From Most Irascible of All To Triumphant Old Master

012907 article naves From Most Irascible of All To Triumphant Old MasterIntegrity exacts a price from an artist. Take the case of painter George McNeil (1908-1995). A fixture of the New York School, McNeil refused to pose with his peers in a 1950 photo shoot for Time magazine. As the story has come down through his family, McNeil took umbrage at being pictured as a team player in a milieu rife with personality conflicts and political maneuvering.

The photograph he skipped out on, taken by Nina Leen, came to be called The Irascibles. It featured 15 New York artists who had signed a letter addressed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art deriding the institution’s hostility to “advanced art.” No one could have known it at the time, but Leen’s group shot would become an iconographic staple of postwar American art.

It’s hard to measure the impact of the picture on the participating artists’ careers. It certainly didn’t hurt Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman or Ad Reinhardt. (It wasn’t a foolproof catalyst for fame: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, James Brooks and Hedda Sterne have largely been consigned to storage.) All the same, Leen’s image—the Mount Rushmore of Abstract Expressionism, if you will—conferred a degree of legitimacy on a movement that would make New York the center of world art.

Alas, McNeil’s decision made him perhaps the most irascible of all. More than a few people are convinced that he suffered for it professionally. He helped foment the “triumph” of American art, but he didn’t gain much from its prominence.

His reputation among fellow artists prospered, though. No less an eminence than De Kooning counted himself an admirer and puzzled over McNeil’s lack of greater public recognition. Nothing if not indefatigable, McNeil soldiered on, weathering relative obscurity and negotiating a scene that would increasingly consider painting a minor and, in some quarters, obsolete pursuit.

A tantalizing exhibition of McNeil’s paintings at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries gives a rough synopsis of his underappreciated career—from founder of the American Abstract Artists group to first-generation member of the New York School to, ultimately, a figurative painter of fierce and joyous power.

Anyone familiar with McNeil’s late work will do a double take upon encountering Dance Cuba (1941), one of three early paintings that introduce the show. A gouache on panel of three shimmying figures, each a sinuous patchwork of color given shape by a declaratory blue ground, the picture bears an uncanny resemblance, 40-some years before the fact, to the artist’s signature melding of abstract structures and ecstatic figuration.

How does it diverge from, say, Eclogue (Butterfly Man) (1983)? Dance Cuba evinces a painter emboldened, but also constrained, by the innovations of others, particularly Picasso, Klee and the primitivism that was the air that artists breathed in 1940’s Manhattan. Eclogue (Butterfly Man) differs significantly—indeed, thrillingly—because of McNeil’s subsequent immersion in the principles of Abstract Expressionism: forgoing novelty for freedom, the painting’s celebratory tone is unmistakable, its improvisatory verve infectious. Arriving at a destination long in sight, McNeil became a master.

The Salander-O’Reilly show is dedicated exclusively to McNeil’s small paintings and, as such, isn’t definitive. He thrived on wide expanses of canvas and formats that literally tested the reach of the human body. Pollock’s example fed McNeil’s painterly approach. Within Pollock’s sprawling scale and loping gestures, McNeil divined a manner of working that would liberate his intricate arrays of punk rockers, dancers and mythological beasts and endow them with a bustling authority.

The small paintings hint at this expansiveness, but a dizzying totality of vision is absent. You can feel energy and imagery being reined in. The compositions are simple, stolid and, in the end, fragmented. You’ll get some measure of McNeil’s expert paint-handling: Within his fast and fluid stutters, drifts and splatters of oils and acrylics, he discovered a pictorial correlative to the jittering New York City street parade that so inspired him.

The influence of McNeil’s teacher, Hans Hoffman, is palpable in the vibrant palette, shuttling spaces and unflagging vigor. Feathery fluctuations of surface and tone testify to a love for Bonnard’s tenderly questioning tableaus. Dubuffet’s coarse, in-your-face glyphs inform the paintings, as do the CoBrA group’s approximations of children’s art.

Salander-O’Reilly showcases another debt by including three tabletop sculptures by Elie Nadelman inside a cubby within the gallery. McNeil’s broad yet lithe figures bear a striking resemblance to Nadelman’s stylishly lumpy women. Who would have thought it? We owe this startling—yet, in retrospect, utterly natural—insight to curatorial prowess. McNeil’s comic undercurrents and urbanity (albeit of a radically different character) are underlined and reinforced by the juxtaposition.

By the mid-1980’s, benefiting from a renewed interest in painting spurred by Neo-Expressionism, McNeil gained notice as his art blossomed. Rarely has the confluence of opinion and art been as auspicious: McNeil’s tenacious drive only gained in sureness and coherence. His kaleidoscopic art is a bracing model of persistence and enthusiasm. Talk about an Old Master: All of us should possess the same curiosity, ambition and explosive high spirits as we enter the latter decades of our lives.

George McNeil: Small Paintings is at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 22 East 71st Street, until Feb. 3.