Conversations in Drawing:
Seven Centuries of Art from the Gray Collection
Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
February 19, 2021 - June 6, 2021
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Over the years, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City has hosted a number of outstanding exhibitions devoted entirely to drawing. Many of these Morgan exhibits survey the overarching development of drawing, featuring works of art exclusively from the Morgan's incredible holdings of works on paper. Other exhibits are special, once-in-a-lifetime, displays of art, on loan from other institutions. The memorable Holbein and the Court of Henry VIII, which was shown at the Morgan back in 1983, came from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II.
Conversations in Drawing, currently on view at the Morgan, straddles both both categories. Like the 2015 exhibition, Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso, it displays art works from the Renaissance to the present day. But these masterworks of draftsmanship are visiting the Morgan from Chicago and - with a couple of exceptions - will not be joining the ranks of the Morgan's fabled collection.
The works on view in Conversations in Drawing were collected by the Chicago art dealer, Richard Gray and and his wife, Mary L. Gray, The majority have been given, or promised, by the Gray family to the Art Institute of Chicago.
The salient point of the Gray collection is quality rather than celebrity. These works were selected for their artistic merit as drawings. There is a van Gogh drawing on view - and a very good, early example of his oeuvre. But it was not purchased for the sake of owning a "van Gogh."
The Gray Collection is notable for the number of Italian works from the mid to late 1500's. This art of this era is customarily defined as Mannerism and art textbooks often skim through these years, paying scant attention to drawing. Richard and Mary Gray took a different approach and secured a number of real gems for their collection.
A superb example of the Gray's collecting savy is Lelio Orsi's Apollo Driving the Chariot of the Sun. Lelio Orsi was a Northern Italian artist whose paintings have all the attributes of Mannerism - convoluted figures, anguished expressions, angels flying around the picture plane from every point of the compass. With Apollo Drivng the Chariot of the Sun, Orsi tightened his focus without diminishing the emotional impact of his image. Despite the mythological subject, he created a dynamic and believable masterpiece.
Orsi's Apollo, driving his four-horse chariot, urges his steeds to avoid Aurora, the goddess of dawn, who is scattering flower petals before him. Apollo leans forward with impetuous will-power and his mighty horses, their manes billowing in the wind, react with disciplined teamwork. Two-pairs of horses veer to the left and right, avoiding Aurora. We brace ourselves in expectation that the chariot will soar over Aurora. In a charming touch, Orsi placed a fearful looking lion and a tense-faced young woman in the background, hoping as we do that Aurora will not get trampled underfoot.
This sensational work was the final preparatory sketch for a fresco which was placed on the clock tower of the city of Reggio Emilia during the 1540's. This explains the upward thrust of the perspective, as this fresco was intended to be seen from below.
Thanks to the brilliant analysis by Kevin Salatino, curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, we realize that there is so much to be grasped in this modestly-sized drawing. The seemingly random elements in the background are actually symbols of the Zodiac. Leo the lion, Virgo (the young woman) who holds a sheaf of wheat and Libra, symbolized by a weighing-scale, show that Orsi was fixing a specific time of the year for his fresco, as well as the hour of the day. The details of the fresco are those of September, the harvest month for wheat and grapes, which in turn symbolize the bread and wine of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist.
All of this detail, artistic and allegorical, was skillfully incorporated by Orsi into a preparatory drawing, 9.72 x 13.15 inches (247 x 334 cm.) There can hardly be a better demonstration of the power of drawing, of desegno, than this small masterpiece. And yet, the Gray Collection is stocked with superb drawings, many by talented, but little-known, artists like Orsi.
So, who were the husband and wife team who created this fabulous collection of drawings? Richard Gray (1928-2018) established his Chicago-based gallery in 1963, followed by a New York City office in 1996. Gray's interest in art was inspired and encouraged by his wife, Mary, who is an art historian. Using a nest egg of $25,000, the Grays built an impressive establishment, displaying and selling work by many of the great twentieth century masters. Major clients such as David Hockney and Jim Dine continue to be represented by the Richard Gray Gallery, now run by his son, Paul.
In addition to establishing their commercially successful galleries, Richard and Mary Gray privately collected great art, principally drawings. Their interest ranged from the Renaissance to the twentieth century and the contemporary art scene with works by Franz Kline, Alex Katz and the Spanish artist, Jaume Plensa.
One of the recent stand-outs in the Gray Collection is a self-portrait by Jim Dine, entitled Thin Red Lips (2008). You can almost feel the intensity of the delicate moment when the artist makes his or her decision to move from reflection to action, from conception to creation, from dream to reality.
As might be expected with drawings, many of the works which the Grays purchased were preparatory sketches. Giorgio Vasari's Allegory of Eternity was another study for a fresco, dating to the same period as Orsi's Apollo. The red chalk squares, used to configure the composition, are still discernible, but Vasari's brilliant draftmanship and expert highlighting with white opaque watercolor make for a major work of art.
Several of the most intriguing works on view in Conversations in Drawing pose a dilemma which I have confronted in other exhibitions devoted to drawing. The problem can be stated simply. I am greatly impressed by drawings of certain artists whose finished paintings usually leave me unmoved or, in some cases, actually dismissive.
