Arts / Galleries

Don’t Sleep On Dick Wray — This Explosive Unpredictable Artist Is a Houston Treasure Who’s Having a Moment

See His Powerful Artwork at the Deborah Colton Gallery

BY // 07.20.23

Houston’s abstract art landmarks include French artist Jean Dubuffet’s Monument au Fantôme and Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk. The Philip Johnson and Gene Aubry-designed Rothko Chapel, a tribute to Mark Rothko’s work, is another obvious example. Equally important but perhaps lesser known, however, is the work of the late Abstract Expressionist painter Dick Wray. Currently exhibited at Deborah Colton Gallery through Saturday August 5, “Dick Wray: Paintings” captures Wray’s explosive, unpredictable painterly style.

Radios transmitted mellifluous sounds of Ethel Waters’ “Stormy Weather” in 1933, the year Wray was born in Houston. Later that same year, a few years into the Great Depression, Duke Ellington’s sublime instrumental jazz version also captivated listeners. Moviegoers enjoyed Pre-Code Hollywood classics like King Kong, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, The Invisible Man and Baby Face.

But in many respects, the year 1933 served as a major turning point year, both stateside and abroad. First, the swearing in of President Franklin D. Roosevelt transpired earlier in the year. Later, Prohibition ended when the U.S. Constitution’s 21st Amendment was ratified on December 5, the day of Wray’s birth.

And on the global stage, both Japan and Germany expressed intentions of leaving the League of Nations. This set the stage for disastrous consequences including Hitler’s consolidation of power and years later the Second Sino-Japanese War. Eventually, the world learned of unthinkable atrocities committed during and before World War II: the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust.

Dick Wray's <em>Untitled</em>, 2004, at Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston
Dick Wray’s Untitled, 2004, at Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston

To say a young Dick Wray lived during a dangerous explosive time is certainly not hyperbole. But expressing painterly philosophies perhaps doubled as escape from the noise and turmoil of a downward spiraling world. And somehow, he created his own unique style of abstraction by investigating various movements, including Abstract Expressionism.

Referred to alternately as The New York School, Abstract Expressionism represents a dichotomy between Action Painting and Color Field Painting. As Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko boldly questioned the boxes their works were placed in. They understood the rubric and labels attached to their work as artists never really quite captured their philosophies. Reinhardt especially was very clever, but once wrongly stated: “Some day every artist has to choose between Malevich and Duchamp.”

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Clearly, Dick Wray never made the choice. Like Pollock, nicknamed Jack the Dripper, Wray chose instead to travel his own artistic path.

And rejecting art movement rules and stylistic parameters also became reality for other artists working outside New York City.

Dick Wray's <em>Untitled #1927</em>, 1993, at Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston
Dick Wray’s Untitled #1927, 1993, at Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston

The postwar CoBrA collective, an irreverent nonconformist group established in Europe in 1948, courageously created art on their own terms. Undoubtedly eschewing convention, their free spirited, utopian version of Abstract Expressionism favored brighter palettes, free thought and serendipitous discovery. They clearly embraced primitivism while other abstract artists forgot about it. In short, they also colored outside the lines.

Created by Belgian poet Christian Dotremont, the CoBrA acronym stood for Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam — art centers beyond Paris.

Clearly, the CoBrA artists inspired Wray. In particular, artists including Asger Jorn, Corneille and Pierre Alechinsky created works sometimes faintly echoed in Wray’s oil paintings. But walking through the Deborah Colton Gallery and viewing Wray’s paintings, you also learn how unique his vision was. He embraced nonconformity and the lonesome quest.

He was also a rule breaker, not a follower. Like Le Corbusier, he figured out how to create a bridge between architecture and art. Wray studied architecture at the University of Houston and finished his studies at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in Germany in 1958.

Upon returning to the United States in 1959, Wray got to work, making oil and watercolor paintings, drawings and lithographs. In addition to honing painting skills, Wray, like Ed Ruscha, participated in the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. Significantly, Wray’s work appeared in the “Tamarind Homage to Lithography” (1969) exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Other featured artists included Ruscha, Josef Albers, Philip Guston, David Hockney, Matsumi Kanemitsu and Louise Nevelson. That alone makes Wray an art superhero. Indeed, James Harithas and curator Paul Schimmel created the “Dick Wray” (1975) exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Dick Wray's <em>Untitled #1486</em>, 2004, at Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston
Dick Wray’s Untitled #1486, 2004, at Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston

Although focused solely on oil paintings, the Deborah Colton Gallery exhibit reveals what made Wray’s work special. In 2011, when he passed away here in Houston, his son Robert Wray mentioned his father’s interest in technology. Accordingly, the elder Wray incorporated tech into two of his paintings, particularly Untitled #1486 (2004) and Untitled (2003). He also used color boldly and unapologetically. Warm colors often contrasted with blue, green or black in his work.

What distinguishes Wray’s art from Abstract Expressionists who came before is the presence of layering, texture and odd forms.

Certainly, Wray found inspiration in the CoBrA group and Jean Dubuffet, but also made his own important contribution. Fittingly, Harithas once described Wray’s work as “radical and adventurous and powerful — a very Texas approach to Abstract Expressionism.”

The “Dick Wray: Paintings” exhibit is on view at Deborah Colton Gallery, 2445 North Boulevard, through Saturday, August 5. Learn more here.

All images are courtesy the artist’s estate and Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston.  

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