Hollis MacDonald — Missing From The MIA


Wherever I go I love to visit art museums.  A museum’s collection reflects the values of a community, what people hold dear.

In my home town we have the Minneapolis Institute of Art with its world class world view.  A little of everything, from pre-ancient to post-modern, each piece is an example of the highest quality.  Its Rembrandt may be the finest in North America.  The Van Gogh is among his best found anywhere.  The eclectic quality of the extensive collection makes the MIA an ideal teaching museum.

My grandchildren, girls now eleven and nine, lived in Europe and when I visited them I took them with me trekking through galleries of works of humanity’s enduring beauty.  They are children after all and I would rather not they grow up with memories scarred by forced-marches with Granpa, so I limit our tours to their own spans of engagement.  They are resilient and curious children and they have been known to go more than two hours before showing temperaments of disenchantment.  I tend to lead them to something they might have seen on a poster or in a book, like Mona Lisa, or a place they might recognize, like Venice or Rome, or by someone they may have heard of, like Pablo Picasso, and from there we wander, room to room, pausing to gaze at whatever attracts the eye, and we keep moving, flowing along towards the next attractive thing, and the next.  They read the wall didactics out loud.  They are home now and we keep up our museum field trips in the Twin Cities where there are several, and they are familiar enough already with the MIA to lead me around to what they care to see first, and next, and eventually we get lost at a place they never been before we find our way out.  Some museums you can see the whole thing in an hour or two.  The MIA asks return visits.  There’s enough in there to sustain wonderful wonder.

Could The Heart But Know The Way     1967                 oil on canvas    51 x 45″

In my twenties, decades ago, I used to have a job at the MIA making AV programs in the education department.  The size and floor plan of the place has doubled at least since then, and even if the core of its collection is familiar to me the layout has changed with additional gallery space and we easily get lost, which is to say Granpa doesn’t exactly know his way around any more.  When I worked there the museum had just undergone a vast expansion to enable it to expand its collection, put on more and bigger special exhibitions, and pursue a goal of open storage, showing its whole collection instead of keeping a lot of it stashed in storage out of sight.  I was telling this to Clara and Tess, my grandkids, lost again trying to find our way out down a stair route somewhere on the periphery, when I recognized a wall as a remodeled area that used to be my office.  The kids paid little interest since the actual office didn’t exist any longer, there was nothing to see but a wall.

And it was time to go.  Later, thinking about memories of that office, I remembered the painting hung on my wall: Could The Heart But Know The Way by Hollis MacDonald.  This painting was something tangible I could show the kids to illustrate my granpa story next time we visit the MIA.

It hung in the office of the head of docents where I first saw it.  The image stunned and soothed me at the same time.  Sinister and celestial.  Playful yet dangerous.  Foreboding but hopeful.  Burnished etherial colors defined eccentric concentric and opposing shapes seen from a perspective of space probe geometry.  I passed by that office at least a dozen times a day.  When the head docent left for a job back east the painting went away to deep storage.  The new occupant preferred Hudson River School.  Gallery space was precious.  The focus of the paintings collection did not favor contemporary modern and even within this narrow niche this painting was not considered critical to the curator, who was more interested in the 17th century, as I recall.

The artist was from Minnesota, an unknown with sketchy baggage.  They said he was once a great star who went to New York expected to impact the scene like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and David Hockney but something happened — nobody said exactly what but they described it kindly as a nervous breakdown — and he returned to Minneapolis broken and bitter, beaten, disillusioned, unfulfilled and sad, a hasbeen nobody.  His style fell out of fashion.

I didn’t care.  I liked the painting.  When I learned it was in deep storage I asked the registrar if it could be put in storage on my office wall.  A day or so later a guy from the crew measured my wall and the next day the crew hung the painting.  If no one else wanted it, I did.

It was bigger than I remembered from the docent office.  The title made no sense to me.  I all but forgot the artist’s name.  The painting endowed my often harried office with sublime serenity.  Sincere serendipity.  Innocent bliss.  Naive iterations.  To me it was an undiscovered masterpiece.

A year or so later I enrolled in a theater arts class at the university.  One slushy autumn day I was loitering in the commons of the theater arts building on the West Bank campus when a bearded guy several years my senior wearing a wool knit hat and coveralls came in from the inclement outdoors wheeling a bicycle.  He was the building’s maintenance engineer.  Being a smartass I made reference to a sign that said no bicycle parking indoors and he shot me a look that melted my spine like who the hell are you.  “This is my building,” he said as he passed me by.  I looked at his name badge.  Hollis MacDonald.  “Wipe your feet when you come in here.”  He walked his bike across the commons to his office.

