GEORGE McNEIL: OIL PAINTINGS FROM THE 1950s AND 1960s

Picture 09417 October – 15 November 2008

An exhibition of rare and important oil paintings by George McNeil will open at ACME Fine Art’s 38 Newbury Street galleries on Friday 17 October 2008. The exhibition will be comprised of a group of 19 works from the estate of the artist that date from between 1951 and 1969. This was a period that encompassed the artist’s full-blown action paintings as well as the powerful transitional works that demonstrate McNeil’s growing interest in abstract figuration. The exhibition will be on view through the 15th of November. Exhibition catalogues are available through the gallery.

George McNeil was a true pioneer of American modern art. Today he is recognized as one of the few true first-generation Abstract Expressionist painters. It should also be noted, however, that McNeil’s legacy in modern art began long before his participation in the advent of the New York School. Among his other early noteworthy accomplishments McNeil was one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists group in 1936, and in 1939, McNeil was one of only five non-objective artists whose work was selected for the New York World’s Fair exhibition.

McNeil got his start as an artist as early as 1922 when while still a teenager- he attended art classes at the Brooklyn Museum. Thanks to seminal exhibitions that he viewed at the Brooklyn Museum of their Société Anonyme collection and others at the Metropolitan Museum during the 1920s, McNeil became an ardent admirer of the work of Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and Picabia. Between 1927 and 1932 McNeil’s studies at the Art Students League introduced him to Vaclav Vytlacil, Jan Matulka, and most importantly, Hans Hofmann. McNeil became closely associated with Hofmann during this period. In 1936 and 1937 McNeil acted as Hofmann’s class monitor, official assistant, and unofficial interpreter of Hofmann’s theories. (An often-repeated story about McNeil’s role as interpreter is that when Lee Krasner was asked what she thought of Hofmann’s theories, she responded that she could not say, because all she really understood was McNeil’s version.) The collegial atmosphere of the Hofmann School helped sponsor his lifelong friendships with artists such Giorgio Cavallon, Mercedes Matter, John Opper, William Freed, Lillian Orlowsky, and Rae Eames. Similarly, McNeil’s participation in the Federal Arts Project in the 1930s led to associations with Burgoyne Diller, Willem De Kooning, and James Brooks.

After earning his Ed.D. at Columbia University in 1943, McNeil served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. His distinguished teaching career began with a two-year post at the University of Wyoming following the war, after which he accepted the Directorship of the Pratt Institute Evening Art Program. As Director McNeil, was responsible for bringing Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Reuben Nakian, and other noteworthy artists in to teach classes. McNeil served on the faculty at Pratt from 1948 until 1981. During his tenure at Pratt McNeill also taught at the University of California at Berkeley in 1956 and 1957, and at the New York Studio School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture from 1966 to 1981.

In the late 1940s McNeil joined the Charles Egan Gallery in Manhattan. Egan was one of the first galleries in New York to feature the work of Abstract Expressionist artists. During this time Egan was also showing the work of Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Giorgio Cavallon, Philip Guston, and Robert de Niro Sr. In 1950 McNeil had his first of four solo exhibitions at the Charles Egan Gallery. Since that time McNeil’s work has been widely exhibited in galleries, in private collections, and in museum venues alike. A detailed list of solo and group exhibitions and museum collections containing the work of George McNeil follows the current exhibition catalogue images. Some of the highlights include: participation in group exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago (1947), Museum of Modern Art (1951,1959,1969, 1985), the Whitney Museum of American Art (1957,1961,1965, 1988) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1961), and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1962,1966). McNeil’s work is in the permanent collections the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

For ACME Fine Art’s third solo exhibition of the paintings of George McNeil the gallery has chosen to focus on the artist’s fully abstract paintings from the 1950s and 1960s. This was the period when McNeil’s work first began to receive the serious critical attention that it deserved. McNeil had excellent gallery representation during this period, and his work was exhibited regularly, first at Egan (until 1954), then at the Poindexter Gallery (through 1959), and later at the Howard Wise Gallery (1960-1967.) As previously noted McNeil’s work was frequently included in significant museum venues around the country in the 1950s and the 1960s. It should also be noted that his work was regularly reviewed by such publications as Time Magazine, the New York Times, and Art News, and by writers such as Thomas Hess, Barbara Rose, Clement Greenberg, William Seitz, and Irving Sandler.

The work from 1950s is characterized by McNeil’s signature use of multiple layers of thick impasto with complexly interlaced textural bands or areas of pigment. These canvasses are the boldly colorful, spontaneously conceived, emphatic, artistic statements by an artist who has found his natural expressionist’s voice. In short they constitute classic, New York School, Abstract Expressionism.

The decade of the 1960s was an important period of transition for McNeil. In the 1960s his forms while often equally textural rich and complex- in many cases carried figural or landscape associations. Frequently the titles of these paintings such as Nassau or Rhoda- echo such associations. (Some were in fact painted en-plein-air.) During this period McNeil began to experiment with abstracted vaguely figural shapes, and an enhanced sense of spatial depth. In a number of the canvasses that were painted near the beginning of the decade, he also often employed a lighter even feathery- almost frenetic gesture. By the end of this pivotal decade, the figure had become more fully sensate in McNeil’s work; nonetheless, the expression remained an abstract vehicle used by the artist as an additional tool in his visual language. These paintings display the artist’s struggle to convey more than he could otherwise do using what had become his traditional means. These are compelling transitional works that like the artist- are rich in complexity and are often enigmatic. These too are the works that led the emotionally charged Neo-Expressionist canvasses that became McNeil’s hallmark in the 1970s, ’80s & ’90s.

For further information about this artist or exhibition, or other gallery events please contact the gallery at 617.585.9551, or via e-mail at info@acmefineart.com.