Retrospective exhibit showcases artist's contribution to contemporary art

Photos by Fredrick Koeppel/Special to The Commercial Appeal
From the Robert McGowan retrospective exhibit: untitled nonfunctional ceramic cups and vessels (foreground) and a black-and-white photograph, "French Horn #3."

Photos by Fredrick Koeppel/Special to The Commercial Appeal From the Robert McGowan retrospective exhibit: untitled nonfunctional ceramic cups and vessels (foreground) and a black-and-white photograph, "French Horn #3."

In 1991, in a fit of despair, Robert McGowan took the artwork he had produced over the past nine years and left it at the curb for the trash workers to take away.

He was despondent over an impending divorce from his wife, Annie; the closing, for lack of funding, of the nonprofit Memphis Center for Contemporary Art, which he founded in 1988 and directed for three years; and leaving his beloved South Main Street.

McGowan's friend and fellow artist Bert Sharpe came along, saw this trove of 40 or so abandoned paintings — minimal abstractions on black backgrounds — and hauled them back to the storefront building a few blocks north near Vance that he and his wife, Patti Lechman, had purchased and renovated in 1987, at McGowan's urging.

Robert McGowan, "Untitled (Night fierce, hollow for battle; and the rain of red ribbons. This is for Bill),"  ceramic.

Robert McGowan, "Untitled (Night fierce, hollow for battle; and the rain of red ribbons. This is for Bill)," ceramic.

And there those paintings remained, unseen for 22 years, except for occasional visitors to Sharpe and Lechman's Japanese-themed loft apartment.

That changes Friday. Sharpe has organized an exhibition for McGowan that opens with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. and continues on display from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

On view will be not only the "black" paintings but, in a true retrospective manner, work that goes back to 1967 and pieces that the artist completed this year — photographs of altered drawings, under adverse circumstances.

McGowan is battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Over seven months, he endured what he described as "increasingly tough chemo regimens to shrink the thing, but it won't go away." The peculiar stubbornness of the tumor he attributes to his exposure to the infamous Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant extensively used by the American military in South Vietnam, where McGowan served in 1968 and '69.

He continued in an e-mail message: "At first, my odds were 90 percent favorable, but they've over time gradually reduced to (about) 20 percent tops. I've now begun radiation in an effort to shrink the tumor so that stem cell transplant will be possible; SCT is the only possibility for cure, but they can't do that unless the tumor can be shrunk, and, even if the tumor can be shrunk, the prospects of cure via SCT are in my case a bit on the slim side."

Sharpe emphasizes that although some of the work is for sale, the exhibition is not a fundraiser for McGowen. "I'm doing this because for me, he's one of the two best artists in Memphis" — the other he said is Don Estes — "and he deserves the recognition for this body of work."

McGowan exhibited so infrequently in this region that many people who attended shows at Memphis Center for Contemporary Art, an institution that helped raise the local consciousness about contemporary art, didn't realize that he was an artist.

The present exhibition reveals that McGowan's sensibility always ran to abstraction. The earliest pieces in the show are black-and-white photographs, "French Horn #1, 2, 3," that focus on the brass instrument's shining clusters of coiled tubing. Functional salt-glaze pottery of 1972 gives way to small, delicate nonfunctional "cups" and vessels of 1975.

A series of beautiful large platters (1979-82) makes the equivalent of sculptural abstract paintings with glazes so intricate that they had to be fired eight to 12 times. Then, through the black paintings of 1982 to 1985, which include a group of five titled after side streets to South Main, and on to the more recent pieces, the photographs of stone steps, underpasses and drawings that emphasize the formal graphite nature of the subject.

‘Robert McGowan Retrospective’

Friday through Sunday at Bert Sharpe and Patti Lechman’s Gallery, 334 S. Main. Call 901-521-9916.

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