“As George McNeil gets older, his work gets younger,” observed critic Michael Brenson upon seeing the 80-year-old artist’s latest work.1 Inspired by his love of movement in Balanchine and Afro-Cuban dance, the rise of MTV, and the beats of John Coltrane, the Supremes, and Tina Turner filling his studio, McNeil embarked on the most exuberant and youthful series of paintings of his career throughout the 1980s until his passing in 1995. For example, his “Disco Series,” begun in 1981, captures the raucous, rapturous energy of New York nightlife. Weightless, colorful figures float across boundless, groundless space. The push and pull of color finds analog in the oppositional tension of limbs askew, torsos off kilter, and heads inverted, evoking the transcendent euphoria of the dancefloor. With titles like Demonic Disco, the series conjures the conspiratorial relationship between music and dance to possess all senses of the body. The dynamic, sinuous lines, acidic colors, and surging brushstrokes strive for what the artist called, “pictorial sensateness,” or sensation experienced in form. Yet in these paintings, an ambiguity and disquiet pulses beneath the manic exhilaration, fantasy, and sexuality. Disco is, after all, a solitary dance, in that bodies move alone without touching other bodies. In these crowded disco canvases, figures may overlap, but they never seem to actually touch. A self-described humanist, McNeil lends pathos to the mythological, sometimes tragic, often sensual, Dionysian tales of the New York night.

The 1980s saw the Abstract Expressionist painter fully reveal the figure that had been lurking beneath his vibrant and spontaneous impastoed abstractions in decades prior. Dancers, bathers, and other human forms began emerging from fields of color in the 1960s. By the 1980s, McNeil had introduced bold, colorful outlines to sharpen their distinction from their painterly surroundings. The figures also became less universal and more specific, referencing punk rockers, football players, or the urban types encountered on Park Place and 47th Street. For McNeil, these later bodies of work did not mark a significant break from his early abstract compositions. In an interview, he mused that “it seems to me that my work has always had not a human figure image, but it always had a figural image. … I’m not a figure painter at all. I’m an abstract painter where I hope that bringing in the figure brings in certain human or psychological connotations or associations, and I hope that deepens the meaning of the picture.”2 Expressionism, above all else, is paramount.

McNeil enjoyed a late career renaissance as critics found affinities in these paintings with German Expressionism, COBRA, Jean Dubuffet’s art brut, and more contemporary developments in Neo-Expressionism and graffiti art. Yet, McNeil’s “figural images” exude a personal, empathetic, and passionate warmth unique to an artist dedicated to articulating the complexities of our inner and outer worlds. His forceful compositional choices, singular color palette, and virtuosic application of paint evidence an artist passionately driven by the endless pursuit of plastic expression.

Kara Carmack

1 Michael Brenson, “An Antic Hymn to a Never-Elegant New York,” The New York Times, January 20, 1989, C24.
2 Oral history interview with George McNeil, 1968 Jan. 9-May 21. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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George J. McNeil (1908-1995) was a vital and influential artist whose career spanned the whole of the Post-war American art era. He attended Pratt Institute and the Art Students' League, where he studied with Jan Matulka and Vaclav Vytlacil. From 1933-37 he studied with Hans Hofmann, becoming Hofmann's monitor (assistant). He worked for the W.P.A. Federal Art Project and in 1936 he became one of the founding members of the American Abstract Artists group; at the New York World's Fair in 1939, he was one of the few abstract artists whose work was selected. During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy.

In the late 1940s McNeil taught at the University of Wyoming and then taught art and art history at Pratt Institute until 1981, and at the New York Studio School until 1981,  influencing generations of young artists. In 1989 McNeil was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

A pioneer Abstract Expressionist of the New York School, McNeil had over forty solo exhibitions during his lifetime, beginning with the Egan Gallery in 1950. His art grows from the abstract: in his pure abstractions through the early 1960s, the subject matter is passionate metaphor. Later, dynamic situations involving dancers, bathers, discos, New York City, football or graffiti gyrate around the canvas. This high-energy content is expressed through virtuoso oil paint technique in which rich texture and color define complex abstract volumes. McNeil used his comprehensive authority over oil paint to push for an ever-deeper exploration of sensation.

George J. McNeil's work is included in numerous museum collections around the country, including the Museum of Modern Art, NY, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, the Whitney Museum, NY, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walker Art Center, MN, amongst many others.

Helen McNeil