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Life as Art: Paintings by Gregory Gillespie and Frances Cohen Gillespie

December 6, 2003 - March 28, 2004

 

An exhibition of works by American artists Gregory Gillespie (1936­2000) and Frances Cohen Gillespie (1939­1998) will be on view at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum from December 6, 2003 through March 28, 2004. Life as Art: Paintings by Gregory Gillespie and Frances Cohen Gillespie will present an intimate retrospective of 25 paintings spanning the careers of both artists. The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue constitute one of the first major projects organized by the Harvard University Art Museums' recently established department of American art. The project will explore the ways in which the two painters worked in distinct styles while influencing each other through a common interest in realism and in early Italian and Flemish painting.

Life as Art will include eight self-portraits and still lifes by Frances Cohen Gillespie. Among them is an unusual self-portrait entitled The Touch, which she worked on between 1965 and 1989, and which began as part of a double portrait of herself with Gregory. Gregory Gillespie's work will be represented by paintings ranging through the whole of his distinguished career, from Roman Landscape, 1963, to works made in the weeks before his death in April 2000. (right: Gregory Gillespie (1936­2000), Self Portrait in Studio, 1976-77, oil and magna on wood, 63 x 48 inches, Private Collection)

"The Gillespies' obsessive and even hermetic realism seems worlds away from our conventional categories for progressive mid-twentieth-century American painting," said Marjorie B. Cohn, acting director of the Harvard University Art Museums. "Yet the ethos of the Gillespies allies them most closely with the earlier artists that seem their opposite, the abstract expressionists. Surely Gregory and Frances Cohen Gillespie and their paintings deserve a broader public and greater understanding. We are very pleased to offer insight into these artists for the benefit of students and scholars to come."

Gregory and Frances Cohen Gillespie met at art school in New York. They were married in 1959 and divorced in 1983. As students and later, during their years in Italy (1962­70), they took as their model the passion and commitment of Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists while pursuing a style inspired by the Flemish and Italian masters of the Renaissance. Gregory learned from Frances to see each painting as a new and challenging invention, while Frances was influenced by Gregory's meticulous approach and inventive use of materials. Both artists devoted themselves to the intensity and truth of realist painting. Gregory worked creatively in a highly detailed, illusionist style and became widely admired for his self-portraits, which serve as a personal and psychological record of his life. Frances painted slowly, producing only a small oeuvre. Her most remarkable works are the series of powerful floral paintings she made in the 1980s, which document the artist's self-evaluation through her subjects.

Frances's interest in floral still lifes captures her methodical approach to her work, which allowed her to discover her own nervousness, flaws, and beauty through each plant she observed. One of her earliest floral compositions, Penny's Kimono, 1977, has been lent by the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, while two of her acknowledged masterpieces of the 1980s, Lydia's Vase and Purple Gloxinias, come from the collections of the New York Stock Exchange and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, respectively.

One of Gregory's large-scale wall pieces, Studio: Still Life, 1978, will be included in the exhibition, as will his much-admired Still Life with Eggplants, 1983 (private collection). The exhibition will feature nine self-portraits that record Gregory's changing appearance, vulnerability, and psychological transformation over more than 30 years. Among these works are Self-Portrait in Black Shirt, 1968­69 (collection of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Blum), which depicts a young, angry artist in a confrontational stance, and his final self-rendering, the tiny Self-Portrait Seated, 2000 (collection of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Garden), painted shortly before his tragic death.

"We are showing the work of Frances and Gregory Gillespie together not simply because of the years they shared, but because the works of each shed light on the other," said Theodore Stebbins. "Together and individually, the Gillespies had great influence on American painters. Their work demonstrates that realism can be a highly individual and expressive style, and that it was a viable alternative for adventurous and deeply committed artists in the late 20th century."

Life as Art underscores the Art Museums' dedication to collecting, studying, and presenting American art. In just one year since the formation of the Department of American Art, the Museums have demonstrated this commitment through the exhibition Harvard Collects American Art, currently on view at the Fogg Art Museum through February 22, 2004. Harvard Collects American Art is drawn primarily from the Fogg's permanent collection, and features key events in the Fogg's history of collecting American art. Among the highlights are works from the exceptional collection bequeathed by Grenville L. Winthrop, Class of 1886, who in 1943 left Harvard more than 3,700 works of American, Asian, and European art. The exhibition coincides with work on the first volume of a three-volume scholarly catalogue of Harvard's American art collection, including paintings, watercolors, pastels, and stained glass, to be published in 2006.

In conjunction with the exhibition Life as Art, a fully illustrated catalogue-the first publication of the Fogg Art Museum's new department of American art-has been produced. The publication includes essays by the Stebbinses on the lives and work of the Gillespies, and an essay by Fred Licht, curator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, on the dark side of Gregory Gillespie's work. The catalogue draws on Gregory's unpublished journals, which were made available by the Gregory Gillespie Trust, and an extensive series of letters from Frances to her friend the novelist Zane Kotker, who shared them with the authors.

In November 2002, the Harvard University Art Museums established the department of American art at the Fogg Art Museum and appointed Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., as its first curator of American art. The exhibition is organized by Stebbins, along with his wife, Susan Ricci Stebbins, an independent scholar; both shared personal and professional relationships with the Gillespies.

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