Washington Print Club Quarterly (reprint of cover story)
by Jenny Freestone
Reprinted from the Washington Print Club Quarterly, Winter 2012-2013 issue, vol. 48, No. 4, with permission.
The Sui Generis Art of a Washington Artist A consummate draughtsman and a highly prolific artist, Kevin MacDonald produced a large body of prints, drawings and paintings, despite his untimely death. His work is easily recognizable by its masterly handling of light and its quietly pared-down subjects: suburban landscapes, domestic interiors, café interiors, and water studies. So, too, is the conspicuous absence of human figures in MacDonald’s work -- in those very places they inhabit or come together. That absence, and his use of a range of formal elements in his compositions discussed below, conveys a subtle, but unmistakable tension to his work.
While MacDonald was aware of what he needed to do to succeed as a professional artist, he avoided excessive exposure and eschewed any and all “glorification” of the artist. Indeed, he rarely discussed his work, preferring that viewers look, think, and reach their own conclusions. His work is grounded in Realism; yet at times his composition of the space or minimalization of pictorial elements led to work that borders on the abstract. He worked in many media, but his starting point was always drawing -- as Helen Frederick commented to this writer, “His sketchbooks were his photographs” (1). Indeed, during his lifetime, his most well-known body of work was his finished drawings. While color was well as light invariably play a prominent role in all his works, over the course of his career, he worked them with increasing intensity, and his later drawings used an extraordinarily wide range of materials, including graphite, ink, Prismacolor crayons, pastels, water color, acrylic, ink washes, coffee and tea, often simultaneously.
In the mid-1970s, MacDonald created an exquisite series of drawings of lamps by drawing on Arches 100 percent rag paper with Prismacolor and grinding the pigments deep into the paper, “punishing the cotton fibers while he made them sing” (2). Despite their subtly modulated low tonal range, the extraordinary luminosity of these lamp drawings does not come from thee lamps themselves; instead, in the classic manner of Vermeer, the artist wanted the light in all his work, including those early drawings, “to come from inside the paper.” (3) Later in his career, he worked much in the Pointillist way of Seurat (indeed, in 1991, he produced a body of work that explored Seurat’s methodology). When working with Prismacolor crayons in his later drawings, he painstakingly applied the pigment to the paper and slowly built warm earth tones of reddish browns, greens and blues, while keeping the white areas pristine to give luminosity to them. Here, however, as in his later works, the marks created by the crayons break the surface texture of the drawings, and lessen the tensions inherent in his more formalist early drawings, such as the lamp series. During the span of his career, while MacDonald’s tonal range was to increase, he continued to restrict his color range to his earthy browns, greens and modulated blues; thus his limited palette and his use of light are both signature elements of his work.
As Baltimore art critic John Dorsey noted in 1989, MacDonald’s work evokes the loneliness of Hopper as well as the quiet of Vermeer and Seurat (4). His pared-down and softly described domestic interiors, cafes, and suburban landscapes are oddly forlorn and mysterious, perhaps because one senses that the presence of people would disturb them. Nevertheless, the artist often draws the viewer’s attention to their existence: in his interiors, we will see an empty cup or ashtray, a chair at a desk, or a bed with its covers thrown back; in his landscapes we may see neat rows of suburban houses, which we know very well house all the complexity, and the order and disorder, of a family. Although MacDonald would paint, print and draw many other subjects when they impinged upon his life, he always came back to his principal subjects: quiet interiors and suburban landscapes. Today, his work is housed in the collections of many major museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum, Library of Congress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Phillips Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as in numerous private collections..
An Artist of His Time and Place MacDonald grew up in Silver Spring, in the very suburbia he was to reference in his art as an adult. Raised a Catholic, he later turned to Buddhism, but he carried the lessons of a rigorous Jesuit education into his adult life and his work. in 1969 he earned a BFA from George Washington University. He then went on to work at the Phillips Collection as a curatorial assistant (as many graduate students in the visual arts did at the time), where he immersed himself in art history: he also taught briefly at the Corcoran School of Art + Design. By the late 1970s, howeve,r he worked full time as an artist, and in the following decade he became an active participant in the Washington-area arts world, serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Washington Project for the Arts 1986-1991; member of the Visual Arts Panel of Maryland State Arts Council 1989-1991; ad Vice President of the Board of Directors of Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, 1991-1997.
From 1977 to 1983, MacDonald exhibited at the Lunn Gallery. Its owner, Harry Lunn, Jr. (1933-1988) who began his estimable international career as an art dealer in D.C. in 1968, dealt mainly in photography, most notably, then, the work of Ansel Adams. But Lunn was much taken with MacDonald’s manipulation of light, and MacDonald was the first artist he brought into his gallery who was not a photographer, and it was he, who indirectly as well as directly, launched MacDonald’s career. Then, In 1978, David Adamson arrived in D.C.; he had seen a drawing by MacDonald in Art News (courtesy of Lunn Gallery), and sought him out, and they began a close friendship and business relationship. Adamson and Scip Barnhart (who had recently founded Union Printmakers Atelier on 7th Street, N.W., as a printmaking and editioning studio) invited MacDonald to make lithographs. In 1982 Adamson established his first gallery (also on 7th Street), and he remembers the first work he sold (for $250) was a MacDonald lithograph, Popular Market. From 1985 through 1995, MacDonald had solo exhibitions at Adamson’s gallery almost annually. His last Adamson Gallery exhibition, entitled “Home,” was in 2002. The cover print for this issue , Suburban Apotheosis (of which more later) was included in that exhibition. (This image is shown at the top of this post.)
