Pierre Roy, METRIC SYSTEM, 1933, oil on canvas, 57 5/8 x 39 inches

In the seventies while living in Philadelphia I spent a lot of time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where I first saw Pierre Roy’s Metric System. Roy is a painter whose work came to the PMA as part of the Louise and Walter C. Arensberg gift to the Museum in 1950. Metric System was acquired from the artist on the recommendation of Marcel Duchamp in 1933, the year it was painted, and had been hung at the PMA in a hallway adjacent to the Duchamp collection and the Brancusi gallery.

I had never heard of Pierre Roy and had never seen any work of his. When I first saw this painting, I thought it was enigmatic and magical, despite its realism, and it resonated in a way that I have continued to think about. While I have not seen it in a number of years (the reason below), it has never left my mind.

The painting is structured with a rigorous perspective scheme that foregrounds a brightly lit, oddly colored interior space framing a portal with an imaginary night landscape. The interior is full of measuring devices; a surveyors transit*, yardsticks, plumb bobs, scales, weights, all clearly eyeballed from direct observation in the studio, juxtaposed with a dark landscape, a distant vision clearly heralding from another time. The depiction of objects in the interior is without visible brushwork and with careful attention to the surface characteristics of brass, glass, wood, paper, etc. The illusionism, it seems to me, is seductive and masterful and was intended to be the link that made both the present and the past equally believable. 

Through Metric System, and its placement at the Philadelphia Museum, I learned to see the significance of the tradition of flawless craft in Brancusi more clearly. It also gave me more insight into Duchamp’s enigmatic Etant Donnes and his great formal “European” sensibility.  Both artists were in adjacent dedicated galleries. Roy’s masterful craftsmanship also connects with trompe l’oeil painters like Peto and Harnett, and their depiction of the actual, and with diChirico and Joseph Cornell and the actuality of memory and imagination. Roy’s pictorial ideas involving the compression of the present and the past continue to be evident in the work of contemporary artists like the Leipzig painters.

There were twelve exhibitions of Roy’s work in his lifetime, three in New York (1930, 1933, and 1949). I had the good fortune to see the only exhibition of his work since 1949 at the Feigen Gallery in New York in 1992. Among the paintings in that show were two dark, meticulously painted apartment interiors painted in 1936. Through doorways, a distant room was depicted in which one could see the surveyors transit painted in Metric System “posed” on a stool in front of a large piece of blue paper with a sliver of a blank canvas on an easel partly seen through the doorway. Since the transit is the dominant object in Landscape, also painted in 1936, which is in the Indiana University Art Museum, the blank canvas is presumably ready to receive it.

While objects like the transit in Roy’s work were undoubtedly found in his studio, the context, like the room in Metric System, was likely invented and existed only in his paintings.  He apparently began by first arranging objects in a box, not unlike Joseph Cornell. Using direct observation, but adjusting and altering scale and relationships, he worked “… without the least previous idea or intended meaning”. When asked asked why he did not just photograph his assemblages, or show them as they were made, he replied “Because photography does give real likeness…. and time would change in different degrees the different materials and soon the whole would become unrecognizable while, on my canvas, all will evolve together and the harmony that I like will be preserved.” ** Is there any better definition of the point of painting?

At this time Pierre Roy is all but unknown to the general art world. I had not seen Metric System during the decade I lived in Boston but when I returned to Philadelphia it was no longer hanging in the gallery. Michael Taylor, who was the Curator of Contemporary Art, told me that Metric System had been defaced with a ballpoint pen, and was in the conservation department. It had not been rehung in the ten years I was in Philadelphia.


John Moore, TURNSTILE, 2012, Oil on canvas, 70 x 68 inches

* A transit is a measuring device used to measure horizontal or vertical angles, or lot sizes. It is the large brass object on the right side in Roy’s painting.
** Simone Collinet, La Tendance Populaire Surréaliste, [Mirabelle Dors, Maurice Rapin] Paris 1966.  Reprinted in PIERRE ROY 1880-1950 Exhibition Catalog Richard L. Feigen & Co., 1992.>/span>

John Moore is a painter living in Belfast Maine. He shows with Hirschl & Adler in New York and Locks in Philadelphia. His work is in many public collections and he has had 45 solo exhibitions since 1970.