George Joseph McNeil

American, 1908-1995


George McNeil was born on February 22,1908 in New York City. He studied at the Pratt Institute, the Art Students League, the Hans Hoffmann School of Fine Arts and Columbia University. In 1935 he joined the Federal Art Project of the WPA and in 1936 he helped form the American Abstract Artists. He was known for his vibrant colors and energetic compositions. 

McNeil grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn in a working-class family of Irish descent that neither encouraged nor discouraged his interest in art. He took art classes Saturday mornings at the Brooklyn Museum and by the time he was sixteen, he was sold on modern art. Later he won a New York Art League scholarship to Pratt; he went there from 1927 to 1929.

In 1936, McNeil and a group of others formed the American Abstract Artists. They painted in a geometric cubist style; at the same time McNeil was beginning to create a different expressionist kind of art. He painted full time, but World War II broke out and McNeil spent time in the Navy. When he got out, in 1946, his first regular job was teaching at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

In the 1960s he turned away from pure abstraction, inserting roughly rendered figures in his paintings. The high color and the painterliness of the work are sustained in McNeil's figurative pieces of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As soon as the figure appeared in McNeil's work, so did his work's strong sexual content. Most of his 1960s figures are female, exuberantly so. He remained prolific until his death while simultaneously pursuing a teaching career that lasted until 1981 and included the directorship of the Pratt Institute's evening program. McNeil died in 1995.