African masks inspired the paintings of Herbert Gentry

Herbert Gentry was an African-American expatriate painter who helped bring Abstract-Expressionism to Europe in the 1950s when he abandoned New York for Paris to escape discrimination in his native country.

He is the subject of The Magic Within, an enchanting retrospective of about 40 paintings, drawings and prints inspired by African masks at the James E. Lewis Museum of Morgan State University.


Gentry died in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2003, a few months after a major exhibition of his works appeared at the Parish Gallery in Washington. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1919, but grew up in New York City, where his family moved shortly before he entered grade school.

In the New York of the 1920s, Gentry came of age amid the cultural and literary flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance, America's first important black arts movement. Working alongside his mother, he was, for a time, a child actor in some of the era's many theatrical productions featuring black performers.


Gentry's widow, the artist Mary Anne Rose, has written that his childhood recollections "recount a series of charmed episodes, like the hours spent backstage among showgirls and dancers at Broadway theaters, his mother the 'captain,' and Josephine Baker the 'end girl' in Florenz Ziegfeld extravaganzas."

Gentry served in the military during World War II and afterward studied art in Paris, where he also opened a nightclub that introduced European audiences to modern jazz. He returned to the states briefly in the early 1950s, but a few years later he settled in Paris again, where he became an impresario of musical and theatrical entertainment for the U.S. armed forces stationed there.

In 1959, after his first one-man exhibition at a gallery in Copenhagen, Denmark, Gentry committed himself to painting full time and began to explore the motifs based on faces and masks that would occupy him for the remainder of his life.

"Gentry's allusions to faces and masks reflect an essentially human and social art, constructed from the poetry of daily activities and the dynamism of human relations," Rose writes of her husband's signature style. "Although the work can be linked to the autobiographical, it stretches to embrace life itself, to be true to humanity, to acknowledge the shared component of being human."

The Morgan show includes a fine selection of Gentry's large oil paintings from the 1960s and '70s that explore the mask motif, as well as more recent paintings and drawings from the 1980s and '90s, when the artist's previously somber color palette of dark greens and blues lightened considerably with the addition of yellows, oranges and pinks.

The change is evident in Gentry's 1998 painting Befriended, a delightful acrylic-on-canvas concoction of pale pinks, reds and pastel green that combines the charm of a Matisse lithograph with the flowing calligraphy of a Brice Marden abstraction.

"The Magic Within" runs through March 25 at the James E. Lewis Museum in the Murphy Fine Arts Center on the campus of Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. Call 443-885-3030.