Going Ungently Into the Night
Robert McGowan's long journey of personal discovery.
photograph by Truusy Lory
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.”
A lifelong Memphian, McGowan’s career in art began in earnest in the mid 1970s. Within a few years he was becoming nationally prominent. In less than a decade he had a sold-out show at a 57th Street gallery in New York City, and his work had been taken into the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and major corporate buyers. He had gallery shows coast-to-coast, and his name was featured regularly in lists of the top ceramic artists in the nation.
Clay wall pieces were his ticket to early recognition. Circular in shape, these ceramic platters were fired up to 12 times each to obtain the colors and textures McGowan desired. Many were thrown away. He made dozens of keepers, which could take weeks to finish. This work was seen as edging him toward the forefront of the studio movement that was taking clay in a direction more painterly than functional.
Gregory M. Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, says McGowan’s work, several pieces of which are included in that museum’s collection, “played a central role in transforming the field from one in which the vessel dominated the conversation to one in which clay-based works . . . challenged the dominance of painting in the art world.” No mean feat.
(McGowan today does not disavow this earlier work, easily his most commercially successful, “but I think my current work is more mature, more true to myself.”)
By the time the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art presented a one-man show of his paintings in 1985, he had all but stopped producing these labor-intensive clay pieces. Although he managed some painting on South Main, his time was increasingly eaten up by an obsession to reclaim the area.
In 1982, he and his then-wife, Annie Mahaffey, had become urban pioneers, buying 418 South Main, once the boarding house from which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — although they did not realize its infamy at the time of purchase. McGowan says he was happy with their house near Memphis State, where he and his father had built a studio, but that Annie thought the neighborhood was getting run-down. He concurred, although apparently reluctantly, and they bought the property on South Main in a foreclosure sale on the courthouse steps for about $8,800.
The couple renovated the badly deteriorated building and, subsequently, became champions of South Main. They were instrumental in the founding of the South Main Historic District. Previously socially reserved, the couple embraced out-loud roles as community activists, writing letters and columns, going before the City Council and various boards and commissions, first to secure official attention, and then to shape the development around their concept of the needs of South Main.
Adding to his commitment, McGowan founded the arts journal Number: in 1987 and the Memphis Center for Contemporary Art on South Main in 1988. But for an artistically tempered man whose patience for philistines was decidedly limited — as was theirs with him, undoubtedly — mixing it up with civic and arts bureaucracies proved eventually too much to bear.
McGowan today is in no mood to rehash the conflicts or hurt feelings, but the constant tensions and frustrations went against the nature of a private person given to holding fast to his intellectual vision. By the time the art center and his marriage folded in the early 1990s, he was rubbed raw emotionally, and would retreat from public view and the neighborhood for years.
“The whole experience turned finally into what I now look back on as nothing less than nightmarish,” he writes of the South Main days in an unpublished 2005 memoir contained in the Robert McGowan Collection, as yet uncatalogued at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. “A very great deal of stress and arduous, consuming struggle, so much that in the end we, Annie and I, were both changed by it, and, in very large measure directly because of the ordeal of our time there, divorced.”
Those were days of “truly devastating loss,” he says, of friends, his neighborhood, the center, his career, his wife. “It took many years to sort out the emotions attending the experience. But I’m proud of the work we did there.” (McGowan’s place as a South Main pioneer has not gone unnoticed. This past September, he was presented with the Downtown Memphis Commission’s 2012 Vision Award.)
After a period of introspection and recovery in a Middle Tennessee log cabin, he eventually fashioned a new life with his second wife, Peg, herself an Emmy award-winner as a camera operator at NBC-TV, and a new career in writing. His short stories have been published in a shelf of small literary magazines. McGowan has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. Some of the photographs and drawings he can’t stop doing have been published in these same small magazines, but none had appeared in a gallery show until recently.
