Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Helen McNeil: Clare Gemima guided a conversation with late artist George McNeil's daughter.

Installation view of Discos and Dancers. Photo courtesy of Picture Theory.


By CLARE GEMIMA May 9, 2024

Sitting amidst the collection of monumental works curated for George McNeil's (1908 - 1995) exhibition Discos and Dancers, currently showing at Picture Theory, Clare Gemima guided a conversation with Helen McNeil, the artist's daughter. She generously explored her father’s enigmatic mind and discussed many hidden meanings behind his sinuous, decade-spanning paintings. Throughout the interview, Gemima and McNeil unraveled the intricacies of George himself, illuminating him as a visionary American artist deeply influenced by an eclectic mix of sources. From the fluidity of un-choreographed dancers to the rebellious ethos of punk rockers, George's compositional considerations, like his figures’ poses for example, testify to his interest in gesture and movement, while his physical processes and color palettes continued to be as rich as they were diverse throughout his life. McNeil's keen insights unveiled George's profound connection not only to classical music but also to the rhythmic cadences of modern jazz music, alongside the visual storytelling epitomized by MTV.

As Gemima and McNeil dissected Occasion (1966) together, the conversation ventured into the primal echoes of ancient cave paintings and the tantalizing allure of its solo swooping figure. Additionally, McNeil's reflections on her upbringing within her father's artistic fervor added a poignant layer to the discussion, emphasizing the profound impact of a creative household on one's own trajectory. Navigating through George's influences, from German Expressionism to the rejection of Duchampian whimsy, the interview that follows culminates as an appreciation for the enduring legacy of George McNeil, his fearless and explorative imaginations of bathers, dancers, and anyone else who found themselves at the disco of modernism. 

Clare Gemima: How did George's exposure to diverse forms of movement and expression created by dancers, bathers, punk rockers, and football players influence his artistic process, particularly in relation to his fascination with music and music videos?

Helen McNeil: George always listened to music in the studio. A lot of it was classical, like difficult Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) or Bartok (1881 - 1945), but also John Coltrane and the  Modern Jazz Quartet. Herbie Hancock might well have been playing in the studio. He had satellite TV in a house he bought in Kerhonkson, NY in the 1970s, and became an early adopter of MTV which he just adored. He watched music videos of  performances by Tina Turner, or Rod Stewart or whoever it was, and viewed these as specific art forms of their own. That's where a lot of these paintings come from. His disco paintings were inspired by big hits of the 80’s: Donna Summers, Diana Ross. When people would ask him, “Do you go to discos?" he'd say, “No, I've never set foot in a disco!", but he never once said "I see this all on MTV.."

Occasion, 1966. Oil on canvas. 80 x 64 in. Photo courtesy of Picture Theory.

Clare Gemima: It would be amazing to hear your thoughts on Occasion, one of George’s incredibly golden, rather erotic oil works made in 1966 - a painting that’s hands-down the exhibitions’ main show-stopper. It's interesting that you talk about how it isn't a flat painting, yet there's an interdynamic between flat layers. The more we speak, the more I look at it, it feels almost similar to paleolithic cave painting.

Helen McNeil: Hans Prinzhorn’s (1886 – 1933) exhibitions and writings about schizophrenic and ‘patient art’ were known to George through the Surrealists. My take is that George was aware of the role of the ‘irrational’ in art and believed that ‘sophisticated art’ or art that comes out of an expressionist or French tradition is not that far removed. He considered that cave painting and what was then called “primitive art” had an almost shamanic power.  It’s funny that Occasion comes close to being an obscene painting. George made the lower part of the figure's body to be a ‘swoop’ rather than buttocks – she’s about to leap upwards.. The figure is not a model designed to please the male gaze. I mean she could, but she's no odalisque, or a model aware of being looked at. Several of his later paintings from 1983 onward deal with voyeurism though. There are figures or faces looking at each other – almost always a man looking at a woman. When his figures were depicted relatively relaxed he would call them bathers. When his figures were more energetic and alive, he would call them dancers.

Demi-monde Disco, 1981. Oil on canvas. 44 x 50 in. Photo courtesy of Picture Theory.

Clare Gemima: What was it like for you as George’s daughter to be living, perhaps inevitably amongst, but also vicariously through his painting’s eclectic mix of influences, which steadily expanded across his many decades of production?

Helen McNeil: Growing up in a household where a parent is a creative person means that their kind of world doesn't seem strange or bizarre to you. It seems a perfectly natural way to choose to live your life. In a sense, a lot of children of the Ab-Ex generation were very conservative in that practically all of us ended up doing something related to a creative profession. In a lecture for the University of Arizona Museum of Art, I touched on some darker themes around this. One of them is that the majority of the Abstract Expressionists were alcoholics, and so that would be de Kooning, Guston, Pollock, Kline, Elaine de Kooning until she finally got straight. I don't know as much about Rothko, but I think it was an issue with him too. And so the kind of distance or inaccessibility that a parent may exhibit to a child would be exacerbated in that situation. George was not an alcoholic, but he was an obsessive worker. He taught as well as being a painter at a time when many of the artists thought that anyone with a job was a sellout – are you really a painter if you have any sort of job at all?

George McNeil in his Brooklyn Studio, 1975. Photo by Lynne Saville.

Clare Gemima: Considering George's artistic influences, which encompassed German Expressionism (1905 - 1935), the COBRA movement (1948 - 1951), and Jean Dubuffet's 'art brut' (1940’s -), which contemporary artists or artworks did George find inspiring, or conversely, off-putting?

Helen McNeil: George taught art history and was deeply curious about the entire history of art. He wouldn't say, “oh, I want to paint a figure that comes from, you know, a Bosch-like hell”, but it would be in there…it would be deep in there. Among the artists he talked about the most were Matthias Grûnewald ( 1470 - 1 528), William Blake (1757 - 1827) , and Van Gogh (1853 - 1890). When he got a little more modern, he was very fond of Matisse (1869 - 1954). Privately he felt that Picasso (1881 - 1973) had perhaps too much influence on the development of American art.

The COBRA Group were actually contemporaries rather than an inspiration. He had mixed feelings towards them. He liked the fact that there was a non-German expressionist movement taking place in Europe, but he wasn't sure that the expressionism was, as it were, ‘fully earned’. Neo-classicists like Poussin (1594 - 1665) and Canova (1757 - 1822) were not really essential to his thinking. Heading into the Duchampian direction (1887 - 1968) – the intellectual play element – he felt it was interesting but essentially superficial. The arrival of Pop Art in the late 1950’s and 60’s came as a profound shock to him and the whole generation, which in a sense, he never fully recovered from — or perhaps I should say it pushed him even further into expressionism, using the figure.

Discos and Dancers: From the Estate of George McNeil is on view through May 11, 2024 at Picture Theory. WM


Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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