He was almost there by the time I realized who he was.  By then it seemed unseemly to chase after him at the moment.  The more I thought about it I didn’t want to risk embarrassing either of us by suddenly coming on like I knew his life story, coming on like a suck-up — something told me he despised suck-ups.  I hoped for another better chance to chuff him about his art without invading his privacy, stalking him or implying I felt some kind of cosmic connection to him, but the semester ended and I never saw him again at work at the U.

untitled     1960s

Another few years later, still the 1970s, I was driving on W 26th Street, a one way arterial going west across south Minneapolis.  Just past the intersection of 26th and Nicollet Ave (that’s pronounced Niklit) something caught my peripheral eye and made me look in the rearview mirror and see people painting a wall behind the corner building, the Mark Richards beauty salon.  I knew the style in a flash.  I parked the car and went to the scene where Hollis MacDonald directed a crew of kids from Whittier Park painting colors to his designs of hearts and arrows against a whitened wall facing the alley and the parking lot.

Hollis seemed more congenial than when we first met, but he made little eye contact and kept his attention focused on the project on the wide wall.  I’m sure he did not remember me.  Still bearded and gnarly, now he was outdoors on a summer day and instead of coveralls he wore shorts and a tee shirt paint stained.  Concentrating on his wall he barely suffered this fool’s interruption for long, even if all I could do was praise what I was seeing.

He gave orders to the kids through a staff of teenagers who acted as camp counselors instructing the day campers what Hollis wanted them to paint.  There was a knurled modesty about him and a light in his deep set eyes while he bossed the kids and explained what they were doing.  He was having fun.

I admired the mural for decades.  The concentric hearts eventually faded away.  Today I cannot pinpoint exactly when they disappeared.  The mural faced the wrong way on a one way street, so it was hard as hell to see it.  It may as well have been painted on the underside of a bridge.

Ages have gone by.  I wonder what my grandkids would think of the painting once hung in my office.  I went to the MIA website to search the permanent collection.  Museums these days have beautifully accessible websites.  I searched by artist’s name because I couldn’t remember the name of the painting but nothing came up.

Back on the internet I googled Hollis MacDonald and learned he had died two years ago.  I found a picture of the painting and its title.  I searched the MIA website again by paintings by title and got nothing.  I double checked the spelling of MacDonald.  The Google reference to the painting gave its MIA accession number 67.27 (27th work acquired in 1967) and I searched the collection that way and got nothing.  At last I went to the Contact Us page and asked what ever happened to Could The Heart But Know The Way by Hollis MacDonald.

The answer did not come within 24 hours, as many websites promise these days.  The reply arrived after two weeks.

In the meantime I went back to Google.  After forty years forgetting him and respecting his privacy, now I wanted to know all about Hollis MacDonald.  Now that he’s dead.  The whereabouts of his MIA painting unaccounted for in its virtual inventory.  If I hadn’t found a picture of Could The Heart But Know The Way on the internet I would have doubted my memory such a stirring and soothing image actually existed.

He was a real guy.  Born in 1928 in Minneapolis, he grew up near Broadway and Emerson, the city’s near north side.  He served in the army.  He graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art, now known as the Minneapolis College of Art & Design — MCAD — which shares campus and heritage with the MIA.  He earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy, a fishy sounding name for any grad school to a bumpkin like me but nonetheless an institution called the cradle of American modernism located just north of Detroit.  He worked as a security guard at the MIA — it’s never unusual for working artists to day jobs (or night jobs) at museums — and this was back in the era of the original museum’s footprint, the old McKim Meade & White monticello parthenon, before Kenzo Tenge expanded its architectural consciousness with bold annexes and vast lit gallery space rebuilding the Institute into a formidable exhibition space aimed at the 21st century to come, this the era when I came to work there, long after Hollis MacDonald.