McGowan’s friend Bert Sharpe, who retired eight years ago after 21 years at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, is putting on this particular retrospective, which will be up until late December, at the South Main space he shares with his wife, Patti Lechman. Included in this exhibition of recent work are earlier dark paintings, abraded minimalist oils on Masonite, that, in his last days on South Main, McGowan in a slough of despond was chucking into the trash before Sharpe came along and saved them.
So this should be the happy story of the resurrection of a remarkable local talent who in recent decades has resided more in the shadows than out. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple. The catch is that McGowan has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that he is sure resulted from his exposure to Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant widely used by American forces in Vietnam when he served there in the U.S. Army in the late 1960s. Chemotherapy and radiation have not yet reduced the tumor. Should such reduction occur, a stem-cell transplant may lie ahead.
The resultant sense of urgency is propelling his writings into print. Nam: Things That Weren’t True and Other Stories, 37 stories drawn on his Vietnam experience, came out last year from England’s Meridian Star Press. Another collection, Stories from the Art World, was briefly available, but McGowan says he withdrew it because the reproduction standards were not up to snuff. The art world stories will be included in Happy Again at Last: Life in the Art World, which McGowan expects Shanti Arts Publishing to bring out within the year. Much of his writings reflect the art world; according to his 2005 memoir, he already had at that point four unpublished novels based largely on his South Main experience alone.
McGowan was born in 1947 in Nashville, but grew up in a farming area near Collierville. He describes his as an “idyllic” childhood characterized by many hours alone roaming the countryside. His father and mother were teachers — he biology at then Memphis State University and she in an elementary school.
Young Robert read philosophy on his own while still at Collierville High School, and was something of a musical prodigy. He made all-state band on the trumpet and all-state orchestra on the violin. While still in high school he played violin with the Memphis State String Orchestra and in the Memphis Concert Orchestra. Many expected a musical career. Not Rob. “I felt my talent in music was basically technical, not creative, so I didn’t feel driven to stay with it. Plus, being a musician is a very social occupation — not for me at all.”
More than halfway toward an undergraduate philosophy degree at Memphis State, McGowan joined the Army under a program that allowed enlistees to choose their assignments, likely avoiding the infantry and Vietnam combat. He became a clerk, but a clerk in the Ninth Infantry Division. While he wasn’t in combat, his base was near enough that it took frequent mortar and rocket fire. Recovery from the emotional toll of Vietnam took time, but he finished his undergraduate degree, got his MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and returned to Memphis to work.
When the initial art work didn’t go to his satisfaction, he earned a library science degree and took a job at the Memphis Public Library, where he founded the Turner Clark Gallery (showcasing local art) before leaving to take up art again full time.
McGowan’s chief desire today is to make sure his work will survive him. He seems comfortable with where he has been these last years. “It took me several years truly to recover from the South Main nightmare — the trauma of it and, I think, the loss of contact with self — before I entered again into my own head,” he says via e-mail. “That’s when the writing began. Way less messy than making art, believe me.”
“Great in that way . . . but the larger thing is I’ve never felt more where I should be than in writing. I’ve always felt totally at ease doing it.” Plus, he adds, the traumas of Vietnam and South Main and art have provided him with no end of material.
As for “NO MORE ART,” he writes, “I’ve felt it takes the energy away from writing. But, still, I cannot stop doing it. I’ve tried . . . It’s a compulsion.
“My great worry now is that I’ll croak before I see the majority of my writing in print and before I can do more of it. I have a novel in progress, but because of my condition, the horrible zonked-itude-osity-ism-ness that characterizes my life now, I simply cannot do any writing at present. It takes far more energy and concentration than I have . . .”
In conjunction with the publication of the Vietnam stories, he told an interviewer that he has “rather little emotion about dying,” apart from the grief it would cause his wife and loved ones, but “I do want the rest of my work to see the light of day . . . I am my work, and I want my work to live.”
Michael Clark was an award-winning reporter for The Commercial Appeal in the 1970s and 1980s who left journalism to raise his children. His work also has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Century.