I get out the car and take a moment to look at the terraces of the historic Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. If this building could talk, I’m sure the stories would keep people interested for years. Before I could get through the door a gray-haired hotel manager approached me and asked, where was I going with the photography equipment.
He stated that this place is legendary and it cost to take pictures here. I gave the gentleman my name and explained to him why I was there. After an awkward moment of silence with a questioning look on his face, he walked away.
The elevator slowly came down. When the doors opened, it was clear it would take several trips to bring up all the equipment. My assistant filled the elevator with what he could and then took the elevator up. As I proceeded to walk up the stairs the manager called out to me and said, You can’t leave this equipment unattended. I replied, are you going anywhere? I walked up the stairway. He shouted, Sir, sir!
When I got up to Mr. Gentry’s floor, the elevator had not arrived there yet. I looked down the hallway and my eyes met a smiling Herbert Gentry standing in the doorway. He walked toward me and said, “My studio is downstairs.” The elevator bell rang as Mr. Gentry and I walked down the staircase. I shouted to my assistant, Come down two floors.
We entered a room that was about 12 x 14 feet, which reflected the absence of a fresh coat of paint for many years. The layers of years of dust on the windows, slightly defused the rooms lighting. There were paintings on the walls, floor, behind chairs and just about everywhere.
It’s an interesting perspective when you see an artist’s work in the workspace where it was created. The sense of fluidity in Mr. Gentry’s work encompasses the stillness in the studio. At times, the colors and images of the people appeared to be almost moving on the canvas.
His subject matter is inherently social, and mostly people. He was deeply influenced by jazz, which emerges as a powerful presence in the rhythms of his paintings. His figures are outlined by color breathing and gregarious; often an inherent sweetness emerges with the childlike openness. He laughed as he listened to me describe his work.
I sat and listen to him tell me about his life. He said, “I was born in Pittsburgh, PA and raised in Harlem during its heyday, the highly creative period before World War II. I served as a member of the Armed Forces during that time. My commitment to art became more defined when I returned to Paris in 1946 to study painting. One thing I learned was to be me, create from my own experiences. I am a Black man in America.
I could spend the rest of my life on that subject.” He smiled and continued, “What I experienced growing up, life in Europe, my family, my lady, it all reveals who I am and what I want to express with my brush.”
Mr. Gentry excused himself. I walked around the room and allowed his words to guide me through the images he had set in my mind. His life, art, and love all in one. His paintings are included in numerous museum collections from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts and also in collections in Finland, Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, and many other countries. As I stand here surrounded by what made all his adventures possible, I am inspired.