George McNeil has described his artistic approach during the 1930s as “a dialogue, not a conflict, between art freedom and control, between an intuitive, painterly evocation of images, and the thoughtful ordering of pictorial elements into abstract form.” Attracted to Expressionism while a student at Pratt Institute in the late 1920s, McNeil developed an interest in Céannesque structuralism and Cubist rationalization of space under Jan Matulka’s tutelage at the Art Students League in 1930.(1) When Hans Hofmann joined the league faculty in 1932, McNeil entered his class; and when Hofmann left to establish his own school, McNeil followed.
It was about this time, McNeil later said, that “without any conceptual awareness of what I was doing, I learned the life premise of modern art, that energies seen in nature could be transformed into their pictorial equivalent, that paintings could assume a life of their own.”(2) Figural Composition #2, painted while McNeil was a Hofmann student at the league, is evidence of McNeil’s immediate recognition of the implications of Hofmann’s artistic ideas. Following closely on the heels of a group of distinctly Cubist paintings, Figural Composition #2, in which a figure is barely discernible within loosely brushed rectangles of color, predates Hofmann’s own efforts in this direction by several years.
Despite his precocious beginning, during the 1930s McNeil alternated between two very different artistic approaches, one structural and Cubist, the other free, figurative Expressionism. Only later did he realize that the decade for him was marked by simultaneous attempts “to embrace formal and expressionist art values.” Like many of his contemporaries, he worked for the WPA, but left the project in 1940 to do war-related work in a factory. In the war years he entered the Teachers College of Columbia University and in 1943 received a master’s degree.(3) After two years in the navy, McNeil secured, with John Opper’s help, a teaching position at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Although he had not painted for almost six years, McNeil stepped easily back into the two directions he had previously explored. At the same time McNeil recognized that he would probably begin to synthesize the two concerns in the future. In 1948, McNeil returned to New York and began teaching at Pratt Institute, where he is now professor emeritus. Although he continued as a member of the American Abstract Artists until 1956, he grew increasingly distant from the organization.
The mid 1950s was a fertile time for McNeil’s art. His ideas crystallized and he found a way to synthesize the competingimpulses that had formed the major part of his work. He began to work spontaneously, without “undue concern for balance, unity and other structural elements.”(4) Building from a figural basis, he aimed to make his forms “plastically and psychologically alive by having lines, shapes and colors bounce with energy.”(5) His new paintings, which were exhibited frequently at Charles Egan’s gallery and later with the Poindexter Gallery, were well-received critically, but did not sell. Yet, McNeil continued to push the bounds of his art, knitting image and space into energeticunities of paint.
This new found figurative Expressionism was not the last transformation to overtake McNeil’s work. In the early 1970s, his images became disturbing expressions of anxiety, psychological shock, and other troubling states of mind. His most recent paintings—still dramatic, figurative-based, and filled with energetic color and line— ameliorate angst with wit, and attest to McNeil’s restless search for ever more powerful expressive means.
1. McNeil first became seriously interested in European modernism when he attended Vaclav Vytlacil’s lecture series given at the Art Students League in the winter of 1928–29. When he left Pratt Institute, before enrolling at the Art Students League, he took time off to study by himself at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He drew from Greek marbles and from casts of the Parthenon sculpture. There he met Arshile Gorky, who was also copying Greek masterworks. The encounter with Gorky further cemented his conviction to pursue modernism. (I am grateful to George McNeil for discussing his work and the early years of the American Abstract Artists; see videotape interview, 29 November 1988, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.).
2. George McNeil, “One Painter’s Expressionism,” in George McNeil:Expressionism, 1954–1984 (New York: Artists’ Choice Museum, 1984), p. 8.
3. He received an Ed.D. degree from Columbia in 1952.
4. George McNeil, “One Painter’s Expressionism,” in George McNeil:Expressionism, 1954–1984 (New York: Artists’ Choice Museum, 1984), p. 8.
5. George McNeil, “One Painter’s Expressionism,” in George McNeil:Expressionism, 1954–1984 (New York: Artists’ Choice Museum, 1984), p. 9.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)
George McNeil studied at the Pratt Institute during the 1920s, where he learned to “paint vigorously and freely” as a response to his feelings (George McNeil, Expressionism, Exhibition Catalogue, 1984). The painter Hans Hofmann was a great influence on his work, and McNeil joined the older artist’s classes both at the Art Students League and Hofmann’s own School of Fine Arts. In 1948, McNeil became director of the art program at Pratt’s evening school. There was no fine arts curriculum at the college, but he brought in several modernist painters, such as Philip Guston and Franz Kline, and encouraged his students to create original, abstract art. McNeil combined careful decision making with spontaneous application of paint, saying that he wanted his lines, colors, shapes, and colors to “bounce with energy.”(Mecklenburg, The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection, American Abstraction 1930–1945, 1989)