New York

George McNeil

M. Knoeder & Company

George McNeil belongs to the brilliant generation of American artists born in the first decade of this century—a generation that includes Willem de Kooning, Alfred Jensen, Alice Neel, Fairfield Porter, and Myron Stout. This group had to survive devastating hardships such as two world wars and a depression before coming into its own in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Perhaps because of such obstacles, it is a generation that took its time developing. McNeil is no exception. He attended lectures at the Art Students League in the ‘20s, studied with Hans Hoffman in the early ‘30s, participated in the WPA project in the middle ‘30s, helped form the American Abstract Artists group in the late ‘30s, served in the Navy in World War II, began teaching in the late ‘40s, and began showing publicly in 1950. During the ‘50s, inspired by Jackson Pollock, he began working with canvases placed on the floor. By the late ‘50s, the figure began emerging in his improvisational, expressionist paintings. When his generation began to be dismissed by a younger group of formalist critics and artists, McNeil had hit his stride as a painter. His subject matter consisted of elements from the city (especially its more outrageous and theatrical inhabitants) and the artists‘s own imagination. He has held true to his vision since that time.

Although McNeil still works on the floor, the scale of his paintings conforms roughly to the limits of his reach. Except for the rather expansive Forty-Seventh Street, 1988, most of the works shown here measure between six and eight feet square. Typically, the paintings consist of one or more figures, as well as fields of delineated activity interrupted by areas of nearly solid color. He wants paintings to come at the viewer like a bus full of screaming children. In Midtown, 1987, he depicts a head atop a geometrically unfolding, abstract band, which terminates in feet. He includes a cluster of buildings along the upper left edge, a car along the upper right edge, and tiny floating figures throughout. Everything seems to exist somewhere between flatness and a weightless realm. The piece is rough, exuberant, and childlike, full of humorous incidents, caricature, and a kind of rough-and-tumble painterliness. McNeil has absorbed a great deal into his approach. One can see bits of Jean Dubuffet‘s art brut, Hans Hoffman‘s notion of push-pull, German Expressionist color (particularly the palette of an artist like Emil Nolde), and the uninhibited fantasy world of children‘s drawings. Yet it is clear that McNeil has brewed this unlikely concoction in his own way. In their celebration of urban life, his paintings are simultaneously brassy and vulnerable, mischievous and knowing.

John Yau