Charles McGee’s Vibrant Art and the Beauty of Detroit
Recently, I spent an afternoon with the artist Charles McGee, at his home in Rosedale Park, a neighborhood in northwest Detroit. I was trying to understand the thinking behind his new mural downtown, titled “Unity,” which is a hundred and eighteen feet high and fifty feet wide, and which, as of May 31st, can be found on the side of a thirteen-story building at 28 West Grand River Avenue.
McGee showed me a couple of different drawings and mockups of the mural, which is entirely black-and-white. The composition is a complicated interweaving of dots and zigzags, lines, blocks of solid black, and indeterminate organic shapes. There are also representational elements, but it takes a couple of minutes of looking to pick them out. A snake slithers down the top-right section of the design. A small bird nestles beneath curly shapes. What had seemed to be a random collection of polka dots turns out, on closer inspection, to be, possibly, the hindquarters of a leopard.
“Is this primarily an abstract work?” I asked McGee.
“No,” he said.
“You see it as representational, then?”
“Is this work about Detroit somehow?”
“Yes and no.”
“Are these designs coming from African art?”
“Do you see yourself as a black artist?”
“A Detroit artist?”
“An American artist?”
“But you are all of those things at least in some way, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’m black, have lived in Detroit most of my life, and am American.”
“But those things don’t define you as an artist?”
He shook his head slowly from side to side. I should also mention that he was smiling as he threw me one negative answer after another.
I thanked McGee, got back in my car, and headed south, taking the long way home through as many side streets as possible. Detroit takes up a hundred and forty-three square miles, and the city, these days, can be so quiet. The housing crisis of 2008 hit Detroit especially hard. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to three or four houses surrounded mostly by open space—a couple of trees growing in an empty lot, three guys sitting on their stoop, having a conversation. It is still a beautiful city. My next-door neighbor, Denise, mowed several acres of grass in the empty lots behind us, transforming the space into a vast, park-size back yard where her grandchildren play.
The stage for Detroit’s economic collapse was already being set back in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, when the automobile-manufacturing jobs that its residents depended on began to dry up and move away. What some people call the Twelfth Street Riot, and others call the Uprising, or the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, took place a half century ago this month. It is currently being revisited at museums all around the city (the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Historical Museum, and more) and it will soon hit the multiplex: “Detroit,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, comes out in August.
Though McGee rejected the label of “Detroit artist,” his life has been shaped by the city and its history. He is now ninety-two years old. He first came here from a sharecropper’s farm near Clemson, South Carolina, in 1934. He’d been working in the cotton fields, not going to school, and he didn’t know how to read. He was tossed into the fourth grade to sink or swim; he swam. He taught himself, mostly, to draw and paint, grabbing up whatever instruction he could get. He served in the Marine Corps during the Second World War and was on the ground in Nagasaki just weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped. Then he went back to Detroit, where he experienced the riots and the upheavals of the late sixties. By then he was an important artist in the city. He spent 1968 in Spain, taking in the work of Miró and Picasso. Then back to Detroit, where he organized a landmark show, “Seven Black Artists,” at the Detroit Artists Market. He ran his own gallery, Gallery 7, for many years. He taught art classes at Eastern Michigan University and then at Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center until just a few years ago. He is, now, one of Detroit’s living cultural institutions. People in Detroit who know Charles McGee love to tell you that they love Charles McGee. And they do.
Over the years, McGee’s art has worked its way into the contours of the city. Once you have an eye for it, you spot it in art museums, in public parks, at libraries. There’s a famous work at the Detroit Institute of Arts called “Noah’s Ark,” a painting in which two figures, dressed in what appears to be traditional African garb, traverse a backdrop teeming with shapes, colors, and symbols. Mostly abstract sculptural pieces sit in public spots all across the city, their jumpy lines coming together and diverging. If McGee’s art is about anything, it’s about how symbols, shapes, and designs leap out of their immediate context into a realm of free play. In that realm, the importance of a bird or a snake is not what the bird or snake might mean, or where it originated, but about how its shape adds energy and movement to the composition as a whole. He has also said that his work is about “the power of togetherness … It’s all connected just like we are all connected.”
“There’s a potent sweep to McGee’s art,” Mark Stryker, the art critic for the Detroit Free Press for many years and a friend of mine, put it to me recently. “The surface pleasures and emotional punch are immediately accessible to anyone, but his formal authority keeps your head and heart engaged, and his fundamental optimism—persistent but never naïve—embodies the soul of Detroit.”
Seen in this way, McGee’s work does reflect his city, though its presence has been transmuted into the realm of semi-abstraction. When we spoke, McGee seemed happiest talking about the extreme formalism of Josef Albers. In the downtown mural, there is only one allusion to Detroit: a few straight black lines at the very top-left corner. These, McGee explained to me, are a reference to smokestacks and, thus, to the legacy of heavy industry. Looking at the drawing for the mural a few days later, I thought that the heavy industry of Detroit had never looked so airy and light. Since at least the sixties and seventies, and often enough even today, the visual art that comes out of Detroit has been loaded down with the look and feel of postindustrial collapse. The favored color is soot gray or, better yet, rust; the mood is sombre. McGee’s work, by contrast, has energy, movement, life.
That energy and movement do have a special resonance for a city that rose from very little, collapsed into a patchwork of ruins, and then began to rebuild itself, all more or less within the lifetime of Charles McGee. There are many ways to make art from such an experience. McGee takes a philosophical approach: from his perspective, the story of Detroit is but another instance of a cosmic tale in which destruction and rebirth are inextricably intertwined.