Close Looking in “Hyperreal: Gray Foy” at the Menil Drawing Institute, Houston

by Jacky Cortiaus August 28, 2023
Detailed drawing of a surreal landscape of bodies in space

Grey Foy, “Dimensions,” ca. 1945-1946, pencil on paper, 21 1/2 × 27 3/4 inches.

Looking closely is the essence of Hyperreal: Gray Foy at the Menil Drawing Institute, an exhibition featuring finely detailed drawings by the artist created from the 1940s to the 1970s. Foy’s drawings range from surreal stagings of humanoid creatures to botanical and geological subjects; they provide the perfect material for sustained looking, and the museum offers magnifying glasses to encourage a closer view of the magnificent details of these fantastical pieces. Viewers step away with a more meaningful and lasting experience if they spend several minutes, or even longer, with one of Foy’s drawings.

The works are arranged in a sequence to highlight Foy’s transition from the hallucinatory staged drawings of humanoid figures in the earlier years of his career to the botanical landscapes and still lifes depicting nature and other objects. This exhibition also includes examples of some of Foy’s commercial work, on view for the first time, such as several illustrated book covers. 

detail of a drawing of two people dancing and morphine into foliage

Gray Foy, “Untitled [Illuminated Exterior with Morphing Dancers],” ca. 1946, graphite on paper, 13 1/4 × 10 1/2 inches.

Born in Dallas, Texas in 1922, Gray Foy grew up in Los Angeles and worked at a military aircraft plant during World War II. He began drawing in the evenings after work, often taking months to complete a single piece. His early work was influenced by surrealism, but he soon developed what he called “hyper-realism”; put another way, his work is so carefully detailed it transcends reality to become supernatural. Foy met his lifelong partner Leo Lerman in 1948, and they both worked in the creative circles of New York. Gray Foy passed away in 2012 at the age of 90, and recently, a number of his works were given to the Menil Collection through two separate gifts, making the museum the foremost repository of his work.

Installation view of framed drawings on a dark wall

“Hyperreal: Gray Foy,” installation view at the Menil Drawing Institute. Photo: Paul Hester

The earlier years of Foy’s work are often comprised of pieces depicting humanlike forms staged in perspective-distorting scenes within a surreal, dreamlike world. In Untitled [Illuminated Exterior with Morphing Dancers], two figures embrace each other and dance in the center of the drawing. They’re surrounded by energetic figures and objects, but they appear to almost morph into one, due to the closeness of their bodies in a moment of deep affection. In the lower left corner of the piece, a giant pair of feet distorts perspective to appear as if the viewer is gazing up at a tall figure. Overhead, a string of lights illuminates this exterior dance scene; however, only a few of the bulbs hanging over the dancers are lit, as if the dancers’ love caused the lights to turn on.

To the right of the dancers, a distorted structure with unusual details, such as a couple of trees growing out of human forms, becomes the scene’s backdrop. Foy often worked by beginning with a single point, allowing the drawing to develop from that point. Although a surreal scene of seemingly unrelated motifs, Foy’s meticulous detail makes these magical images feel real. He offers viewers a clear, unobstructed view of his dreamlike worlds, which elevate his signature, hyperreal style. As a young artist witnessing the end of the Second World War, Foy’s surreal images escape reality, but are also certainly influenced by a world dealing with the fallout of large-scale destruction. The dancers in Untitled [Illuminated Exterior with Morphing Dancers] ignore the chaos surrounding them, and this gentle moment is accentuated by the swirling, hallucinatory scenes on their peripheries.

Installation view of fragments of architectural pieces overgrown by brush

Gray Foy, “Untitled [Architectural Fragment Overgrown with Plants],” ca. 1969, graphite on paper, 12 3/4 × 16 3/4 inches.

One of the remarkable aspects of this exhibition is seeing Foy’s work evolve from surreal drawings to earthy drawings of landscapes and still lives. However, his trademark intricate detail still animates these later works. While many of the drawings depict plants, mushrooms, or rocks, Untitled [Architectural Fragment Overgrown with Plants] is a combination of manmade material and nature. In this drawing, whether real or imagined, Foy depicts fragments of a structure, giving no context to decipher its prior life, but rather only revealing broken pieces of something that was once upright and strong. A variety of plants have grown out of and around the fragments. On the right side, a tree trunk and branch protrude from a stone block. Tall grass and leafy foliage have taken over whatever this structure once was. Like a memento mori that reminds one of death, these fragments and plants offer a message of change and time. It may take a while, but nature will grow back. Even in a fragment of a landscape, Foy builds a world that makes one feel like an explorer on a journey to capture every tiny detail.

Detailed drawing of a cluster of leaves

Gray Foy, “Untitled [Cluster of Leaves],” ca. 1957, graphite, watercolor, and opaque watercolor on paper, 7 1/4 x 107/8 inches.

While many motifs and themes run through this exhibition of Foy’s work, the common threads are close looking and hyperrealism. Foy’s drawings both capture reality and escape from it, contradictory feelings that are achieved through his detail and associative motifs that explore themes of love, humanism, nature, and time. In the end, his work is unified by creating images for examination and exploration. Hyperreal: Gray Foy encourages viewers to slow down, take some time, and look at art.


Hyperreal: Gray Foy is curated by Kirsten Marples, Curatorial Associate, Menil Drawing Institute. It is on view at the Menil Drawing Institute through September 3, 2023.

Correction August 29, 2023: This article has been updated to accurately reflect how the Menil Collection acquired Foy’s work. The museum acquired his work through two separate recent gifts, not exclusively from his estate.

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