April 17, 2019

Between a shop soiled smoke ring and a rock-hard gray

On the street where I’ve lived for many years, my favorite moment is when plum blossoms first appear in the gray of midwinter. While plum blossoms vary in color — from white to deep pink — the ones that thread through San Francisco are a delicate pale mauve. Their presence, in a minor key, is a harbinger of spring best appreciated on overcast days in muted light against a background of gray.

I have an obsession with gray. It can be spelled either way; “e” is mysterious, whereas “a” is more open, expansive. In certain paintings gray is all the color needed. In others, gray allows the vibrancy of more saturated hues to sing.

The child watches. He watches everything: the sea, the beaches, the emptiness. His eyes are gray. Gray. Like the storm, the stone, the Northern sky, the sea, the immanent intelligence of matter, of life. Gray like thought. Like time. The past and present centuries blended together. Gray.

— Marguerite Duras, Yann Andréa Steiner

When I visit the Legion of Honor, before going downstairs to pay homage to the antiquities, I always seek out the same two paintings: The Foursome (La Partie Quarrée) by Watteau, ca. 1713, and The Annunciation by Francesco Pesellino, 1445. Invariably, I have these magnificent paintings to myself for as long as I like — no one seems to stop to look at them. The Annunciation, while small in its dimensions, holds a multitude of mysteries. An exquisitely nuanced range of grays dapples arched walls, an intriguing niche, the shadow of Mary’s bowed form as she receives the message from the archangel Michael. The space between the two figures is charged. In the center of a surprisingly vivid pink floor a little vase of lilies sits — the symbol of Mary’s spiritual purity.

I often gravitate to the painting in the hallway rather than the star of the show. In our apartment hallway, a small painting by Lynne Woods Turner is comprised of grays so diaphanous they turn silvery in low light. In reproduction the painting is barely visible — it must be seen in person.

The complexity, ambiguity, and elusiveness of gray has occupied me for countless hours in the studio — ecstatically, maddeningly. I make grays from pigment admixtures of various reds, yellows, blues to make black, tinted with a range of whites. Gray holds all the colors. Leaning by specific degrees towards warm or cool, darkness or light, gray shifts moment by moment as it’s mixed, applied to a surface, morphing from wet to dry, reflective to matte, and in its relationship to neighboring hues. Its chromatic mutability becomes especially acute viewed in changing light. Gray is time-sensitive.

Francesco Pesellino, The Annunciation, ca. 1445; tempera and gold leaf on panel. Legion of Honor, Gift of The de Young Museum Society.

Francesco Pesellino, The Annunciation, ca. 1445; tempera and gold leaf on panel. Legion of Honor, Gift of The de Young Museum Society.

(A disclaimer: In speaking of color in painting, the disparity between the real thing and its reproduction in print or online is problematic. In the image of The Annunciation, the various colors are far from true… especially the grays.)

Forlorn woman on a terrace, approx. 1800–1825, by a follower of Chokha (Indian). Ink, opaque watercolors, and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, 2010.474. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Forlorn woman on a terrace, approx. 1800–1825, by a follower of Chokha (Indian). Ink, opaque watercolors, and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, 2010.474. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean, 1866; oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest.

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean, 1866; oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest.

Léonie Guyer, Untitled, no. 80, 2014; oil and chalk gesso on wood panel.

Léonie Guyer, Untitled, no. 80, 2014; oil and chalk gesso on wood panel.

Drenched in British purples, I have offered up my tones: pigeon breast, hind belly, balky mule lung, monkey bottom pink, lapis lazuli and malachite, excited nymph thigh, panther pee-pee, high-smelling hen hair, hedgehog in aspic, barrel-maker’s brothel, revered rose, monkeybush, turkey-like white, sly violet, page’s slipper, immaculate nun spring, unspeakable red, Ensor azure, affected yellow, mummy skull, rock-hard gray, brunt celadon, shop soiled smoke ring.

— James Ensor, from James Ensor (ed. Anna Swinbourne, The Museum of Modern Art, 2009)

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