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Gray Paintings For Our Gray Era

These are not bright times. We see the world in shades of gray. So gallerygoers may be especially interested in artists who work in mixtures of black and white—in what for centuries has been known as grisaille. Of course, I’m not so sure that gray times inspire a taste for gray paintings. Formal values are not necessarily so closely related to social experience. And yet the thought has crossed my mind as I contemplate “Grisaille,” a group show currently at Luxembourg and Dayan in New York. The exhibition comes with an opulently austere catalogue that includes illustrations of Jan van Eyck’s grisaille panels of the Annunciation, while in the gallery the story is brought right up to the present, with work by Alex Katz, Gerhard Richter, and a number of less established artists. This is, in any event, a story that’s almost endlessly expandable. At the Babcock Galleries there is currently a selection of paintings by Edwin Dickinson, whose gray-on-gray landscapes were much admired by de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists. A Jasper Johns retrospective that came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art three years ago was titled “Gray.” And the biggest grisaille event is yet to come: Next fall the Guggenheim will be presenting “Picasso Black and White.”

The denial of color can mean quite a few different things. Restraint is itself sometimes a show of power, and as much as grisaille suggests abnegation it also suggests hubris. When van Eyck painted in grisaille in the fifteenth century, he did so as a virtuoso, demonstrating how much he could do with extremely limited means. But, in more recent times, working in black and white has often implied an embrace and even maybe a glorification of limitations. Although I don’t care for a lot of the work in Luxembourg and Dayan’s “Grisaille,” I would recommend the exhibition to gallerygoers as the ultimate demonstration of what I guess can only be called high-chic austerity. Richter’s monochromatic Grau may not be much to look at, but in Luxembourg and Dayan’s narrow, immaculately renovated East 77th Street townhouse, where the walls have been painted in strong colors that set off the works on display, the effect is so beguilingly elegant that one’s feelings about this or that particular painting hardly seem to matter. I am reminded of the descriptions, in the Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’s new novel, Parallel Stories, of the “well-to-do people [who] had long since heaved out of their apartments the objects accumulated during previous decades. Only pared-down spaces remained.” One of the characters who has embraced this “newfangled bleakness” is an art collector who has “decided to dress only in black and wear, summer or winter, only silver.” (Several silver-toned objects, actually made of aluminum, zinc, and stainless steel, are included at Luxembourg and Dayan.) Nádas suggests that many cosmopolitan men and women are “no longer living in space but in time,” and that they are “no longer attached deeply or intimately to anything, neither to places nor to objects.” At Luxembourg and Dayan the high-priced grisailles suggest a way of collecting one’s own anomie.

Opinions will naturally differ as to whether the Luxembourg and Dayan show, which was organized by the curator Alison Gingeras, is something more than a symptom of what Nádas calls this “newfangled bleakness.” Perhaps the truth is that all artists who choose to paint in shades of gray run the risk of making a spectacle of their modesty of means. The grisaille of Giacometti—one of whose portraits is included at Luxembourg and Dayan—is a triumph of austere power. But there is also a self-consciousness about the elegance of his reductions, a vanity to his gorgeous grays that suggests an artist less saintly and pure than he is sometimes described—and thus, perhaps paradoxically, more appealing as a person. In the landscapes and seascapes of Edwin Dickinson, many done on Cape Cod, the close orchestration of a variety of whites and grays likewise becomes a bold, almost hedonistic assertion of the artist’s sensibility, an attitude that is as much imposed on the landscape as discovered in the landscape. At Babcock Galleries one feels how intensely Dickinson’s close-toned palette—with its white- and pink-infused grays and browns—works to abstract his experience of nature, to turn the world into a picture. Grisaille, for all its austerity, can also suggest a certain audacity. The art patron Dominique de Menil—in the catalogue of “Gray is the Color,” a 1973 Houston exhibition that Alison Gingeras acknowledges as an important precursor—says that gray “challenges the virtuoso and invites the visionary,” spanning extremes “from impersonal objectivity to spiritual statement, from free painterly expression to rigorous tonal constructions.” The closer you look at all these grays, the more varied the moods, attitudes, and values they are capable of expressing.

All of which would seem to suggest that grisaille has no particular relevance to a time of reduced social or economic expectations. Then again, if grisaille is in some sense always a diminishment of the painter’s means, it is a diminishment that becomes a test of the artist’s mettle—of the ability to do more with less. To paint in a variety of grays may not be a response to our darkening days. But it might well be a way of reminding us that limited means can have their own kind of power.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic