New York

Juan Gris

Saidenberg Gallery

The exhibition of drawings and gouaches by Juan Gris at the Saidenberg Gallery presents an important group of nearly fifty works from the period 1910–1927. In it, the special nature of Gris’ approach to draftsmanship is made unequivocally clear. One sees throughout the impulse toward a classic idea of form and composition—solid, stable, architectonic, cleanly contrasting volumes and planes, and with images set on and within the page with great care. Among the major Cubist painters, his drawings are unique in that they are almost wholly autonomous. Their relationship to the paintings is rarely preparatory in any direct fashion, although some compositions take up the motif of previous paintings. This way of thinking about drawings connects Gris spiritually with the attitudes of the classic French masters of the later 18th century, who also saw drawing as something to be pursued in its own right, something for the production of finished works that could be looked at as independent works of art. In contrast to Picasso and Braque, the other major Cubist draftsmen, Gris’ drawings are less investigative of painting problems, but they nonetheless explore and refine an idea of form which appears directly transposed in his paintings at every epoch. It is this aspect of Gris’ art that is responsible for the feeling of unity, of wholeness, that even a small selection of his works in any medium gives. The Saidenberg show manages to be extremely rich then, despite the small size of a number of the many items.

Around 1910 Gris’ drawings show the mastery of a conventional technique (he had academic training in drawing) put to the requirements of compositional ideas contained within Cézanne’s still life paintings of bottles and plates. The vertical format and meager but compact subjects curiously adumbrate Morandi’s post-World War I paintings as well. Gris’ preferred media were pencil and charcoal, which he liked to use both broadly and with painstaking delicacy. All of these drawings show great refinement in the use of the stump as well, since the veils of tone which could be cast over parts of the form were an integral tool to Gris’ vision. The combination of authoritatively conceived form and the subdued richness of his tonal range allowed the artist to make the most forthright statements without having recourse to bombastic virtuosity. This is not to say that there is anything spectral or tentative in the effect of even the most silvery sheets; rather the total idea emerges with an exactitude and finesse that is the logical expression of a classical sensibility.

Gris’ closest identification with the orthodox Cubism of Picasso and Braque came about at the most favorable and critical time—1911–1912. It was then that the works of the other artists opened to Gris the possibility of transforming his hitherto volumetric approach to form into a monumental and decorative classicism which favored planar form. This discovery was important to Gris since it confirmed that his already mature conception of unequivocal formal purity could exist in a variety of manners: it capped and strengthened his conviction that true originality lay not in willful innovation, but in a respectful submission to the requirements of both the plastic form of an object and the material nature of the artistic medium and surface. By 1916 the artist was able to fuse his earlier full plasticity with the planar requirements of composing on a continuous regular surface. At the same time, form-studies which revert to the fully modeled form of before, such as the Tumbler, Knife, and Plate of Fruits of 1918 record a gain in abstract linear composition and a finer feeling for the paradox of outlines which both record a volume and define an area.

From 1919 to the end of his life, Gris worked at making a congenial variant of the rigorous interlocking angular planes of Synthetic Cubism. The softness of some of the latest of these compositions, particularly the gouaches, have led some to speak of a faiblesse in the period of the twenties. Kahnweiler is doubtless right when he sees these relaxed works as a probing back toward a visual form which preserved the stately architecture of the Cubist years and yet reduced deformations of apparent structure in Gris’ imagery. Gris did not live long enough to produce his late maturity, much less an Altestil, but we may be confident that his direction in the last tragic years pointed to a sober classicism of design which was to have nothing of the arbitrary about it.

Dennis Adrian