Kristen Gaylord on Mary McDonnell

Mary McDonnell, Untitled, 2007, ink and mixed media on Japanese paper, 14 x 16 inches (35.6 x 40.6 cm). © Mary McDonnell / Photo: Ellen McDermott
Mary McDonnell, Untitled, 2007, ink and mixed media on Japanese paper, 14 x 16 inches (35.6 x 40.6 cm). © Mary McDonnell / Photo: Ellen McDermott

Audio Transcript
This drawing was made at the MacDowell Colony, where I was doing a residency in January of 2007. My studio was in the woods, surrounded by snow, which dampened any sounds that might be heard, and I felt the presence of silence all around me. I started focusing on the sounds that were audible: the ambient sounds of the studio, like a mechanical hum. The sounds I created by moving in the space. The wind and an occasional birdcall. I had been planning to work on painting, but the materials I brought weren’t working out, and I was frustrated. One morning after sitting still a while, with no preconceived thoughts, I got up and walked to my drawing table and started drawing. I drew horizontal red lines by simply moving my hand from the left side of the page to the right. I used an old pen that was in my box and mixed some red ink with gouache that I happened to have with me. At the beginning, in the first few drawings, all the lines were fairly perfect. But one morning the pen hit a fiber and caused the ink to bleed out from the line. I remember pausing, holding my breath for a brief moment, and then letting go, thinking, “Just keep going.” And so I continued on with the line, working with whatever came up, and letting the accidents be. As I did more and more drawings, I became aware of what caused the ink to erupt, which disturbed the evenness of the lines and created a blob, or an incident on the page. Sometimes it was a raised fiber in the paper that the pen nib would come in contact with. Sometimes it was the mix of the gouache and ink, that it wasn’t the right consistency. Or the incidents happened when I broke my concentration, had a lapse of mindfulness, or my thoughts drifted away from the page. It became interesting to me how and when the incidents arose, and how these clusters or centers located a scar, an accident, a stray thought. I laughed out loud, seeing my veering thoughts, my inattentiveness recorded. I started each day of the residency this way, and made fifty or so of these drawings altogether. The experience or act of making a drawing is what became important to me, more so than any one individual drawing.

Translation across media is notoriously ineffective, and when I sat down to write about Mary McDonnell’s Untitled (2007), my frustration and poor results exemplified that difficulty. The idioms lost between image and text are no different from untranslatable figures of speech. Some art begs to be explained, written about, and encased in academic language (conceptual art comes to mind), but McDonnell’s work demands to be experienced.

Both McDonnell’s paintings and drawings preserve and present their creation, acting simultaneously as objects and archival records. Yet the particular invitation of the works on paper in the “Red Line Drawings” series is situated in their mechanical familiarity. (Who has not drawn a line in pen on paper?) Acquaintance with this action increases our appreciation of McDonnell’s skill—forty-four lines, remarkably straight—as well as our understanding of what she calls “incidents” in the process: the inevitable blotches and bleeds of ink. Thus, during sustained viewing the character of Untitled vacillates between approachable and aloof: the intimate scale draws us in, but the fine art context places it just beyond reach; the familiar action recalls a commonplace experience, but the artist’s dexterity repositions it on the authoritative gallery wall. It is in this vacillating, this trembling—echoing the human trembling of the lines—that the complexity of this deceptively simple work is revealed.

McDonnell started these works when she was experiencing artistic frustration while on a residency at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. In an attempt to still her mind and enter a meditative place she started drawing lines on a piece of paper whose handmade quality had captivated her. One page a day, for several days, the lines proceeded without disturbance. When the first blotch arrived, McDonnell paused before accepting it as a necessity of the process, and then, as she described to me, “that was that.”1 The final number of drawings in the series is around fifty (she is unsure of the exact quantity), and they record McDonnell overcoming a passage of unproductivity through dedication, practice, and repetition. As physical documentation of her mental discipline they connote a schoolchild’s written lines or a monk’s manuscripts. Additionally, the solution to McDonnell’s struggle was also a beginning: besides representing a completed task the artwork resembles the grid of blank sheet music facing a composer, pregnant with possibility.2 The inherent potential of these lines effectively soothed the artist’s frustration, impelling her to bring that mentality back to her studio and subsequent work.

While the artist is undoubtedly skilled, her work proceeds from subjective intuition more than from premeditated technical consideration. “[From] the gut,” she explains, while embedding her fingers in her abdomen. Everything about this series of works could be construed as accidental: the number and placement of the lines, the irregular incidents, even the color of the ink (red was the color McDonnell happened to have the first day she began). Yet these characteristics are only “accidental” in the sense of being unplanned. They arise from the intuition of an artist who has spent her career considering color and form, who stripped these works down to reveal the fundamental tenets behind her more visually complex works: expressive line, lyrical movement, evocative color, careful positioning. In this sense the intuition that McDonnell heeds is both an inexplicable prompting and the automatic response of learned mastery.

The generative practices that led to Untitled reflect McDonnell’s broader creative habits. Beyond facilitating the visceral composition of each piece, the artist has situated herself in and towards life in a posture of attentiveness. In her upstate New York studio she paints amid the “silence” of nature, which she has discovered contains a polyphony of birds and running water. She lives with paintings for months, until she perceives the stirring that reveals how finally to fulfill them. Simone Weil wrote that true prayer is an attitude of attentiveness,3 but McDonnell is more of a midwife than a worshipper. The monolithic “act of creation” really comprises a series of acts, continual preparation for the awaited delivery.

1. All facts about the genesis of this piece, details about the habits of McDonnell’s practice, and record of her words are from an interview she graciously granted the author (23 June 2011).
2. McDonnell has a musical background, and her work’s affinities with music are not tangential. Multiple composers, including Meredith Monk, Linda Dusman, and Fred Hersch, have responded to her art in their own medium, continuing the cross-disciplinary trend.
3. Simone Weil, “Waiting for God” in Waiting for God (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), 57-58.

Mary McDonnell Biography

Mary McDonnell (b. 1959, Saginaw, MI) received her BFA from Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo (1981), and her MFA from Syracuse University, New York (1984). She was granted the Western Michigan University Arts Centennial Distinguished Artist Award (2003) and the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance Fellowship Award (2004). McDonnell completed numerous artist residencies, including at the Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus, Schwandorf, Germany (2007); The MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire (2007); and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Amherst (2002, 2009, 2010). Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Miller Block Gallery, Boston (2005), and James Graham Gallery, New York (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014). McDonnell’s work has also been included in group exhibitions at various venues, most recently including the Delaware Center for Creative Arts, Wilmington (2005); Kunst-und Gewerbeverein Regensburg, Germany (2008); the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia, Spain (2009); James Graham Gallery, New York (2006, 2009, 2010); the Visual Arts Gallery at the School of Visual Arts, New York (2010); the Christine Price Gallery at Castleton State College, Vermont (2011); the Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York (2011); the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (2012); and The Hafnarjordur Centre of Culture and Fine Arts, Hafnarfjör∂ur, Iceland (2013). McDonnell lives and works in Brooklyn and upstate New York. More information about her work can be found at
Kristen Gaylord Biography
Kristen Gaylord earned her MA from and is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She is interested in modern and contemporary art with an emphasis on postwar America, and also specializes in Latin American modernism and the history of photography. She lives and works in New York City.