couple by Renoir that overlaps and partially hides a painting by Picasso. Also included are a five dollar bill, an empty wine glass and a brilliant red book. It was executed during a particularly trying time in Gray's life when things seemed so hopeless that he deliberately used black backgrounds for several of his still-lifes. Even so, beauty reigns. The Renoir resonates with life and color. Its celebration of human happiness and love plays off (and partly obliterates) the loneliness and suffering represented by the Picasso. Even the composition itself, with its dramatic diagonals and judicious placements, contributes significantly to the painting's vitality. Only the five dollar bill introduces a subtly cynical note, representing as it does Gray's exasperated response to what he saw as his period's total commercialization of art.



New York City in the 196O's offered almost limitless opportunities for an artist committed to translating reality in all its dimensions and manifestations into art. From its streets, docks, tenements, industrial areas and skyscrapers, to its rivers, parks, waterfronts and skyline, New York provided any artist eager to tackle a wide variety of urban themes more than enough challenging and rewarding subjects to satisfy him.


 From their arrival in New York in 1962 until 1968 when the Grays moved to Orange County, New York, sixty-five miles northwest of Manhattan, Gray roamed the city for subjects he executed in pastel, casein or watercolor. In addition he produced portraits and figure studies of his wife, still-lifes and interiors, as well as self-portraits. During the summers the couple occasionally spent time in a cabin in the Maine woods. Even there Gray was busily at work, turning out landscapes and still-lifes as well as interiors and exteriors of their cabin.


 The cityscapes have an engaging immediacy about them that communicates itself through bold, rich color, sure yet uninhibited draftsmanship, an imaginative sense of design and just as important, a healthy respect, even a kind of affection, for whatever subject momentarily engaged his attention. Gray's New York has a lived-in quality. Although few humans appear in his New York scenes, when they do as in "Bagel Man Outside Bloomingdales," they belong in the picture no more and no less than a row of empty sidewalk benches, a slightly run-down motion picture theater, or an East River tugboat chugging up the river on a grey day.




 The more one studies these cityscapes, the more aware one becomes of Gray's skill as a draftsman. He draws beautifully and with a fervor and deftness that avoids both academic formula and bland reproductive "accuracy." Indeed, he considers himself more of a draftsman than a painter since he feels more responsive to what the act of drawing demands than what painting calls for. He also states that these works were never considered by him to be studies, that he always saw them as fully developed pictorial statements with their own unique formal and expressive identities. And most of all, that he never viewed them as secondary in importance to his more fully realized paintings.




 "Bagel Man Outside Bloomingdales" is both a pithy graphic image and a delightful little painting. Gray may see himself as a draftsman at heart, but this work should prove, if any proof is needed, that when it comes to performance, he is at least as good with paint and color as he is with tone and line. Only a painter could have produced this charmingly informal glimpse into New York street life, with its theatrical lighting, rich textures and warm tonalities, and carefully calculated color accents.




 One can say much the same thing of a number of works Gray produced outdoors in upstate New York after he and his wife moved there in 1968.


 "Sunflowers, Zinnias" and "Burned House," the former from the l970's, the latter from the l980's, are vigorously direct investigations of things seen near the Gray's rented old house on a 240 acre dairy farm in the midst of hay and cornfields, apple orchards, ponds, woodlands and grazing cows. Gray speaks of those years in the country as "glorious both from the point of being nature-loving artists and sweet relief from the noise and nervous exhaustion of living in the middle of Manhattan." Outstanding among the many excellent works produced there are "Sun, Maples, Summer Fields" and "Snowy Fields, Tree Line".


 "Sunflowers, Zinnias" is of special interest in the light of Gray's commitment to flower painting over the years, a commitment that led him to produce florals that this writer believes belong among the finest paintings of flowers of the late twentieth century.


 Painting flowers has always been an easy out for painters with nothing to say. The subject is so attractive and the technical skill required to achieve a seductive effect is so minimal, that it has become, together with puppy-dogs, pussy-cats and lighthouses with seagulls, a favorite subject for Sunday painters and individuals whose only objective is to paint pretty pictures.


 On the other hand, those few artists who have produced flower paintings of quality and aesthetic significance have given the world a special treat. The secret lies in taking flowers seriously and in realizing that beauty and prettiness represent two very different realities. Beauty confronts life and celebrates it; prettiness evades life and trivializes it.