Peter Paul Rubens, François Boucher and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres created "signature" conventions of painting which both conformed to and influenced popular tastes in the arts. Highly regarded in their day, the oil paintings of Rubens, Boucher and Ingres often confound modern sensibilities, especially in their depictions of women.
Drawing was another matter. Drawing is more than "prep" work. It is a "conversation" of an artist with nature, a dialog between mind and soul, articulated with pencil, pen or charcoal. And when these Old Masters finished a drawing reflecting this private "conversation," they could share it with other artists or like-minded patrons without having to bend to passing social fancy.
Rubens' drawing of the Last Supper, for instance, does not conform to Leonardo's almost canonical version of this sacred event. It is remarkably free of doctrinaire theology. Ruben's Last Supper could be appreciated by Catholic or Protestant alike, or for that matter by any person who values humanity and spirituality over selfishness and strife.
That was exactly the kind of person Rubens was, but he was also a man of the world. The faces of the apostles reflect psychological insight of the highest order. Study the expressions of the apostles and you will see a range of emotions and states of mind which the illustrations of a modern psychology textbook could not surpass. And perhaps most meaningfully of all, Rubens leaves open a place at the Last Supper table for us, the viewers, to sit, reflect and take part.
If Ruben's Last Supper was a statement of inner faith, Boucher's Study of a draped woman leaning on a pedestal is an "artist's artist" work of art. With this astonishing drawing, Boucher celebrated the material world with every fold and crinkle of the silk robe. But underneath all of that sumptuous cloth is a real human body, depicted without the coy eroticism which Boucher lavished on his mythology-themed paintings. Whatever the intended use of this drawing - possibly a model of Cleopatra for the frontispiece of a play by Pierre Corneille - Boucher created it to satisfy the most important student of his art - himself.
Edgar Degas, another "artist's artist" did the same thing with his Study of Dancers, but in a completely different manner. Instead of creating an image where a human body has to be envisioned beneath the clothing, it is the dress, which the nude dancer in front is adjusting, which needs to be imagined. It seems so matter-of-fact, so unconsciously natural and true to life because that is exactly what Degas aimed to achieve.
Great drawing, of which the Gray Collection is abundantly endowed, is art "of the moment." Drawings record the inner world and the social milieu of artists at the instant of creation. Once set-down and then observed by appreciative art lovers, these images become moments of eternity, etched in memory.
Pablo Picasso recorded one such moment, balanced on the tipping-point between the present and immortality. During a 1925 practice session of the Ballets Russes, Serge Liafar lays his arms around the barre, as he begins to summon the dynamism and energy he will need for the next movement to be rehearsed. What we see is a human motor on "idle" during that briefest of intervals, between deliberation and actualization.
Once set-down and then observed by appreciative art lovers, images of the transitory like Picasso's Two Dancers become moments of eternity, etched in memory.
That is certainly how I will remember and cherish the incomparable works of art of the Gray Collection, now on view at the Morgan Library and Museum until June 6th. It is a "conversation in drawing" many centuries in the making and one which will surely endure.
Text and Gallery Photo: Copyright of Ed Voves. All rights reserved
Introductory image: Giovanni Battista Naldini (Italian, 1535-1591) Study of a Seated Youth (detail), ca. 1575. Black chalk, with touches of white chalk, squared in red chalk. Richard and Mary L. Gray, promised gift to the Morgan Library & Museum. Photography by Art Institute of Chicago Imaging Department.
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Conversations in Drawing exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City.
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch,1853-1890) Avenue of Pollard Birches and Poplars, 1884. Reed pen and iron-gall ink. Richard and Mary L. Gray, promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago. Photography by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics Inc.
Lelio Orsi (Italian, 1511-1587) Apollo Driving the Chariot of the Sun, 1544-45. Pen and black ink, with brush and brown wash, heightened with white opaque watercolor, with incising, on paper prepared with a light-brown wash. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Richard and Mary L. Gray; 2019.855 Photography by Art Institute of Chicago Imaging Department.
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Detail of Jim Dine's Thin Red Lips, 2008. Charcoal and touches of white and red pastel on off-white wove paper. Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Richard and Mary L. Gray; 2019.844.
Giorgio Vasari (Italian, 1511-1574) Allegory of Eternity, 1544-45. Pen and brown ink, and brush and brown wash, over black chalk, heightened with white opaque watercolor, on blue paper, squared in red chalk. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Richard and Mary L. Gray; 2019.871. Photography by Art Institute of Chicago Imaging Department
Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish,1577-1640) The Last Supper, 1613-14. Pen and brown ink, with brush and brown wash, heightened with touches of white opaque watercolor, over traces of black chalk, incised. Richard and Mary L. Gray, promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago. Photography by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics Inc.
François Boucher (French, 1703-1770) Study of a draped woman leaning on a pedestal, 1759-61. Black chalk, with stumping, and white chalk, on buff paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Richard and Mary L. Gray; 2019.835. Photography by Art Institute of Chicago Imaging Department.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) Study of Dancers, 1895-1900. Charcoal and pastel on pale-pink paper (discolored to tan). Gray Family Collection. Photography by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics Inc.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Two Dancers, 1925. Gray Collection, promised gift to the Morgan Library and Museum. © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), Photo by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics Inc.