Paintings You Can Jump On: George McNeil in the 1960s
George McNeil at Ameringer/ McEnery/ Yohe Gallery
November 22, 2011 to January 21, 2012
525 W 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 445 0051
Dating from a period in which Abstract Expressionism was being eclipsed by new kinds of art, George McNeil’s paintings of the 1960s show no let up in expressionistic intensity or compositional rigor. Rather, McNeil seems to hunker down for the long haul, trying to forge something solid and enduring out of Action Painting, as Cézanne did out of Impressionism. Confronted by a climate increasingly hostile to painting, he insists on the basic principles of vivid color, solid construction and compressed space upheld by his teacher, Hans Hofmann; he tightens up his compositions until, as though in response to some neglected principle of physics, gestural shapes become massive, and primitive figures emerge.
A founding member of the American Abstract Artists in the 1930s, a group identified with cleanly defined Cubist structure, McNeil found his way into more psychologically charged painting via Hofmann’s combination of expressionistic gestures with constructive discipline. McNeil aspired to be “completely sensate”, a process that, while aiming for spontaneity, involved long periods of revision, during which he sometimes resorted to a blowtorch to remove unwanted layers of dried pigment. As a student, I visited his studio in the mid-seventies: McNeil liked to start from a pile of random objects, using them to establish reference points on canvas, suggestive of movements through space. He showed us a canvas in progress on the floor, stretched on a panel – “so you can jump on it.” Pouring and scraping, he scanned ambiguous forms suspended in liquid pigments for signs of emerging life.
The eight small panels exhibited here are especially dense. Applied with gestural abandon, McNeil’s swaths of paint are charged with inchoate feelings that defy confinement by drawing. Yet out of the same passion comes an urge to organize. Even in a small painting like Des Moines Landscape 7/12/69 (1969), measured fields of deep red and blue are weighed against a yellow shape, and poignant touches of light emerge from the general flux. As with others in this series, gestural shapes suggest ragged trees and glimpses of sky, traces of more recognizable forms. Massive composition is tempered by a seductive lightness of touch, in delicate lines and traces of color suspended in translucent washes.
These improvisations find fuller resolution in the five larger paintings, all from 1960-1969. The open gestures of Lenox (1960) mass together, and the more self-contained shapes in Asphodel (1962) and Game II (1969) assume the weight and contours of bodies – one hesitates to say “figures”, since they emerge in a less intentional way than do de Kooning’s Women or Guston’s Klansmen. McNeil encloses and squeezes his shapes, trying to endow every area with substance. There’s something wildly eccentric about Game II, in which an elongated “leg” connects to a torso with its head downturned along the side of the canvas, contorted like one of Picasso’s Dionysian dancers. The ochre shape compressed between leg and arm exemplifies the surface tension McNeil cultivates, by lending background shapes a positive character; even the acid-green fields of poured paint around the body assume an enameled hardness, like cloisonné.
Of many artists who studied with Hofmann, McNeil may have worked out most thoroughly his teacher’s fusion of analytical rigor and raw expression. He also exploits Jackson Pollock’s practice of working on the floor, approaching his canvas from all sides, to generate images that could only arise from that process of painting. More than Hofmann, in fact, whose “push-pull” tends to rely on colored rectangles suspended against vertical curtains of paint, McNeil’s acrobats take on a total, more personal, identification with the spaces of his works; they test the limits of the frame with a full range of mobility.
References to figures and landscapes, with place names as titles, call to mind works like de Kooning’s Merritt Parkway (1959), which also cultivates breadth and simplicity. But de Kooning’s mark making is more open, and his figures tend to dissolve into their environments. McNeil’s assume mass and solidity, even as they develop in more unexpected ways. His weighty shapes have more in common with Philip Guston’s emergent, ambiguous forms of the mid-sixties, which prefigure the outlined objects of his cartoon images.
McNeil worked on through the 1970s, increasingly isolated in New York in his devotion to Abstract Expressionism. His improvised figures – angels, mythological characters – are sometimes humorous but also heroic. In the 1980s, he emerged again on the gallery scene, superficially linked to the youth-dominated culture of Neo-expressionism. But that association, and the exuberant productivity of that period in his work, has tended to obscure the depth and rigor of his accomplishments. This exhibition helps restore the balance; McNeil’s struggle to define imagery in abstraction argues strongly for his historical significance, both in relation to other Abstract Expressionists and to the overall trajectory of painting after modernism.