University of Rochester

EVENT: Library Exhibits Works of Abstractionist Herbert Gentry

December 11, 2007

Visitors can take an intimate look into the life of famed abstractionist Herbert Gentry at the University of Rochester this winter in an exhibition that features everything from his most expressive and dynamic pieces, Untitled, 1962, to the table crusted in thick layers of paint that he used as a palette.

The exhibit, Facing Other Ways, runs until March 1, 2008, in Rare Books and Special Collections on the second floor of Rush Rhees Library on the University's River Campus. The exhibit is free and open to the public, and also includes some works from Gentry's colleagues and admirers, including Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Beauford Delaney, and Sam Middleton. For more information on the library's hours and location, visit

Personal letters, photographs, papers, and more than two dozen of Gentry's colorful, figurative abstractions from the collection of Mary Rose Gentry, Herbert Gentry's wife, are on display. They tell the story of Gentry, who left America for Europe in the 1950s to find an artistic community that offered expressive freedoms and collaborative options for African Americans.

Despite his success in Europe, said Victoria Pass, a visual studies doctoral student who curated the exhibition, Gentry failed to earn critical acclaim in America. Pass said that illustrates the limits placed on African-American artists in art history scholarship.

"Gentry chose a life as an expatriate in Paris and Sweden among other places, and managed to gain recognition there, but never in his home country. His story reflects the particular challenges which faced African-American artists in the post-war period," Pass said.

Joan Saab, a University of Rochester art historian who regularly teaches a course on African-American visual culture, said historians are recognizing the importance of the work created by African-American artists who left the country so they could create freely, Saab said.

"He's a good example of someone who painted what he wanted to and not for the marketplace or the museums in the United States," Saab said. "Patrons had an expectation that African-American artists would paint African-American subject matter and he didn't do that."

At Gentry's, time buyers and museums were hungry for art illustrating what they saw as the African-American experience, such as depictions of musicians and urban streetscapes.

In Paris, Gentry was part of a vibrant expatriate community where he honed his craft, studying briefly under Cubist master George Braque. In the decades that followed, he worked all over Scandinavia and returned to the United States to teach at Montclair State College, Rutgers University, and Columbia University's Teachers College.

His work has been exhibited in more that 120 exhibitions and can be found in more than 40 museum collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Biblioteque Nationale de Paris, and the National Gallery of Oslo.

Gentry, who died in 2003, had dozens of influences including elements of Cubism and Tachism, which are evident in his work. The artist was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. and came of age during the Harlem Renaissance under the guidance of his mother, a Broadway dancer, in an apartment they shared in the famous neighborhood. After a stint in World War II, Gentry moved to Paris to continue the artistic life that was born from evening classes and eventually coursework at New York University before he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

All of the papers, letters and photographs in the University's exhibition were donated to the University by Mary Rose Gentry and are now part of the collection. Richard Peek, director of Rare Books and Special Collections at Rush Rhees Library, met Gentry in the 1990s. After Gentry's death, Peek approached Gentry's wife with the idea of acquiring some of the artist's papers and hosting an exhibit. After several discussions, Mary Rose Gentry agreed.

In addition to adding papers of a known artist to the University's collection, the arrangement also offered a unique opportunity for a University graduate student, Pass, to work with special collection materials and to curate a major exhibit, Peek said.