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George McNeil at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries

by Hearne Pardee

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George McNeil: "Herbatim", 1987, oil on canvas, 78x98 in.

George McNeil: "Dancer #23", 1971, oil on canvas, 60x56 in.

George McNeil: "Resolution", 1980, oil on canvas, 68x56 in.

George McNeil: "Now Street #1", 1990, oil on canvas, 64x70 in.

As a student at the New York Studio School, I sometimes sat in on an art history class taught by George McNeil, and I often left frustrated by assertions such as "Chardin hadn't discovered color." When I took his drawing class, however, I understood how McNeil's adherence to Hans Hofmann's teachings could be liberating. He stressed working from "tension points" in the set-up before us. Using them to suggest configurations in space, we compressed their volumes into abstract shapes of color, from which, if we were observant, a figure might emerge. McNeil worked along with us, and we occasionally glanced at his drawing, an alchemical soup of charcoal awash in liquid media. And indeed, at the end, a figure materialized; I remember one in particular, caught in action as though fleeing the scene. There was humor, perhaps something Irish Catholic, in this combination of hedonism and dogma, in a procedure that combined expressionist abandon with a scholastic hierarchy of symbolic structures. . Later, I visited McNeil's studio and saw the similar pile of everyday objects that served as his "model". There was something compelling in his transformation of the dross of everyday life into ecstatic imagery. At a time when painting in general, and constructing figures in particular, was suspect - de Kooning himself having turned increasingly from women to abstracted landscapes - McNeil devised a way to purify his figures by a passage through abstraction. Using his "tension points" to generate configurations of shapes, he leads us through the picture plane, into a realm of purely plastic invention.

Included in the survey of McNeil's work at Salander-O'Reilly were early abstract paintings and some of the heroic figures of the 1970s. Born of a rhythmic process, these often assumed the guise of dancers. Tokens of a process of transformation, they aim to escape convention, to court the grotesque, to pin down what de Kooning called a "slipping glimpse". McNeil's dancers and the questing figure of "Resolution" (1980) hark back to the founding impulse of abstract expressionism, to its search for the archetypal and mythic underpinnings of modern life.

A second room featured later figures from the 1980s, when McNeil achieved a virtuosic fluidity. McNeil finds symbolic potency in fluids - changeable, mutating. transformative; figures emerge in lush, liquid suspension, and they accumulate a welter of accessories related to the urban scene ("Herbatim", 1987). McNeil, who died in 1995, seemed exhilarated by pop vulgarity, and perhaps by the commercial success he enjoyed late in his life. "Now Street" (1990) adds graffiti and lettering to its collage-like mixture of vernacular imagery.

The figures in both phases of McNeil's art seem equally realized, fully embodied in painterly form. Both groups partake of their time and context. An innocent, celebratory impulse emerges in the later paintings - for all their Dionysian abandon, they have more in common with children's drawings than with de Kooning's more visceral women. The more austere early figures, on the other hand, distinguish themselves by a heroic dignity worthy of McNeil's isolated struggle to carry forward the legacy of modernism. In transforming the figure, McNeil elevates image-making, and the visual imagination, to a new level, and lends it a modernist pedigree.


Text copyright © 2005 Hearne Pardee




August 17, 2005