A new exhibition spotlights James McMullan, whose illustrations have helped defined a Gotham's art scene for half a century.
Few contemporary illustrators have contributed to New York City's visual legacy as much as James McMullan—from visual essays in New York Magazine during in the '60s and '70s (including the imagery for the article that inspired the film Saturday Night Fever) to an ongoing series of narrative posters for the Lincoln Center Theater. McMullan, born in 1934 in Tsingtao, China, the son of Anglican missionaries, has always needed, what he calls "the laissez-faire of New York to release the tortured artist underneath." The sophistication of his New York clients, and support of playwrights like John Guare and art directors like Milton Glaser, have allowed him "to sneak doses of melancholy energy into assignments that were ostensibly about something else: The loneliness of my disco paintings, for instance, as opposed to the glitter and sheen of the movie." On the occasion of his first major retrospective at New York's School of Visual Arts, McMullan says that, "It's hard to imagine my getting away with so much uncommercial attitude in Los Angeles."
The "SVA Masters Series" exhibition is an honor bestowed on artists, designers, or admen on whose shoulders others in their disciplines have stood. McMullan's work dating from 1957 (on view at SVA's Master's Gallery, 209 East 23rd St.) reveals an evolutionary process of what he calls the struggle "to use drawing, particularly of the figure, to express the emotional content of the stories and plays I am commissioned to illustrate." Anyone involved with or interested in the act of drawing will find McMullan's struggles to be as illuminating as the actual illustrations.
"Drawing has never been a simple objective to me, since accuracy in drawing has only a limited usefulness," he says. "It is all the permutations of exaggeration and the distortions that are created unconsciously by my particular nervous system that actually make the work expressive." What might be described as McMullan's "abstract realism" captures the essence of the figures that populate such posters as Six Degrees of Separation, Dinner at Eight, Ten Unknowns, A Fair Country, Belle Epoch and Ah Wilderness to name a few of dozens.
"Drawing from life, where one must see, think and produce the lines under the pressure of the model's imminent exhaustion, is a thrilling, in-the-moment experience unlike any other," he says. "The model is generously giving you a 'held' moment and the opportunity to examine and react to another human being. When this process is going well, the ordinary, self conscious mind falls away and you reach a state of heightened focus."
One of the drawings in his show, printed on the invitation, of a nude male figure seen from behind and painted in various bright expressive colors, achieves this heightened focus. "The drawing is both realistic and abstract, because the non-naturalistic color is used intuitively to reflect the pressures and changes of direction that I am feeling in the forms of the man's body," he says. "There is no real anatomical science involved here, but somehow the color does communicate more powerfully than without it the life forces that animate the figure."