Master in our Midst
Robert McGinnis is one of the most famous artists that you’ve probably never heard of and that’s just fine with him
(page 1 of 2)
On the wall of my parents’ dining room hangs an original painting of a sort not usually found in dining rooms. It shows a busty, auburn-haired sexpot in
a clingy negligee, kneeling seductively on a thick shag rug. I’ve seen guests arch their brows or twinkle their eyes at it, thinking God knows what—but the artists among them always pause to study the anatomy, the design, the athletic brushwork. And then they confirm what they had eagerly begun to suspect: The painting is signed “R. McGinnis.”
Robert E. McGinnis is a sort of pop culture Rembrandt. Collectors of his art especially prize the languorous “McGinnis women” he painted to adorn the covers of detective novels by writers like John D. MacDonald, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson (“the Dimestore Dostoyevsky”), bearing such campy titles as Who Killed Dr. Sex?, The Homicidal Virgin and Dig That Crazy Grave.
Another sort of McGinnis collector hunts down his movie-poster art. His very first poster, for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), is a classic of the form. A bejeweled and black-dressed Audrey Hepburn stands with one hip cocked, a cat perched in the crook of her neck and an impossibly long cigarette holder extending from her perfect red mouth. The last movie poster McGinnis painted, for the animated smash The Incredibles (2004), shows Mr. Incredible standing super-heroically before a pool of bubbling lava, impervious to the bad-guy chaos whirling around him. When Brad Bird, the film’s writer and director, received McGinnis’s working sketches, he pinned them to a wall at Pixar Studios, summoned his battalion of CGI geniuses and instructed, “Think like Bob McGinnis.”
Fans of illustration know The Incredibles montage is a comic echo of McGinnis’s own legendary poster art for six James Bond films, including Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and Live and Let Die. In a culture that now values what it used to throw away, McGinnis’s Bond-and-babes posters appear to have become immortal. At Christie’s in London in 2011, a McGinnis illustration for Diamonds Are Forever fetched $130,000, the highlight of that year’s vintage poster auction. “Robert McGinnis is a bit of the holy grail for many James Bond collectors,” Peter Lorenz, a Bond collector in London, explains. “His Bond artwork is iconic.”
Though few know him by name, McGinnis is probably among the most widely encountered artists of the last half-century. “There wasn’t a person alive in the seventies who didn’t see Bob’s painting,” says Charles Ardai, a publisher of crime fiction who stumbled upon McGinnis’s artwork in childhood, while rummaging through his father’s collection of detective novels. “Besides that, he’s an extraordinary artist.”
McGinnis works out of a cozy studio above a row of shops in Old Greenwich. Not long ago he agreed to meet me there—a coup, I thought, since he has no affection for “publicity.” As I approached the building, I saw him walking across Arcadia Road, still robust at eighty-seven, a wintry version of the handsome, rough-hewn farm boy who played guard for Ohio State’s national championship football team in 1944. He was carrying a cup of coffee that he’d bought for me. Up in his studio I spilled the coffee, but McGinnis, a model of courtliness, kindly faulted the cup. Then he put on some Mozart and showed me the painting being born on his easel, a scene of an old stone house in backcountry Greenwich. On the wall behind him hung a canvas of the Aspetuck River, fiery autumn leaves reflecting off the dark water.
These paintings remind one that there’s yet a third McGinnis to reckon with—the “fine art” or “gallery” McGinnis. This Robert McGinnis is chiefly a maker of landscapes—Western scenes, historical pictures and somber Ohio farmscapes that were praised, in a handwritten letter to McGinnis, by none other than Andrew Wyeth. Humans are not always absent from these paintings, but they are subordinate to nature’s immensity. “Nature. That’s the key word,” McGinnis says. “We are an element in nature, and rather alone, you know.”
One of his own favorites, “Freedom’s Gate,” shows Plimoth Plantation under a veil of snow in 1627, seven winters after the Mayflower hove to in Cape Cod Bay. While the title suggests a romantic treatment of the subject, the painting itself is almost unremittingly bleak: A cloaked man stands with his back to us in a frozen lane; rude wooden houses discharge wisps of smoke; and a heavy sky, promising more snow, hangs over a ship at anchor in the bay.
To research the painting, McGinnis visited a re-creation of the long-gone village in Massachusetts. It was November, the sky was gray, and sleet was falling and sticking in his hair. As McGinnis shook off the chill, he envisioned the tiny populace grimly persevering as winter kept whittling down its number. Then he returned to Old Greenwich to make his painting, using the notoriously difficult egg tempera that he favors. “Wyeth said egg tempera has ‘a lost, lonely quality,’” McGinnis says. “I felt what he was saying through his paintings, and through some of mine, too.” That quality certainly resides in “Freedom’s Gate.” The work’s whole effect is one of coldness, isolation—and quiet resolve.
Illustration occupies a strange place in American culture. McGinnis tells me that art world folk generally don’t consider illustration art at all. “You’re consigned to a lower level of creativity. It’s a shame. It drove N. C. Wyeth crazy. He could see his son, Andrew, breaking away from that—the ‘illustrator’ tag. And he could foresee how high up Andrew’s artwork would go. But N. C. himself would always be condemned as an illustrator, and he used to sit in a darkened room upstairs, alone. He’d sit there and despair that he would never be regarded as a great painter, a great artist. He was a ‘mere’ illustrator.”
Paradox: A painter can become a millionaire art star without knowing how to draw very well, while an illustrator can draw with the skill of an old master and remain anonymous. Why should this be? One reason is that, by midcentury, all art considered major was abstract, an exploration of pure form. To paint recognizable “stuff”—nudes, landscapes, bowls of fruit—was hopelessly square. Even the supreme realist painters of the day, Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, suffered the derision of critics who said they were illustrators in disguise. As for the arch-illustrator himself: “The prejudice against Norman Rockwell began not because he was an illustrator working for reproduction,” Murray Tinkelman, a renowned artist and illustration historian, tells me, “but because his work was narrative and realistic. It represented specific scenes, and that was considered taboo.”
The Pop artists of the sixties may have broken that taboo with their comic strip panels and soup cans, but McGinnis, among other illustrators, could abide neither the crudeness of their output nor the praise that it garnered. “The great illustrators, Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, Frederic Remington, they’re far superior to anything Andy Warhol ever did,” McGinnis says with a flick of his hand. “As for myself, I gladly accept the term illustrator. So did Rockwell. Yet he could paint circles around almost all the masters who ever lived, in Europe and anywhere else.”
In the curious, broken history of illustration, where does McGinnis stand? “Bob McGinnis is absolutely a giant in this field,” says C. F. Payne, himself among the most admired living illustrators. “And there’s only a handful of them. You look at his work and you just marvel at it—but of course he shies away from compliments.” Twenty years ago, Payne says, McGinnis seemed utterly baffled by his induction into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, alongside early masters Winslow Homer, Maxfield Parrish and N. C. Wyeth. “He was like, ‘Why? I don’t know why you guys think…’” Payne recalls, chuckling softly. Charles Ardai, the crime publisher, adds, “If any critic spoke of Bob the way he speaks of himself, I’d punch him in the nose.”
Payne, who teaches at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio, says his current crop of students, steeped in fantasy illustration (dragons, warlocks), doesn’t automatically know about McGinnis in the way that today’s Major League ballplayers don’t automatically know about Joe DiMaggio. “Then you show them the art and they go, ‘Oh, my god.’” Realist illustrators in particular regard McGinnis with a respect bordering on awe. Glen Orbik, who has painted covers for novels by Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, says, “I had a great teacher, Fred Fixler, who was famous for doing posters for B movies like Man with the X-Ray Eyes. When we asked him, ‘Who do you study?’ ‘Bob McGinnis’ was the first name out of his mouth.” Orbik and his colleagues hunted down all the old McGinnis paperbacks they could find, cutting off the covers and preserving them in plastic album sleeves. Orbik says, “I must have liberated 700 or 800 McGinnis books from the used book stores of Southern California.”