Discos and Dancers, installation view, courtesy Picture Theory Gallery

Discos and Dancers: Pulse of the Next Generation?

A true painter’s painter, George McNeil fills the walls of Picture Theory Gallery with dancers, bathers and curious ephemera from a time seemingly now passed and gone. A self-described humanist bemused by raucous disco nights, in this little-known era of his work, McNeil brings to life the lauded 80s underground dance culture of NYC. From the upswing of Afro-Cuban styles to Balanchine and the rise of MTV, McNeil’s most youthful series to date came through in the last part of his life from 1981-1995. With Coltrane, the Supremes and Tina Turner on the 1s and 2s, George took to painting bodies, that is, with his own genre-busting, gravity-free merger of visceral strokes and fancy-free folks.

What can we critically write about dance, about paintings, about bodies? How about this mighty and ‘conspiratorial relationship between music and dance,’ as the press release for the show lays out.  Maybe its the closest we come to God, or maybe it’spictorial sensateness,” to use McNeils New York School shop talk. Ironically, it’s only from a Western, Eurocentric perspective that one can separate music and dance. In many African languages, there is no distinction. Once hailed the secularization of communal pleasures, it’s what some of today’s scientists are calling the biotechnology of group formation. In a treatise on Shamans, Mystics and Doctors Sudhir Kakar writes, “Every sickness is a musical problem… and every cure a musical solution.” Emerging from an era of decadence turned to dust, one in which we saw several 20-something art stars rocket to fame, it’s no secret that it was a time also plagued with well – death and greed – for starters. The verve of the supposed sexual revolution matched in intensity with the downslide into the A.I.D.S. crises. The devastation of the crack era upon low-income urban areas, never acknowledged nationally for the crisis that it was, builds up the prison industrial complex and the Hip Hop empire in unequal measure.

The gendered body and sexuality itself being a cultural production, how might painterly abstractions blur the lines of socialized norms and quotidian demands? Do artists, camped out at the margins of culture, have privileged access to the experience-distant symbolic? Either way, as the show’s press release by Kara Carmack describes, “ambiguity and disquiet pulses beneath the manic exhilaration, fantasy, and sexuality” in George McNeil’s Discos and Dancers. If it wasn’t all glam and go, the 80’s forced us to reconcile with the body and bodies. And for an artist who never fully admitted to leaving abstraction, what surfaces as important in this particular body of work is a figure of sorts – emerging – like an apparition wrestling for applause.

While we certainly don’t need a painting to convince us dance is a universal language, there’s a reason why this work is resonant now. It’s certainly stealing a few bloodshot millennial eyes away from TikTok and a few meaning-freaks away from the information superhighway, troubled as it is with so many relational pot holes. At least from paint we get a sense of something more viscous and venomous, something bubbling up from the deep abyss. Maybe it’s a meditation on the enigma of sensation, maybe it’s an ode to the abject failure of language altogether. McNeil’s bevy of national accolades are no match for the embodied experience one gets upon entering the Picture Theory Gallery, suddenly surrounded by said works on canvas, as if taking a disco nap into a more funky, less functional plane of reality.  As a native New Yorker turned virtuoso of the abstract, the disco works in particular seem to eerily stand the test of time; the fact that George was a student of the Hans Hofmann school evidenced in the push and pull swirl of hues and bold spatial illusionism. Even the focus on dance seems to hint at German-born American post-war icon Hofmann’s teachings about the spiritual value of art and nature (which includes our bodies as nature) as the true origin of abstraction.

As a young art student trekking to the Met to copy the Greek Marbles, there he would meet Arshile Gorky, who was also copying masterworks, an encounter which convinced young McNeil to pursue Modernism. Having studied Céannesque structuralism and Cubist rationalization of space at the Art Student’s League before beginning to study with Hans Hofmann in 1932, when his favorite instructor left the league to establish his own school, McNeil followed Hofmann, eventually to work as his assistant. About his early art education the artist remarked in hindsight, 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.”

A pioneering Abstract Expressionist with a prolific career spanning the entire post-war American art era, many singularly place George as a painter of pure abstraction ala the trajectory of greats Philip Guston and William de Kooning (they were pals). While McNeil’s prodigious output proves crucial to one of the most important American art movements, he was denied the validation many of his peers received. In fact, many many paintings came out of his fertile mid-career period leading up to Discos and Dancers. While critically acclaimed, sale of them remained elusive. The very fact that McNeil was in many ways an overlooked artist perhaps encapsulates the lucid ambience of the work now on view. Indeed, despite having been swathed in star-studded Father figures from the get-go, despite such precocious beginnings, McNeil seems to have never lost sight of the necessity for risk-taking and raw experimentation. Particularly the outsider-like appeal of his transitional works of the sixties a guttural threshold between free abstraction and syncopated figuration – speaks volumes about this artists ingenuity and unparalleled expressive vision.

Discos and Dancers carefully curated selection of work on display seems to distinguish the artist from the vacuum of abstraction and perhaps, fuses a connecting link with today’s youth culture and nightlife. In their day, these paintings ushered in a bit of a career renaissance for McNeil, with critics situating his stirring new body of work within the auspices of German Expressionism, COBRA, art brut, neo-expressionism and graffiti. During the recent opening in Chelsea, the space was activated by a live performance by the Gibney Dance Company. As George McNeil gets older, his work gets younger,” observed critic Michael Brenson upon seeing the 80-year-old artists latest work.

Discos and Dancers is on view through May 11th at Picture Theory Gallery 548 W28 Street Suite 238 New York, NY 10001


George McNeil, “One Painter’s Expressionism,” in George McNeil:Expressionism, 1954–1984 (New York: Artists’ Choice Museum, 1984), p. 8.“Artist George McNeil” Smithsonian American Art Museum, online

Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism Jeffrey J. Kripal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy Barbara Ehrenreich  New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006

Shamans Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and It’s Healing Traditions Sudhir Kakar, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982

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