The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2018

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SEPT 2018 Issue

Gray Foy: Known and Unknown

Gray Foy, Dimensions, ca. 1945–46. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Steve Martin. © 2018 Estate of Gray Foy.

The name Gray Foy has been nearly forgotten. An enormously gifted artist, he produced a hard-won inventory of some one hundred works, mostly drawings that fall into two approximate categories: smaller format drawings marked by an indenture to Salvador Dalí and other Surrealists dating to 1941 – 48 (but remarkable for all that), and his mature, nonpareil efforts depicting botanical subjects from the late forties through the late sixties—his best work.

Gray Foy, New York City, 1960. Photo: Vivian Crozier

If we allow one drawing to stand for the many Surrealist ones, a good example for study is Dimensions (ca. 1945 – 46). Its size, 21 × 28 inches, is large within Foy’s early work but a format commensurate to a ranging imagery of minute, self-generating detail. The picture demonstrates what is most arresting about Foy’s talent—a skilled, hyper-obsessional observation of human figures or exfoliating flowers and fantastic particulars rendered as if he were transcribing them through a jeweler’s loupe. Such intense focus recalls the backgrounds of Northern Renaissance painting—Jan van Eyck, for example.

The figures of Dimensions amalgamate the human and the inorganic, often engaging furniture and household elements as if in homage to the bedeviling monsters of Hieronymus Bosch—another historical obeisance. Foy’s metamorphic shape-shiftings grow impulsively, as if generated spontaneously by the making of marks on paper—tiny strokes responsive to any notions that occurred to the artist as he gradually completed his intricate composition. Geometrical shapes encroach like shards of glass, transparent layers that become a checkerboard overlay of Ovidian metamorphoses and abstract pattern. All this spirals out from a windmill cruciform at the center of the storm. The drawing is delineated with such delicacy as to render invisible any actual pressure upon the paper’s surface, as if the imagery had miraculously been blown into place. This refinement of touch is a Foy hallmark, most evident in his taste for close gradations and pale gray passages.

The complex horror vacui in Dimensions characterizes the whole of its surface. The shapes of the forms are palely lit, so that any effect of deep contrast is suppressed into a kind of shallow tray of space that undermines three-dimensional illusion. The composition can be read as an allover abstraction—an irony, since Abstract Expressionism itself (think Pollock’s drip paintings) was soon to challenge the relevance still claimed by Surrealist illusionism (a type of representationalism that Dalí described as the “hand-painted dream photograph”). Such developments would affect Foy’s own prestige in the art world.  

Gray Foy, Untitled [Nudes Emerging from Botanical and Avian Forms], 1948. Private collection. © 2018 Estate of Gray Foy.

In other drawings, such as Untitled [Nudes Emerging from Botanical and Avian Forms] (1948), the figuration of William Blake comes to mind, though the pertinent modern model is Pavel Tchelitchew. The virtuoso masterwork of that displaced Russian aristocrat and chef d’école of the Neo-Romantics was the programmatically elaborate Hide-and-Seek (1942). Often in storage now, this huge painting was for years the Museum of Modern Art’s picture postcard of choice. The coded depiction of a life cycle—heads emerging; dark crevasses; hidden phallic emphases; children at play in autumn leaves; childish terror at the conundrum of sex; traceries of veins, arteries, bones, and muscle tissue—inspired many young artists. Foy was no exception, though his attempt to render Tchelitchew’s prodigious interlacings in paint—as in his Untitled [Abstract Head Exposing Arterial and Neuromuscular Systems] (1946)—foundered. Painting was not his métier.

Tchelichew’s effect on Foy is also measurable in other works, such as the microscopically detailed drawing Untitled [Courtyard with Morphing Figures] (1945). The editors of View, a prestigious Surrealist little magazine, decided on first sight to publish it in the Fall 1946 issue. Foy had just left Southern Methodist University in Dallas to visit New York City. He was spurred to move there in 1947 and attended Columbia for a year.

Gray Foy, Connecticut Plants, 1949. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; museum purchase, George de Batz Collection, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. © 2018 Estate of Gray Foy.

