Could the King of Disco Art Have Lived Anywhere but New York? Of Course Not

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A new exhibition spotlights James McMullan, whose illustrations have helped defined a Gotham's art scene for half a century.

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James McMullan / New York

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.

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"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."

Part of this illusion of animation comes through the fluidity of his watercolor. Yet that is not the goal but rather to "flatten the forms or at least to acknowledge that everything is happening on the surface of the paper." Even in what would be considered his most realistic work, the Saturday Night Fever disco paintings, "I produced the images with little patches of silvery color set side by side. As I painted those pictures I was inspired by the idea of Japanese woodcuts rather than an artist like Winslow Homer. In a lot of my work I use fusions of color to create the illusion of form or light, but as I make those fusion the pleasure is always feeling the flatness of the paper underneath. I almost never put one layer over another. . . . [Between] the energy of the drawing and the movement suggested by the fusions, perhaps I achieve fluidity."

The drama of light and the psychology of things emerging from or disappearing into shadow are key ingredients for a McMullan image. "I often use areas of white paper, suggesting bright light, to create the center of drama in my pictures," he says. "Because groundedness, the sense that figures relate to the surface they are standing on, is so satisfying to me, I take great pleasure in putting in the shadows that start at a figure's feet."

The starting point for a McMullan image is invariably a portion in each story that has emotional resonance. In The Front Page, for instance, it was the aggression he felt in the reporter using the prison warden's phone to call in his story. "I imagined him sitting on the warden's desk and swinging around to pick up the phone," McMullan says. "The moment seemed to sum up for me the rat-at-tat texture of the whole play." In A Delicate Balance it was the mood of the characters "sitting around, night after night," he adds, "drinking and sniping at each other like heavy, immobile flies caught in a upper class web, that led me to paint the figures as solid gouache blobs over a spidery, elegant interior."

The theater posters continue, as well as children's picture books with his wife, Kate. But now he is happily also working on paintings for a memoir of his early life in China, Canada and India, titled Leaving China, to be published by Algonquin Press in Spring 2014. "Judging from the pleasure and intensity with which I get up each day to work on these paintings, they are the most personal images I have ever made," he says. Fourteen of them are part of the current exhibition.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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