New York

Gray Foy, Untitled (Illuminated Exterior with Morphing Dancers), ca. 1946, graphite on paper, 13 1⁄4 × 10 1⁄2".

Gray Foy, Untitled (Illuminated Exterior with Morphing Dancers), ca. 1946, graphite on paper, 13 1⁄4 × 10 1⁄2".

Gray Foy

Gray Foy, Untitled (Illuminated Exterior with Morphing Dancers), ca. 1946, graphite on paper, 13 1⁄4 × 10 1⁄2".

Gray Foy (1922–2012) didn’t require the aid of a magnifying glass to produce his intricate drawings—exquisite, Surrealist-inflected pieces made between 1941 and 1975—but they were handily on offer during the artist’s first major survey at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art. In a charming throwback to old-fashioned modes of sustained attention, delectation, and connoisseurship, visitors were encouraged to pore over his scrupulously rendered botanical and biomorphic images, many on view for the first time in fifty years. Yet even as they seemed to dwell in some etiolated genteel past, these works raised concerns—about identity, ecology, and materiality—that felt unresolved and utterly contemporary.

Exempted from military service due to severe asthma, Foy worked as a shipping expediter at a defense plant in Burbank, California, during World War II, drawing in his spare time on procurement forms with standard No. 2 pencils. Wartime images of domestic interiors troubled by mutant apparitions suggest the intoxicating influences of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Pavel Tchelitchew, artists Foy encountered in View magazinea prominent vehicle for Surrealist, magic realist, and neo-Romantic art in the 1940s, and the unofficial organ of New York’s gay literary and artistic demimonde. In its autumn 1946 issue, View published a full-page illustration of Foy’s Untitled (Courtyard with Morphing Figures), 1945, a steaming gallimaufry of melting bodies, clashing perspectives, and crumbling architectural fragments.

In Untitled (Nudes Emerging from Botanical and Avian Forms), 1948, an acephalous male nude melts into a wall of teeming vegetation, licked on all sides by a Blakean conflagration of fronds and tendrils. Created one year after the artist’s move to New York, the image forecasts the eventual cannibalization of the human figure in Foy’s mature work by the alien morphologies of plants and fungi. Rendered with scientific precision, delicate tissues of lichens, mosses, and oyster mushrooms encrust a moldering tree trunk in Grape Hyacinths and Fungi, 1956. The fragility of the human body, still suggested in the trunk’s erect form, is superseded by ecological systems of growth and decay beyond human scales of space and time. Titled after organisms that feed on dead and decomposing matter, the nearly abstract Saprophytic Landscape, 1960, casts the membranous forms of fungi, algae, and other chthonic matter against a translucent ground prepared with washes of brown and gold watercolor.

Intimately scaled, meticulously naturalistic, even precious, Foy’s art ran against the dominant currents of postwar American art. Though critics of his day acknowledged the “fanatical intensity” of his works and their wealth of “infinitesimal details glossed over by the average vision,” Foy’s star, like those of many midcentury artists working in figurative modes, gradually faded. By the time he died, he was known less for his art than for the gay, glittering parties he gave at his home with his longtime companion, the taste-making Condé Nast editor Leo Lerman.

Encased in a vitrine, the four-foot scroll The Third Kingdom, 1961–62, resembles, at first glance, a panoramic view of craggy, mist-capped mountains. Foy painstakingly worked on this, his largest drawing, over the course of a year, its crystalline forms delineating a microscopic landscape of primordial life gestating from inert minerals. As curator Don Quaintance explains in the exhibition’s catalogue, the title refers to the taxonomical classification of Protista, proposed in the mid-nineteenth century for life-forms that fell outside the binary opposition of plant and animal. Is it too long a leap to imagine that Foy’s third kingdom might also be a queer space? To perform such a reading is tempting, but one doesn’t have to in order to see the allure of his seething biota. At once hyperreal and symbolist, aboveboard and underground, they feel of this moment, as well as of his own.