To be sure, Foy’s affinity with Surrealism is fortified by his commitment to an explicit naturalism—found especially in his drawings of plants and flowers, both real and imagined. See, for example, Study of Flowers (Lake Tahoe) and Connecticut Plants (both 1949). A group of such drawings forms an important thematic subset within his finest work. Vegetables are rendered lovingly; even a lowly asparagus spear receives its due in Bucks County (Asparagus) (1949). The self-effacing modesty of the mark-making that defines these studies inevitably invokes Albrecht Dürer’s treatment of grasses (not to mention his beloved Young Hare). The Rococo classicism of Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s roses may also come to mind, along with John James Audubon’s far sterner The Birds of America.

The most freakishly real of Foy’s naturalist drawings is a Packet of Raisins (1957)—the fruit bound in broad leaves—or Bulbs, of the previous year. Progenitors of these drawings are Dalí’s two versions of The Basket of Bread (1926, 1945), which depict the transubstantiative body of Christ with such devotion as to belie the exhibitionistic pranks of the artist. Other Surrealist motifs to be found in Foy’s wartime drawings are freestanding armoires such as appear in the iconography of René Magritte of the 1920s and the earlier works of Giorgio de Chirico.

Frederick Gray Foy Jr. was born in Dallas in 1922 to Maebelle Durfey and Frederick Gray Foy, who divorced in 1926 owing in part to the latter’s alcoholism. Moving to Los Angeles, the Hollywood fantasy beacon that illuminated the depths of the Great Depression, Foy’s mother remarried in 1933. As Foy remembered, “My mother and I stayed and sort of sweated out the Depression”; in 1936 they lived in a house whose rear half was situated in Los Angeles while the front fell in Beverly Hills. This lucky bifurcation allowed Foy to attend the arts- and theater-oriented Beverly Hills High School, adjacent to the back lots of Twentieth-Century Fox; the glamor of the movies was at arm’s remove. In 1938 the family resettled into a new house situated right next to Warner Bros. in Burbank. Immersed in movie-going from childhood, Foy was influenced in his early works by science fiction films, while his high-school scenic designs often featured props and furnishings freely borrowed from the nearby studio lots.

By 1940, seriously studying theater design at Los Angeles Community College, he met Robert Davidson, who became a noted theatrical designer working for the La Jolla Playhouse and later on Broadway. Davidson introduced Foy to the work of the Neo-Romantics and to Surrealist poets such as Federico García Lorca (reinforcing the strong Spanish Surrealist current in Foy’s work), as well as to Gertrude Stein and, likely, to View, edited by poet and artist Charles Henri Ford and film theorist Parker Tyler. In short, Davidson gave Foy a cultural education. Foy even began to paint in a markedly theatrical mode, in which deep perspectives are viewed as if through a proscenium. In these settings he sometimes fused the silhouetted lions found in Dalí’s The Accommodations of Desire (1929) with those of the Piazza San Marco, a style also typical of Eugene Berman’s sets and costumes for warhorse operas at the original Metropolitan Opera—all Italo-Gothic battlements and troubadours. Foy’s Faceless Winged Lion (1941) and Landscape with Winged Lion and Pyramid (ca. 1941) are among such early examples.

Gray Foy, Untitled [Landscape with Winged Lion and Pyramid], ca. 1941. © 2018 Estate of Gray Foy.

Of an age to serve in the Second World War but seriously asthmatic, Foy received a “4-F” deferment when called up for his military induction physical. In 1943 he went to work for the Lockheed Aircraft defense plant in Burbank—procurement and inventory drudgery that lasted to the end of the war. While there, Foy pilfered pads of shipping container order forms each 8-1/2 × 5-1/2 inches, a format small enough for the left-handed artist to perfect his skills even as he was fending off boredom. These drawings are distinguished by their refined biomorphic structures enhanced by lightly kneaded erasure, remarkable achievements of alembicated contours. To this amalgam Foy added imagery of distortion and grotesquerie, incarnations of the horrors of war such as is found in the more immediately Symbolic Realism of works by Peter Blume or Stephen Greene.

