George McNeil: The Provincetown Years



This exhibition of three major paintings, small works and lithographs reflects McNeil's artistic experience while he was in Provincetown and demonstrates the deep influence and continuing power of the techniques and themes he developed here.  George McNeil was an important and early progenitor of the Abstract Expressionist movement, beginning in the 30s, and full-blown in 1950s New York.  McNeil arrived in Provincetown in the mid-Thirties, and spent summers here from the late Forties through the early Sixties, a period of great innovation for himself and for the Abstract Expressionist generation. He was an early student of Hans Hofmann here and in New York.   In 1935 he worked on the WPA art program, and together with other Hofmann students, he became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group which set out to make a place for abstract artists who found themselves outcasts of the galleries and museums. 


In the 60s, McNeil turned toward a more recognizable human figure.  Included in this exhibition are works from among his most poetic of these figural abstractions.  Quoted in art historian and founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum Peter Selz's insightful essay in the PAAM retrospective exhibition catalogue, McNeil says, "I didn't know when starting a painting whether it would turn out abstract or figurative."   As Selz notes, this is the creative process that Harold Rosenberg had in mind when he coined the term "Action Painting."


Among McNeil's techniques are a highly energized paint surface and complex coloration which includes, and then diverges from, the Hofmann palette. The abstract principles he embraced during the Provincetown years continued to dominate his compositions through the intense and vital progression of a lifetime of painting. The older he became, the more organic and fluid his work became.


Lillian Orlowsky, fellow artist, student, and friend from those early days, a member of the community of artists' in studios at Days Lumber Yard, describes McNeil at work:


                        He worked with his heart and with his head, but above all with

his body.  His whole body was involved, he responded to the

canvas as if it were a human being.  His face was radiant with



Painter Paul Resika calls McNeil's color "original and remarkable... (he) lives in his painting."  Referring to a painting he views in McNeil's studio, Resika remarks, "It's a painting that's aware of history, but in a sense it isn't a painting, it's an expression, its him."  It is this powerful physical and emotional immersion in the painting that energizes the color-defined space of George McNeil.  In a late 1969 lecture, McNeil said, "I regard my own work as sensate.  No matter how alive it is I want it to be more alive." 


McNeil's dazzling 1979 exhibition at Terry Dintenfass in New York "knocked everyone out" (Paul Resika) and he gained recognition, nearly in his 80's. His work became more unrestrained.  Accepting his place in the world, he "let her rip" (Helen McNeil), as if an unconscious were speaking directly.  Seemingly unstoppable, he worked up to a few months before his death in January 1995, at 87.  His final works, raw and passionate, enact a struggle between love and death.


George McNeil taught almost 40 years at Pratt Institute and for over 15 years at the New York Studio School.  In the late 1980s, the College Art Association presented him with their award for being the best art teacher in the US.  In her moving essay, McNeil's daughter Helen tells us something of her father's character, a clue, perhaps as to why he was for so long unrecognized for his extraordinary work:  "his awesome dedication and integrity were often enacted in a spirit of resistance…my father expected life to be a struggle, and so it was." 


Mario Naves, reviewer for The New York Observer, in his May 28 review of the retrospective exhibited first at ACA Galleries in New York, remembers that Willem de Kooning was said to have wondered why George McNeil, an artist whose work he admired enormously, was never accorded the success he deserved.  Naves answer to that: "Any artist who made a concerted effort not to appear in the Life magazine’s historic "Irascibles" photograph was irascible enough to shoot himself in the foot."


George McNeil's work can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whiney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York; in the Newark Museum, NJ; the Detroit Institute Museum of Art; the Michener Collection of the University of Texas at Austin, among many others.














June 2002



©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved