An American artist in Paris

by Amy Kingsley

Mary Ann Rose paces the Diggs Gallery at midday looking at her late husband’s work. She breezes by the big colorful canvases from the last part of his career and stops at “Dance Turquoise” (1978) – a depiction of two ghostly figures against a backdrop of blue.

“This would have been one of the last pieces he did before we met,” she says. “All of the rest of the paintings are really personal to me.”

Rose was only 27 when she met Herbert Gentry, an abstract painter 30 years her senior. She’d been in Paris all of a week and was living in artists’ quarters overlooking the Seine when, frustrated by her own awful French, she decided she needed an interpreter. Gentry, an African-American who’d been 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.

The next night, they ate Chinese at one of Richard Wright’s favorite restaurants. A week later, Gentry moved to Copenhagen and invited Rose for a visit.

“I admired him immediately and we clicked immediately,” she says. “We started traveling in Europe. It took him weeks of us traveling together for him to tell me his life story.”

Which goes a little something like this: Gentry was born in Pittsburgh and moved to New York City when he was five years old. His family landed in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance. Mom danced alongside Josephine Baker, performed with the Ziegfeld Follies and introduced her son to the likes of Paul Robeson and Count Basie.

Gentry enlisted in the army during World War II and left for Europe, where he sustained a shrapnel wound and was separated from his company. He fell in with a group of American GIs stationed an hour outside of Paris.

The City of Lights seduced him, and after his discharge from the army, he returned to make it his home. Gentry studied painting at L’Academie de la Grande Chaumiére, opened a jazz club, wrote a nightlife column for the International Herald Tribune and picked up contract work organizing variety shows for the US Army.

The thriving expatriate community in Paris absorbed him into its ranks, and he enjoyed an aimless Bohemian existence for several years. Then, in 1959, he decided to devote himself to painting. A year later, his professional painting career blossomed with a solo show in Copenhagen.

“People had a great time in Paris,” Rose says, “but they didn’t buy art there.”

So Gentry altered his scale to suit the Scandinavian market, putting his work on smaller canvases more appropriate for smaller homes. The artist bounced around Europe for the next decade but always returned to Paris – until Algerian independence and student riots forced him and his family to northern Europe.

His art during the 1960s reflects both the peripatetic nature of his existence and the heavy influence of jazz. Liquid figures congregate. Staccato lines break planes of bold color.

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.

Next to it is the painting that will grace the cover of the first book dedicated to Gentry’s work. It’s expected to arrive at the gallery within the next week. The painting is mostly red and orange with slashes of yellow. It’s one of several paintings along a wall that share the same warm color family.

There’s only one other painting that’s all yellow – “The Couple” (1983) was Gentry’s gift to his new wife. There are two sunny figures side-by-side, Gentry, his eyes 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.”

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