New York

George McNeil

Howard Wise Gallery

George McNeil manages to avoid falling into either of the two major pitfalls that plagued late Abstract Expressionism: poor color and the lack of coherent structure. His color—predominantly the complementary hues of red and green, orange and blue, is adroitly set off by touches of black and white. Because his palette is so conventional, the paintings don’t mean much as a color experience, but the brilliance of the hues does manage to keep the paint lively and healthy looking and to compensate for the deadness that naturally issues from overpainting. The best pictures—Cassandra and Clarabel—tend to treat the figure (the motif on which the work is based) as a legible shape with closed contours. This prevents the confusion that results in less successful works such as High Society, when open contours allow background and figure to flow into one another in a manner which undermines the coherence of the composition. The strongest picture in the show is Cassandra. I suspect the reason is because it makes the clearest statement about the relationship of the figure to the ground surrounding it. In order to do this, McNeil is forced to resort to the simplistic device of separating figure from ground by means of a roughly drawn thick white outline which surrounds the figure, effectively defining its relationship to the space around it, albeit in a manner that is by now an academic convention. Zones of color such as the banded left leg are used with advantage to set up a measured horizontal stress that is effectively played off against the curvilinear pulsations of the contour.

The work in general is large, bold and energetic. Painted with the control and sophistication one expects from this veteran Abstract Expressionist, whose career as a modernist is one of the longest in the New York School, the works are technically very accomplished, but never slick. Apart from the question of the relative quality of individual pictures, McNeil’s show raises a number of issues central to any current critical discussion. McNeil sums up the problems quite succinctly: “Is it possible to develop images in terms of abstract forms and colors?” he asks. “Is it possible to continue in the grand tradition of modern art whereby painting per se, acid greens, metallic oranges and molten reds moving in assonance, can furnish an artistic patent of legitimacy? Above all, is it possible to extend and exploit sensation both in the gamut of pictorial energies and in the consequent, associational figures? Can one impact these greens, oranges and reds, can they be brutalized and havocked, all to heighten plastic excitement as the means to psychological expressiveness?”

My answer to all these questions would be no. McNeil is attempting to work in the figurative tradition. He has had the good sense to use the conventions of a pre-Cubist style, since the accommodation of the figure to the shallow depth of Cubism meant the death blow to that tradition. Because of this, McNeil’s style is not a dishonest compromise, like Diebenkorn’s. Diebenkorn, ironically, has been most successful at organizing abstract forms and colors into recognizable configurations; but this victory has been won at the cost of compromise with both the figurative and the abstract traditions.

The original impulse to stylize figures into patterns was decorative; in the modern period it begins in Post-Impressionism and ends in the late Matisse. This use of the figure, however, depends on reducing the figure to a convention, a symbol for the human form rather than a depiction of it. Conversely, the Expressionist distortion of the human figure does not treat the figure purely as flat pattern. It attempts to preserve, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the painter, that aspect of the figure which most distinguishes it from abstract pattern: its three-dimensionality. Diebenkorn’s art is deeply compromised because it attempts to use the figure in both of these antithetical ways—as an abstract arrangement of form and color and as actual form in illusionistic space. The result is that the figure is unconvincing as a figure, because it is not sufficiently modeled or given adequate space in which to move around. It functions merely as a scaffolding on which to hang an arrangement of form and color that is conceived from the beginning as an abstraction. Thus the use of the figure in work like Diebenkorn’s is after the fact: the figure is not the point of departure but an artificial vehicle used to make abstraction palatable.

Fortunately McNeil does not, like Diebenkorn, attempt the perverse end of reconciling a basically Cubist spatial organization with sharp light and dark modeling, a relic of pre-Cubist representational art. McNeil’s return to the figure did not mean a return to light and dark modeling; like his teacher Hans Hofmann, McNeil suppresses value contrasts in favor of contrasts of hue. His painting indeed looks backward, but not to Cubism. Rather it looks back to pre-Cubist Fauvism, specifically as it was interpreted by the German Expressionists. In fact, the first impression one has on seeing McNeil’s brilliant, impastoed surfaces and bug-eyed disjointed figures is not that one is in New York in the fifties, but, on the contrary, that one is in Munich in the teens and twenties. Not much other than the scale, which is that of the New York School, separates McNeil’s recent work from that of the German Expressionists. And within that context, it is very good work, more surely constructed and technically refined than that of the majority of European Expressionists. It is for example, head and shoulders above that, of an artist like Appel. But when viewed within its actual context of the painting of today, it is irrelevant to any of the issues animating current work.

The question that must be posed is how this affects our judgment of the quality of the work. Are critical judgments historically conditioned? Is Picasso’s recent work bad because it is retarded or is it retarded because it is bad? Despite the intelligence, skill and feeling of McNeil’s recent paintings, they lack the particular force, the authority, the sense of revelation we gain from the innovational. It remains for criticism to clarify the precise relationship between quality and radicality. That they are identical is one of the most basic assumptions of current art writing, yet no attempt has been made to explicate this relationship. (Michael Fried is the only critic to my knowledge to have made a stab at it. In Three American Painters he defines the central task of modernism as a self-renewal through radical self-criticism, a conclusion that, if accepted, would presume the identification of quality with radicality.)

Unfortunately, the artist McNeil asks to be compared with is Hofmann, a consummate master with whom few if any painters working today can bear comparison. Appropriating Hofmann’s acidulous Fauvist-Expressionist palette, he lacks Hofmann’s understanding of its potential for variety. He is, moreover, unwilling or unable to follow Hofmann’s methodical investigation of Cubism which led to the inevitable renunciation of the figurative as inimical to the abstract.

The Cubist answer to the figure was at first to stylize it into patterned symbol; but the gradual further abstraction of symbol into geometric shape, as the space of late Cubism became more condensed, meant its demise as far as Cubist-derived art was concerned. In this sense Cubism distorted the figure as much if not more than Expressionism; but Expressionism did so toward the end of extracting a heightened emotional response, whereas Cubism meant to accommodate the figure to a two-dimensional surface. Now no human being can look at a deformed human figure without being upset. He is forced to project himself into the figure; any discrepancy between the deformed figure and the norm is bound to be disturbing. Whether or not one believes that this is an esthetic response, however, determines one’s stand vis-à-vis the various forms of Expressionism. Surely the mere distortion of the human figure does not provide a very intense reaction (viz., the paltry content of the “monster” school and the various returns to the figure we have recently witnessed).

Happily, there is more to McNeil’s art than mere distortion of the figure. On the other hand the work not only breaks no new ground but retreats to ground broken nearly half a century ago. This in itself would not be enough to condemn it; but the work seems just more evidence to support the conclusion that only the radical and the innovational can have the highest quality, at least in the modern period.

Barbara Rose

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