MANY BLACK AMERICAN ARTISTS, seeking a more racially receptive experience, thrived in Europe during the post-war years. A New Yorker, Herbert Gentry (1919-2003) was at the center of the milieu. In 1949, he established Chez Honey, a gallery-club in the Montparnasse area of Paris, a popular gathering place that engendered many of his friendships and artistic connections. His circle included Beauford Delaney, Romare Bearden, Ed Clark, Larry Rivers, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Eartha Kitt, Orson Welles, Duke Ellington, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

The venue, where art was displayed by day, jazz flowed at night, and American and European artists, musicians, and intellectuals gathered across racial lines, inspired one of Gentry’s paintings. “Chez Honey” (1949) is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery in New York. He produced the moody-hued, gestural abstraction the same year he started the club.

“Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond 1949-1978” at Ryan Lee presents paintings and drawings surveying Gentry’s European years across three decades. Bursting with expression and networks of calligraphic lines, the improvisational works channel the spirit of jazz. The presence of faces and figures suggest the artist’s cultural fluidity and the spectrum of people in his orbit. The gallery is presenting works by Gentry for the first time, in cooperation with the artist’s estate.

The works are channel the spirit of jazz, bursting with expression and networks of improvisational lines. The presence of faces and figures suggest the artist’s cultural fluidity and the spectrum of people in his orbit.

Gentry was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. His father was a printer and his mother was a dancer. When his parents separated, he moved to New York City. Gentry grew up with his mother and stepfather in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem where they regularly hosted artists and musicians in their home. She had studied ballet and modern dance and worked as a chorus girl, for a time dancing on the same line as Josephine Baker. His mother counted Baker, Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson, among her friends.

Gentry was in the U.S. Army when he first visited Paris in 1944. After he was discharged in 1945, he soon returned and studied at the Sorbonne and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he later taught. He opened Chez Honey with Honey Johnson, a singer and painter who was the first of his three wives. In the late 1950s, he ventured elsewhere in Europe, establishing studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Stockholm, Sweden. In 1969, he moved into the famous Chelsea Hotel, splitting his between New York City and Stockholm for the rest of his career.

Gentry discussed his incredibly dynamic life during an oral history interview conducted in 1991 by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Reflecting on his childhood, Gentry said: “I met almost everyone that was in Harlem during that period who was famous.” He said he encountered Bearden years later at his Paris club. Back in New York, the artists became “close friends,” Gentry said, calling Bearden “a wonderful person.” He also spoke about his work.

“Well, there’s a certain spontaneity that exists. I work with my, my subconscious plays a great role, I don’t calculate, I’m not generalistic and the form plays the great role. The figures come into it, the faces come into my work, that I don’t calculate to be the types that appear, but they are the types that I’ve met in my life,” Gentry said.

“My base is African American also it’s in my paintings the people I’ve met throughout the world, American, African American, but I’ve met people throughout the world, who are my friends who actually I love and we’ve done things together so this appears in my work.” CT

 

“Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond, 1949-1978” is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y., from Nov. 14, 2020-Jan. 23, 2021

 

TOP IMAGE: HERBERT GENTRY, “Dance Turquoise,” 1978 (acrylic on canvas, 40 x 52 inches / 101.6 x 132.1 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


HERBERT GENTRY, “Chez Honey,” 1949 (oil on masonite, 18 x 15 inches / 38.1 x 45.7 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


HERBERT GENTRY, “Untitled,” 1961 (oil on board, 29 1/2 x 24 1/4 inches / 74.9 x 61.6). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


Installation view of “Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond, 1949-1978,” Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y., Nov. 14, 2020-Jan. 23, 2021. | Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


HERBERT GENTRY, “Cityscape,” 1955 (oil on masonite, 37 x 24 inches / 94 x 61 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


HERBERT GENTRY, “White Buffalo,” 1963 (57 X 53 inches / 144.8 x 134.6 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


Installation view of “Herbert Gentry: Paris and Beyond, 1949-1978,” Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y., Nov. 14, 2020-Jan. 23, 2021. | Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


HERBERT GENTRY, “Mask (Woman with Child),” 1959 (oil on linen, 32 x 25 1/2 inches / 81.3 x 64.8 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


HERBERT GENTRY, “Copenhagen,” 1960 (oil on panel, 33 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches / 85.1 x 59.7 cm). | © Estate of Herbert Gentry, Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 

BOOKSHELF
Publications accompanied exhibitions of Herbert Gentry’s work at Boston University Art Galleries in 2014 (“Making Connections: The Art and Life of Herbert Gentry”) and G.R. N’Namdi Gallery in 2008 (“Herbert Gentry: The Man, The Master, The Magic Mass”). Gentry’s work is also mentioned in “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson.

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent art history project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.