Gray Foy, Untitled [Illuminated Exterior with Morphing Dancers], ca. 1946. Private collection. © 2018 Estate of Gray Foy.

Finally, Foy hit New York, and after visiting the swank Durlacher Bros., owned and directed by Kirk Askew Jr., he immediately became a part of that gallery’s stable, which included Blume, Leonid Berman, Greene, and Kurt Seligmann, among many others. Artistic gift and stylistic originality now well honed, Foy found his place.

Almost simultaneously with Foy’s first group exhibition at Durlacher Bros.—Drawings: Blume, Brown, Fett, Foy, Goldstein, Greene, Melcarth, Seligmann, Tchelitchew—in April 1948 he met his future life companion, Leo Lerman, whose journals, published as The Grand Surprise in 2007, are our Baedeker to the mid-century New York beau monde. Callas, Dietrich, Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein—such luminaries were the alpha intimates of the Foy/Lerman household. “Knowing everybody,” however, eventually became a major distraction for Foy, and Lerman’s journals indicate the degree to which the artist was transformed into Ambassador Extraordinary to Titania and Oberon’s court of music, dance, literature, and art.

Foy embraced this milieu, cognizant of how, for example, Tchelitchew’s artworks and stage and costume designs underscored the continuity between the painterly world and that of the ballet and opera. Similarly, Neo-Romanticism—exemplified by the work of the Russian brothers Leonid and Eugene Berman—bridged the realms of fine art and scenic design; Foy had shown a facility for the latter in college, used later at the American Ballet Theatre. Lerman in time became the chief cultural attaché and arbiter of taste for Condé Nast publications and editor of Playbill magazine, thus providing free entry for the couple to the theatrical society of the period. From Lerman’s position at these magazines, he commissioned many of Foy’s feature illustrations. (Using performing arts and literary connections—Leonard Bernstein and Truman Capote, to cite just two—Foy also produced other commercial pieces, such as LP record album covers and book jackets from the 1950s on.)

However glamorous and fascinating the dramatis personae of Mademoiselle, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, they nevertheless obtruded upon the work of Lerman’s partner. As Foy himself rose among the ranks of the city’s cultural arbiters, he also came to feel a certain resentment toward his silken cords. As he wrote to curator Lloyd Goodrich in 1960, “It has become imperative that I have a period of time substantially without interruption in order that I might devote myself wholly to my work.” Lerman felt guilty about Foy’s sacrifices. “The price of my weakness,” says one journal entry from 1985, “is Puss [Foy’s nickname] stopping his unique, beautiful work…. Question: has Puss been a happier person this way, or would he have been happier, more fulfilled, if he had been true to his genius?” 

The Faustian bargain endured for a half century. Yet such a tale need be neither lachrymose nor admonitory but the simple truth of a natural evolution—one widely experienced by many artists who, in moving away from the promise of youth, feel that what once insisted on vibrant expression had lost its allure, especially when the cultural context that originally inspired it has grown stale. It is left to the “persistence of memory,” as the title of Dalí’s most famous painting would have it, to take up the current revisionist task.

Early photographs reveal Gray to have been handsome and trim, and such is my recollection of him as an older person. He retained an enviable helmet of hair, now white, and developed a Luciferian appearance that went with a connoisseur’s prickly sophistication with regard to the arts. Had Mario Praz, the historian of nineteenth-century interior design and Symbolist literature, known of the obsessively jammed Foy and Lerman apartment at the fin de siècle Osborne Apartments, he would have embraced the artist as kin. Now, after Foy’s long life (he died in 2012 at the age of 90), his rediscovered drawings, finally freed of their period dross, are receiving a fully warranted reappraisal.

An exhibition of Gray Foy's work opens at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art on September 14, 2018, and the monograph Gray Foy Drawings 1941-1975 was published on September 1, 2018 by Callaway New York.


Robert Pincus-Witten

Robert Pincus-Witten (1935 – 2018) was an American historian and art critic. He is the author of numerous books, and his criticism has been collected into celebrated volumes.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2018

All Issues