 Gray understands this distinction very well. What other word but "beautiful" is appropriate for "Red Bouquet, Red Background," and "Bouquet with Golden Flower, Crescent Moon"?  Consider what a temptation it would have been for a lesser artist to merely reproduce the surface charm of these flowers without attempting, as Gray did so successfully, to transform their natural state into art.


 Less "beautiful" perhaps, but no less remarkable, are "Dead Sunflowers" and "Sunflowers in Field". Both are crisply delineated and monumental in effect. The latter easily matches John Steuart Curry's well-known American Regionalist painting, "Kansas Cornfield" in formal power, and surpasses it in clarity of design and elegance of draftsmanship.


 In 1988, the Grays decided to return to their roots in Arizona. "Sedona Cliffs and Clouds" is a perfect introduction to these later landscapes. It is not only a stunning work, it also brings together and synthesizes into one powerful image qualities and characteristics that previously had been distributed among Gray's various subjects and themes. Unlike his more impressionistic earlier landscapes, for instance, this one is designed and built as solidly as a rock or, more precisely, as solidly as his still-life paintings. This is more than just a landscape. It is also an icon representing nature's awesome power and beauty, as well as a not so subtle reminder of nature's independent spirit.



Any overview of Gray's accomplishments as an artist must take into account the particular nature of his talent, both as draftsman and painter, as well as the depth and seriousness of his commitment to certain clearly defined creative ideals. Some of that has already been discussed in this essay. What follows here is intended to go a bit more deeply into issues so far only touched upon and to examine others not as yet raised.


 All too often, while working on an essay or a book on an artist whose work I like but haven't studied in detail, my initial enthusiasm for what he or she has produced dims a bit as I probe more assiduously into the origins and quality of that artist's creative efforts.


 That definitely was not the case with Don Gray. In fact, the opposite was true. Although I had long admired what I had seen of his work, I had never examined it in depth. When, because of this book, the opportunity arose to do so, I was pleased to discover that the more I looked at and thought about it, the more I came to respect his art in all of its numerous manifestations.


 Actually, it was the broad range of his work, and the fact that every aspect of it received equal attention from him, that first alerted me to the possibility that I had not given him sufficient credit. No matter what his subject, whether it was a still-life, a view of the Grand Canyon, a painting of flowers, a New York street scene, a depiction of rain, or a self-portrait, the quality of what he produced was uniformly high. Furthermore, he respected the individual identity and character of whatever he portrayed, while at the same time giving it a vibrancy that animated the resulting image and brought it to life.


 Most important, I became aware that Gray had no ideological agenda, either as a formalist or as a realist, and that he actually was, as he insisted, "simply trying to discover the nature of reality by observing it and studying it as intensely and thoroughly as possible while painting it."


 In short, his paintings proved that he was genuinely open-minded in matters of art, except of course when it came to the issues of quality and integrity. There he was adamant.




 All this emphasizes the depth and seriousness of Gray's search for meaning. It also reveals the existence of an undercurrent of disenchantment that has been with him at least from the time he and his wife moved to New York City in 1962. His art may glory in and celebrate what nature provides, but a part of him is seriously disturbed and angered by the unfairness and pain he sees around him.


 Gray's poetry occasionally addresses the latter side of his personal reality. It allows him to criticize God, even at times to rail against Him in a way he would never dream of doing in his paintings. "Renoir's Hands" is a good example. After describing the arthritis-destroyed hands of the old painter, Gray asks:


 "Think you worn things like Renoir's hands

are accidents in flawless plan,

incidents of no consequence?

What if there is something wrong

with the very structure of the world,

as wrong as Renoir's wary hands?


 Why the infant— why the man—dead by dread design?

These are crimes—crimes—on man by god.

Shrink not from thought behind the comfort of clichés.

This is not tragic normalcy.

Such things are not "the way of life" that we ignore

...until such instance roosts on us.

Ask now, oh man, while strength and time permit, while life

of living flesh adheres to you."


 This essentially tragic view of life doesn't enter into his paintings, possibly, I suspect, because he has too much reverence and respect for the visual arts to use them to give vent to his anger and frustration. Here again, integrity enters the picture as does the realization that Gray's great good fortune lies in his ability to be so thoroughly at home with nature's endless manifestations that he can transform any and all of them into art of consistently high quality.




