William McGee Works 1954-1977
By Emil Robinson
William McGee Works 1954-1977 just closed at the University of Cincinnati’s Reed Gallery. The show gave a wonderful introduction to a talented artist who had the good and bad fortune to be making work alongside some of the most important American painters in history. McGee was a painter of courageous ability and range. The show at UC featured everything from calligraphic paintings from the 1950s reminiscent of Franz Kline, to Gorky and Dibenkorn like abstractions of the 1960s, and finally large scale minimal works that nod to Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. The work is all better than competent. McGee was a prominent figure in his time, showing alongside his more illustrious colleagues at commercial galleries and serious museums. How fortunate to have a local collector in Larry Huston who purchased a large chunk of the estate of this underappreciated artist.
Earlier works such as this untitled acrylic painting from 1954 show McGee making quick intuitive moves. His comfort and freedom are clear in the variety and naturalism of his decisions. Take the thin slice of paint that arcs in from the left to serve as a fulcrum for the denser shingle like marks underneath. This design has the inevitable feeling that is the result of an open mind and probing eye.
In contrast to the earlier “action” based abstracts McGee was under deep control and reserve in his large color field works. The best of these works have the unmoored spatial sensation that can accompany minimal paintings of this large scale. We are immediately involved with works of this size as we find ourselves trying on the space like a new room in our house. In works such as Victoria from 1970, the architectural certainty of vertical elements give our psyches a symbolic boundary, yet in this work the majority of the canvas is an open field: an open window? A void? The two far edges of the canvas are reasserted with two handsome wobbly verticals. We want something to hold onto spatially but we are left to drift in the vacuum created by the overwhelming field of blue. The feeling is one of air rushing past us towards the opening to fill it.
It was a great decision on the part of curators Aaron Cowan and Vincent Sansalone to put this show together because of its educational value. For the general public, this show provided an art history lesson as we saw McGee working out the picture making problems that captivated the art world for some 40 years. For the art historian, painter or connoisseur, this show provided an opportunity to learn a new name through a powerful body of work. It is seldom that we see such a complete survey of an artist that is little known today. It is refreshing to see works that are of such a high quality, yet on the verge of being relegated to the dustbin of history. More galleries and museums should expand our family of great artists instead of contributing to the same incestuous line-up of household names.