An American artist in Paris

by Amy Kingsley

Mary Ann Rose pacesthe Diggs Gallery at midday looking at her late husband’s work. Shebreezes by the big colorful canvases from the last part of his careerand stops at “Dance Turquoise” (1978) – a depiction of two ghostlyfigures against a backdrop of blue. “This would have been one ofthe last pieces he did before we met,” she says. “All of the rest ofthe paintings are really personal to me.” Rose was only 27 whenshe met Herbert Gentry, an abstract painter 30 years her senior. She’dbeen in Paris all of a week and was living in artists’ quartersoverlooking the Seine when, frustrated by her own awful French, shedecided she needed an interpreter. Gentry, an African-American who’dbeen living in Europe since the 1940s, offered to help. Then he asked her out to dinner at nearby a soul food restaurant. “You had to order the cornbread in advance,” she says. Thenext night, they ate Chinese at one of Richard Wright’s favoriterestaurants. A week later, Gentry moved to Copenhagen and invited Rosefor a visit. “I admired him immediately and we clickedimmediately,” she says. “We started traveling in Europe. It took himweeks of us traveling together for him to tell me his life story.” Whichgoes a little something like this: Gentry was born in Pittsburgh andmoved to New York City when he was five years old. His family landed inthe thick of the Harlem Renaissance. Mom danced alongside JosephineBaker, performed with the Ziegfeld Follies and introduced her son tothe likes of Paul Robeson and Count Basie. Gentry enlisted inthe army during World War II and left for Europe, where he sustained ashrapnel wound and was separated from his company. He fell in with agroup of American GIs stationed an hour outside of Paris. TheCity of Lights seduced him, and after his discharge from the army, hereturned to make it his home. Gentry studied painting at L’Academie dela Grande Chaumiére, opened a jazz club, wrote a nightlife column forthe International Herald Tribune and picked up contract work organizingvariety shows for the US Army. The thriving expatriate communityin Paris absorbed him into its ranks, and he enjoyed an aimlessBohemian existence for several years. Then, in 1959, he decided todevote himself to painting. A year later, his professional paintingcareer blossomed with a solo show in Copenhagen. “People had a great time in Paris,” Rose says, “but they didn’t buy art there.” SoGentry altered his scale to suit the Scandinavian market, putting hiswork on smaller canvases more appropriate for smaller homes. The artistbounced around Europe for the next decade but always returned to Paris- until Algerian independence and student riots forced him and hisfamily to northern Europe. His art during the 1960s reflectsboth the peripatetic nature of his existence and the heavy influence ofjazz. Liquid figures congregate. Staccato lines break planes of boldcolor. Gentry and Rose married in 1973 and eventually moved to the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. His canvases got bigger. “I told him “In America we do big paintings,'” Rose says. “None of these sissy, hang-on-your-bedroom-wall paintings.” She points to “Parts” (1992). It’s a large canvas covered in paint the color of mustard. “Instead of sinking in, the lines jump out at you,” she says. Nextto it is the painting that will grace the cover of the first bookdedicated to Gentry’s work. It’s expected to arrive at the gallerywithin the next week. The painting is mostly red and orange withslashes of yellow. It’s one of several paintings along a wall thatshare the same warm color family. There’s only one otherpainting that’s all yellow – “The Couple” (1983) was Gentry’s gift tohis new wife. There are two sunny figures side-by-side, Gentry, hiseyes sliding over toward his wife, and Rose with a head full of curls. “That one’s mine,” she says. “And it’s really special to me.”