 It would be a serious mistake to ignore the fact that Gray is a communicator, to see him only as a creator of painted images. The fact is that he not only needs to create, he needs to share, and that applies to every aspect of his career to date, from his poetry, which deserves more space than it can be given here, to his writings on art, his teaching and his work as a television producer. In everything he does, he proves that the creative act is often an act of sharing, of generosity, even of love. After all, no matter how absorbed an artist may be in his or her feelings, there will always be, at heart, a powerful need for communication, a desire for a sympathetic response by others to what the artist sees and feels.




 But what, exactly, does he communicate through his art? And why is it of any value?


 To begin with, there is the beauty and painterly sensuousness of his images. That in itself can alert the viewer to things he or she might never have previously noticed or appreciated, and thereby enrich that person's life. In addition, his paintings' formal integrity and remarkable compositional compactness demonstrate convincingly that "the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts." That not only has aesthetic implications, it has moral and ethical ones as well.


 There is also the issue of his regard for his subjects' character and individuality, his unwillingness to distort or unnaturally enhance their physical appearance for greater or more immediate visual or expressive effect. By rejecting gratuitous distortion and formalist invention of any sort, and engaging his subjects empathetically and with respect, he turned his back not only on modernist extremism, but also on the trend toward sensationalism and superficiality that has affected so much of today's art.


 That trend is something with which he is very familiar, having immersed himself totally in the New York art world at a time when it was at its most free-wheeling and disruptive. As artist, writer and television producer, he was at the center of the action and witnessed the erosion and fragmentation in New York's galleries and museums of much of what he saw as the best and most meaningful in the art of the past century and a half.


 He was disillusioned and discouraged, but, as we have seen, not for long.


 It should be clear, therefore, that he is not a naive critic of modernism's—or post-modernism's—more extreme modes. He is a conservative, that is true, but only in the sense that he wants to conserve, to keep alive, ideals and principles that he believes lie at the heart of all great art.


 From my vantage point as art critic and writer, I'm aware that there are more excellent painters of Gray's persuasion working today than one would think, especially if one only visits "cutting edge" galleries and is only informed about what appears in the art magazines. In a very real sense, the values and ideals, as well as the painterly qualities, of Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh are still very much alive today, thanks to such independent-minded artists as Gray and a handful of others scattered about the United States. Their work may or may not resemble that of the masters, and it may or may not receive serious attention, but it remains true to what is best and most essential in the Western painting tradition.


 We must remember that it is painting we are discussing here and not the visual arts in general and certainly not the many new formal and technical approaches that have appeared over the past several decades and have, to a considerable extent, replaced painting in gallery and museum exhibitions. From performance, body and computer art, to site-specific and other architecturally and geographically determined modes of expression, the art world has been overwhelmed by dramatically new methods and objectives.


 In itself that is no problem. Art will always expand in new directions. It became one, however, when the powers that be determined that painting could no longer compete successfully with the drama and up-to-date meaningfulness of these technologically and sociologically innovative forms of art, and so proclaimed that painting was dead, or at least had become only marginally relevant and significant.


 Of course that's nonsense. But that's the way it is, and how it probably will remain until the excitement generated by all these new ideas and devices diminishes. In the meantime, there are artists like Don Gray who have remained true to painting's realities and goals. That is to their credit. But that isn't the real story of Don Gray. In art, integrity, creative passion, lifelong commitment, even talent, mean little if vision is absent or clouded, and quality is in short supply. In Gray's case, both are obviously and emphatically present, and on a level and to a degree found in relatively few of his contemporaries.


 Gray is a painter. That means that his work embodies and communicates qualities and realities through paint and color that cannot be adequately realized or communicated in any other form or mode of expression. To understand that is to understand why what painting has to offer is both special and unique, and why it is so important, not only that it be kept vital and alive, but that those who practice it with integrity and skill receive the acknowledgement they deserve. Fortunately, Gray has received such acknowledgement, not only from his peers, but from serious art professionals as well. I for one place him high on my list of most valued creative individuals encountered during my time as art critic—both for the quality of his work and because he's convinced me—as have a few others—that painting as I know and love it is alive and well.




1. All statements by the artist are from written communications

with the author.

2. Theodore F. Wolff, "Red Snapper, Cezanne and Van Gogh;"

"The Home Forum;" The Christian Science Monitor,

November 15, l984.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms