Going Ungently Into the Night

Robert McGowan's long journey of personal discovery.



photograph by Truusy Lory

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Editor's Note:  Robert McGowan died on November 15th, 2012, shortly after this story was published in our November 2012 issue.  He will be missed by many, but his art and writing, and the impact of his civic activism remain as his legacy.

“NO MORE ART” reads the scribbled sign intended to remind Robert McGowan to quit the art that diverts him from his writing.

The sign hangs over his writing space at his Cooper-Young home, but it does no good. He threw away a budding major art career decades ago, but still the art comes. Oh, not the ceramic platters that almost made him famous, not the dark paintings he almost trashed, but, now, a series of minimalist photographs and drawings as exquisite as his words on paper.

Today, McGowan, 65, uses what energies cancer treatment hasn’t burned out of him hustling to get more of those words published. A short-story collection came out last year. A novella, appropriately titled A Long and Indeterminate Perambulation, has just been published, to rave reviews. “Elegantly written and utterly original,” says Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler, “this book will surely endure.” More are in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, McGowan’s latest photos and drawings made their gallery debut at a recent retrospective on South Main. The artist himself showed up for the opening, a rarity, they say, back when he was developing a bi-coastal reputation in the early 1980s. This show introduced his old and new work to a new audience, taking him from the realm of the nearly forgotten back into that of the merely eccentric.

A man of exacting standards who can seem ascetic, McGowan is actually quite engaging. It’s just that he has a low tolerance for nonsense, and no kind words for the modern cult of self-promotion and its twin idols: commercialism and celebrity. This perhaps explains why, despite his many talents, his star has not shown more brightly, or at least more publicly.

McGowan’s greatest public recognition locally came from being the early point man for the redevelopment of the South Main Historic District. Not one to do anything by halves, he threw himself into this effort with a fervor that doomed his focus on art but armed him with fodder for his later writing.

“I never again made the effort to achieve ordinary art-world success,” he wrote in an e-mail, his preferred interview medium these days. “The South Main years disrupted that, plus I think I’d pretty much had it with all the bs one must deal with re. galleries and such. A pain.”

Untitled (See Backwards. Or, you have a friend here, you know.) (1982) Collection: Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Smithsonian Instituion. - photograph by Truusy Lory

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