From the time MacDonald was taken under the wing of the Lunn Gallery until his death, he supported himself entirely on the sales of his work, and the decades of the 1980s and 1990s were particularly productive (by then maintained two studios, one in Silver Spring, which he used when he was needed in the D.C. area, and another in Frederick, which he used during the week). According to his many friends and colleagues with whom I spoke, the artist was a courteous and generous, yet quiet and reserved, man, who was regarded with great warmth and affection by all those who knew and worked with him. Fellow artist, and Chair of Montgomery College’s Visual Arts Department, Wilfred Brunner talked to me at some length about MacDonald’s meditative approach to his art, and while he mentioned how meticulously MacDonald kept his studio, he also reported how intensively he worked there. An erudite man, MacDonald especially loved the writings of Emerson and Thoreau and the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Rainer Maria Rilke. Among his artistic heroes he would mention Vermeer, Seurat, David Hockney and Howard Hodgkin. He married in 1996 and his daughter was born in 2004. In that same year, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died two years later.
The Artist’s Prints
MacDonald created prints steadily throughout his career. In the 1980s he produced lithographs with Adamson and Barnhart at Union Printmakers Atelier, including DC Space (1987). DC Space was a diner of 7th Street, N.W. (now a Starbucks) frequented by artists in the 1980s. This is a quintessential MacDonald print. The light is bright -- perhaps a sunny day. The composition is formal and the tonal range is low. (I can imagine how tenderly he must have worked the lithographic crayon or pencil over the stone in order to achieve its extraordinarily subtle tonal variations.) The minimalist rendering of every object both reinforces and heightens the architectural simplicity of this work. So, too, do the precisely arranged objects. Three empty circular bar stools and ashtrays on the counter of the bar to the left in the foreground lead the eye to a fourth empty ashtray, placed on a large circular table, flanked by two identical empty chairs in the near distance. Perspective has been stretched, so the table echoes the shapes of the bar stools; above all, however, this slight skewing of perspective heightens the uneasiness that viewers experience when they look down upon (not into) this tightly constricted glimpse of unpeopled space. The chairs and stools resonate with the anticipation of the human presence, and the viewer is left to ponder the implication of their absence.
During that same period, MacDonald also worked with Helen Frederick, who, in 1981, had founded Pyramid Atlantic in Riverdale, where he produced some exquisite engravings, his first drypoint, and an edition of pulp paintings. In the 1990s, he worked on lithographs with Joyce Jewell at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, but he also continued making lithographs with Barnhart in the latter’s print studio in Hagerstown and Union Printmakers Atelier (which had moved to 19th and L Streets, N.W.). In 1994, Adamson famously bought his first Iris printer and produced his first portfolio of digital prints, entitled Washington Portfolio. The portfolio comprised ten prints, one by each of ten Washington artists, who included Bill Christenberry, Jacob Kainen MacDonald, Bill Newman, and Renee Stout. The project was a financial success, and it helped launch Adamson’s career as a producer of digital prints as well as a dealer: within five years, Adamson Editions was printing for Chuck Close, Jim Dine, and William Wegman, among others.
Frederick invited MacDonald back to Pyramid Atlantic in 1999, just before its move to Silver Spring. There MacDonald met its master printer, Pepe Coronado, who introduced him to screenprinting. Coronado told me that despite their cultural differences (Coronado is Latino) and personalities (Coronado is very outgoing), they swiftly became firm friends and collaborated on many prints, including the cover print, Suburban Apotheosis. (2000) Their collaboration led them to discover a new approach to this medium, which they used to produce this screenprint. First, MacDonald delicately drew, in black, on separate sheets of textured Mylar, each color separation that Coronado would use to produce Suburban Apotheosis. This was not a difficult process for MacDonald, because that is how he built his finished drawings -- by visualizing each color and mixing them on the paper. Coronado then printed each finely drawn color separation, one on top of the other. However, that was by no means a solo performance; the process of printing his screenprint was so crucial to its success as a print that it required decisions by both the artist and the master printer regarding the hue and tone of each color, as well as the order in which the colors were printed. And although this print uses MacDonald’s customary spectrum of warm earth colors, it markedly increased his tonal range.
