James McGarrell in his studio, c. 1992.

 

James McGarrell in his studio with his painting Alba (1987), c. 1992.

Photo: Herb Weitman/Washington University. Courtesy George Adams Gallery Archives.

We were saddened to only recently learn of James McGarrell’s passing earlier this year. One of the most celebrated painters of his generation, he was generally grouped with other realist painters such as Jack Beal and Philip Pearlstein. However he considered the term “fiction painting” to better describe his work, and the combination of allegory and wide-ranging literary and artistic references in his paintings defies easy categorization. McGarrell considered that “[his] canvases… are informed by invention, which is simply memory recharged by idea and imagination."

James McGarrell was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1930. Only four years out of graduate school at UCLA, he was the youngest of the twenty-three artists included in the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “New Images of Man” exhibition in 1959. He went on to exhibit widely in both the United States and Europe, participating in multiple Whitney Museum Annuals and Biennials and Carnegie Internationals; Documenta in Kassel, Germany and the Venice Biennale; and major surveys such as “Modern American Paintings” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston and the National Pinakothiki, Athens, Greece and “Since 1980: New Narrative Paintings” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His association with the gallery stretches back nearly to the beginning: his first exhibition was in 1961 and he continued to exhibit regularly through the early-2000s. For more than a decade he split his time between Europe and teaching positions at various universities across the country. He retired in 1993 to Newbury, Vermont, where he continued to live and work up to his death on February 7, 2020, just shy of his 90th birthday.