The jacket of Michael Murray’s biography of Jacques Barzun happily presents in color a Cleve Gray post-Cubist portrait from 1950. The contents of the sitter’s clipboard appear on another plane – inside the volume – pages 139 recto and 140 verso. Barzun’s offhand notes start with his low mood at that moment, mention his trusty “large green pen,” and record how literary reflection restores his spirits and then serves his criticism. (Having completed the monumental labor of Berlioz and the Romantic Century, JB may have been experiencing the letdown he elsewhere describes as common among authors following completion of a major work.) Barzun’s praise of Gray had inspired his mother-in-law, Isabel Shaw Lowell, to commission the portrait.
Mrs. Lowell then loaned the Barzun portrait to the Jacques Seligmann Galleries for Cleve Gray’s “Youth and Age” exhibition (30 October–18 November 1950). Barzun no doubt visited the New York gallery and appears again in the catalogue. His “Purpose in Paint” first describes contemporary painting’s divided camp:
“The confused subject of modernism in art might perhaps shed a little of its confusion if it were once agreed that the painters of our century fall naturally into two classes—those whose work plays in our culture the role of satirist, sapper, destroyer; and those whose work reasserts the right to build among the ruins. The terms of this distinction should of course be taken in the broadest sense, and with no moral or artistic superiority attached to either category. Both types of artists necessarily ‘construct’ their works, or they would not be deemed artists; both have produced and will produce masterpieces. But one group seems bent on deriding and liquidating the present; the other group, on the contrary, tries to make us see the strength and solidity of things.
“This difference is not to be found purely or even mainly in subject matter. It comes from temperament and conception and it is visible in the plastic forms. The ‘liquidation’ I speak of appears as a direct sense impression from the liquefaction of the line, the disarticulation of the planes, the sought-after disharmony of colors. These manifestations are in fact not limited to painting nor to the graphic arts; they belong to the Spirit of the Age—or rather to his darker half.”
Next Barzun places Gray:
“Now Cleve Gray unmistakably belongs to the constructors, which is to say that he belongs to the lineage of the Cubists. One may verify this from external sources, but this corroboration is needless. All one has to do to see the Cubist inspiration—modified by the passage of time and divers artists’ sensibility, yet lively after forty years—is to look at Cleve Gray’s canvases. Whatever his subject matter, his work proceeds from an analysis of the solids which compose the subject to a reconstruction that proves them solid indeed—real, working, not disintegrating.”
Barzun then praises particulars in the paintings exhibited:
“[O]ne can see not only that the parts hang together, but that they would preserve their relations even if moved. The canvas is not merely decorated with harmonious patches of color but brought to life. … The colors, too, that Cleve Gray uses are evidently chosen in the belief that the world is young, bright, immediately beautiful. The resulting work of art is beautiful also, and for different reasons, but it resembles the world in not requiring us to grant it a technical victory, ‘on points,’ like a cautious boxer; nor—to vary the image—does it win us by appealing to sentimental associations…. [H]ere we have the delicacy of strength rather than of fashionable sensibility.”
Decades later, as he approached age 90, Barzun still had the strength to praise delicacy. Raymond Han’s “Still Lifes” exhibition at the Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco (June 1997) included JB’s appreciation in the catalogue:
“The work of Raymond Han attracts by its delicacy. It enchants by its serenity. This quality resides in the twilight tones and the placid objects which, although natively disparate, develop a subtle kinship on being brought together. The variety that Mr. Han achieves by adopting this program shows that a painter’s imagination can manifest itself otherwise than by setting the environment on fire.
“But isn’t it the duty of the artist to ‘reflect his times,’ to ‘criticize society,’ at whatever cost to his feelings and those of his viewer? Well, to be calm and contemplative these days is criticism itself. Indeed, it has always been so. Still-life and genre painting, the scenes of Vermeer and Chardin, the flowers of Fantin-Latour and the apples of Cézanne make up a tradition that runs steadily through troubled times and dispute their primacy by showing the girl sewing, the student reading, while the flowers and fruit also ignore the daily news. The life of the still life is still Life.”
The painter’s style, selection of objects, and silence regarding theory win Barzun’s praise for the next three paragraphs as he challenges “accepted ideas” of the modern artist’s role. He then concludes:
“Only when a technique is extraordinary, not to be expected, may the critic draw attention to it at the expense of the whole. In the duly spacious and beautifully linear works of Raymond Han one might venture to remark on the magic by which his objects are at once transparent and solid. And one should add: This is the source of our conviction that his delicacy is strong and his serenity anchored deep.”