Juan Gris, Glass and Checkerboard – 2017.122.1
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Relatively little is known about this cubist masterpiece, with a modest size that belies its power and complexity. Juan Gris probably painted it in early 1917, given its close relationship to works by the artist that are securely dated. It was acquired in New York City in the 1950s by the collector and real estate developer Ian Woodner—the same person whose name graces the magnificent collection of more than 150 drawings that have resided at the National Gallery since shortly after his death in 1990 thanks to the exceptional generosity of his two daughters, Dian and Andrea. This spirit of philanthropy continues with Glass and Checkerboard, a painting that Dian Woodner lived with for many years and has recently donated to the nation.
Along with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Léger, Gris was one of the quartet of cubist pioneers that the brilliant German dealer and critic Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler agreed to represent in his gallery. Like Picasso, Gris was a Spaniard who moved to Paris to make his career at the center of the art world. Unlike Picasso, he was quiet and studious—not the passionate, mercurial inventor in many media but the patient researcher and craftsman in collage and paint.
What we see here, as in most cubist paintings, are hints of representation caught in a seismic movement of shifting planes and jostling, interlocking shapes. At lower right, two of Gris’s favorite motifs, a glass and a checkerboard, can be made out. There is the suggestion of a tabletop, some strong shadows, and a wine bottle floating at upper left. It might be more appropriate to call the whole thing a fugue in colors and shapes rather than a still life. Compared to Fantômas (1915), a slightly earlier painting by Gris in the collection, Glass and Checkerboard is both more restrained and more abstract. In Fantômas, viewers once again find a checkered pattern and a glass, but many other things as well, such as a pipe, fruit, a newspaper, and the cheap detective novel of the title, all defined by fragments of line and bursts of color.
With Glass and Checkerboard, Gris entered a more sober, almost classical phase, in which compositional interest trumped individual incident. In another two years, recognizable objects (including harlequins, books, and guitars) would flood back into Gris’s work, heralding a final, neoclassical phase before the artist’s death at age forty. Seen in retrospect, the abstract canvases of 1917, including Glass and Checkerboard, represent a daring, satisfying peak in a career that ended too soon.