Suburban Apotheosis is also a fine example of the complexities underlying the artist’s highly formal and minimalist depictions of suburbia. Note that the rigorous orderliness of the row of the identical houses and their yards and pathways paradoxically alarms rather than soothes the viewer. Their marvelously luminous, but improbably pristine, white is likewise unnerving. Note also that the houses look picture-perfect, but, unlike DC Space, they are bereft of any sign of life; moreover, despite their proximity to one another, each is enclosed within itself. And while the yards and the bushes have been so immaculately manicured that they look artificial, nature nevertheless looms large: the tree in the foreground on the left has the air of a sentinel and the bank of trees behind the houses looks more like a looming storm than a leafy retreat. Indeed, many of MacDonald’s paintings and drawings of suburbia can be read as a mordant -- albeit veiled -- commentary on the “white flight” from the perceived dark threat of the city to the sanctity of suburbia (look again at that bank of trees).
In 2004 Adamson Editions worked with MacDonald, this time, to produce a suite of digital prints based on a series of paintings of water and boats that the artist had made in 1988 (MacDonald often reworked and refined in new media earlier themes and works). MacDonald’s final exhibition, in 2005, was a joint exhibition at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance at the Patterson, the large, multi-purpose arts center it had opened in 2003 (5). His contribution to “Don Cook and Kevin MacDonald: City Stories,” was a series of paintings, Mysteries of Silver Spring. The brief critical comments on these paintings of urban architecture, cited below, are particularly trenchant, and they are equally applicable to his drawings and prints. Art in America Corresponding Editor for Washington, D.C., J.W. Mahoney wrote: “MacDonald’s work has always been respectfully realistic, but his intentions have been as metaphysical as Giorgio de Chirico’s, a transubstantiation of a familiar or recognizable image into the reality we see in dreams. Curator Jed Dodds suggested that MacDonald ‘has inherited the luminosity of the Washington Color School painters,’ and indeed, his art has consistently valued light as symbolically as they did.”
MacDonald and Coronado continued their collaboration until MacDonald’s death. They were then experimenting with a new way of producing a digital print, and MacDonald was excited by the possibilities it offered. He liked the idea that this new method of digital printing would enable him to draw, to make his mark on paper, and simultaneously explore digital printing. MacDonald drew four color separations, in black crayon, on his favorite Arches paper. Coronado scanned them into the computer, assigned color to each separation, and and digitally printed one proof. That unsigned proof was the only outcome of this project, because MacDonald was too ill to work anymore, and it is the last print that MacDonald made.
The Artist’s Last Exhibition and Drawings and a Forthcoming Retrospective of His Work MacDonald’s work was last seen in American University’s Katzen Arts Center’s November 9-December 19, 2010, “Catalyst: 35 years of Washington Project for the Arts.” As Washington art critic Michael O’Sullivan reported in his review of that major Washington-area retrospective, it included “MacDonald’s suite of four untitled drawings of water - known as his ‘cancer drawings’ … [were] the last pictures made by the late, great draftsman.” These four drawings had never been exhibited, and in fact the artist had stored them in his studio with all the many other works he regarded as personal; however, exhibition curator J.W. Mahoney, a longtime admirer of MacDonald’s work, convinced the artist’s widow that they would affect others as they had affected her husband.
The Cancer Drawings were made in 2005 under the knowledge and extraordinary weight, both physical and emotional, of his imminent death. The four paintings with graphite and ink on paper are minimally rendered vertical vistas of sea and sky, with the horizon line set just below the middle of the work. The first painting shows a heavily grey sky and a blue-black sea. In the second, light glowing at the horizon lightens the gray of the sky and reflects warm light on the sea. The third depicts a light and tranquil sky and a blue sea. The last describes, on an almost blank sheet of paper, barely visible wisps of sky and sea, which look as if they are dissolving. According to his close friends, MacDonald would say the series was meant to show his gradual victory over his cancer: the first painting representing him with cancer; the second and third, his gradual recovery; the last, as cancer-free. Yet surely we see, in retrospect, that this powerful and eloquent series was a depiction of his impending departure from life.
A retrospective exhibition of MacDonald’s work will be held in spring 2016 at The Katzen Arts Center at American University, Washington, DC. The artist is represented by David Adamson Gallery (www.adamsongallery.org).
Quarterly Art Editor and WPQ board member Jenny Freestone is a board member of Pyramid Atlantic, and an artist-member of Washington Printmakers Gallery.
Footnotes 1. In order to write this article, I talked with the following friends and colleagues of the artist: David and Laurie Adamson; Scip Barnhart; Wilfred Brunner; Pepe Coronado; Helen Frederick; J.W. Mahoney; Robin Moore, the artist’s widow; Bill Newman; and Joe White. I would like to thank them all for their time, and, above all, their deep appreciation of an artist lost to them, and to us, before his time. 2. Robin Moore, “Diary,” (unpublished manuscript, n.d.). 3. Moore. 4. Review by John Dorsey, Art Critic, Baltimore Sun, December 7, 1989. 5. For more information about this Baltimore community organization, founded by volunteers in 1995, and its educational and art programs and resident artists, visit www.creativealliance.org. 6. J.W. Mahoney, “Don Cook and Kevin MacDonald at Creative Alliance,” Art in America, vol. 94, no. 8, 172. 7. Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post, “‘Catalyst’ Explores a Home for Local Art,” November 19, 2010, T.20.
This article has been updated with the corrected dates for the retrospective exhibition at American University.