I may have come to work at the MIA at the beginning of its era of cosmopolitan outreach from a burgeoning metropolis, but I came after another golden age era of its director Tony Clark.  All the museum people who knew him spoke about him with a hilarious respect for his aesthetic eye and scholarly integrity.  He was an art historian’s art historian.  On the internet I found a page of criticism Tony Clark wrote as MIA Director:

“These paintings of Hollis MacDonald are genuine landscapes of the imagination, in which nearness is also far, catastrophe and terror are also triumph and serenity.”  He concluded saying the paintings “bear important human testimony.”

untitled     1960s

I found a review by noted Minneapolis Tribune critic John K Sherman dated Sunday, June 6, 1965 describing Hollis MacDonald’s one man show of 30 canvasses at the Bottega Gallery downtown at 8th & Hennepin as “brilliant”.  The critic wrote:  “MacDonald’s large paintings might be called a combination of mystical landscapes and epical still-life — form superimposed on form, leading the eye into deep space while riding on lyrical and nuanced color that makes direct emotional impact.”  Sherman concluded, “It bespeaks an original and seeking mind and gratifying skill, in this day of fuzzy forms and half-stated ideas or suggestions thereof, in clearcut expression and shapes the eye can seize and grapple with.”

These testimonials say why Hollis was expected to make it big in New York City.  If these same voices felt betrayed when he came home a failure, no one extrapolates for the record.  The MIA accessioned — museumspeak for acquired — Could The Heart But Know The Way in 1967.  About the same time the Walker Art Center, MIA’s counterpart and rival specializing in modernism, accessioned a companion piece called The Way Is Not Easy, and at this time they aren’t showing it.

I learned from the internet Hollis maintained a studio in a former concertina repair shop on the fringe of old downtown east.  Other known titles of his paintings from the 1960s include once Again The Fallen and Another Good Soul Goes Under.

The website http://www.mnartists.org provided archival proof of life of this self-kidnapped guy who by all accounts had all the credentials.  Smart.  Deep.  Asked in 1965 about nudes in art, the 37 year old answered, “They’re over worked.  Eveybody’s using them, but few artists are saying much with them.”

I never saw a human figure in any of his paintings.

The Way Is Not Easy     1964  Walker Art Center      oil on canvas   49 x 36″

Concurrent to his brilliant one-man show downtown at the Bottega he was also simultaneously among 95 Minnesota artists exhibited in the MIA’s biennial celebration that year — the MIA celebrated its centennial, two massive expansions later, just this last year.  In a Bottega show interview Hollis was asked about the Institute Biennial and he said, “It’s a good reflection of contemporary sickness.  It’s trying to make a little show of good things instead of showing what’s going on in art locally.”

He may have been speaking truth to power, biting the hand or burning bridges en route to New York City.  In the transcripts of the same interview he showed (off) the irascible edge I recall from my brief encounters ten or twelve years later.

Asked to categorize his paintings he replied:  “You want a label?  Ah… Romantic Expressionism, how’s that?”  In the age of pop art and op art, the guy sounded poised to take on all icons.  Who was this guy?

After Hollis described his mode of painting for the existential moment, the interviewer (unidentified in the transcript — it could have been himself) says, “Then you paint just for yourself and not the viewer?”

“Not exactly…” Hollis replied.  “It’s kind of like making love… you can’t tell when you’re giving and when you’re taking.”

untitled       1960s

After the 1960s until his obituary, which described him as a colorist, there is scant coverage of what happened to him.  No mention of shows or reviews in New York.  No paintings since.  The obituary said he retired from the University of Minnesota but not that he had been a janitor.  He was survived by no wife or children.

An article published in 2009 in mnartists.org called Unsung Alchemist: Hollis MacDonald by Sean Smuda caught up with Hollis in his later years.  Smuda himself an artist, photographer, grew up in a household where his parents owned Hollis MacDonald paintings and didn’t realize who Hollis was until they met as neighbors when Hollis moved into Smuda’s apartment building when Hollis was near 80 years old.

In a reverent and touching profile Smuda befriends the old man and searches the soul of the artist whom he refers to as the alchemist after Hollis’ affection for a book, Fire In The Crucible by John Briggs.  Smuda paints a portrait of a man who lives the “crossroadss of genius and failure” every day.  “Any apologies he makes for himself,” Smuda wrote, “which he does with contradictory frequency, sound like obfuscations, the sort of disappearing-act typically employed by scholars and mystics hopingto obscure their philosophical vulnerabilities.”  Smuda described him as a “gruff mystic who has no need of society, but has a lot to say about it.”

Smuda called him cantakerous and recalled how his parents put up with his company yet spoke of Hollis as a cautionary tale of what might happen if you devote your life to art.  And Smuda sketches in the lost epoch in New York: Hollis broke up with his wife Karen and became a hermit unto his studio, stopped exhibiting and socializing.

This the nervous breakdown the people at the MIA whispered about so loudly.

Smuda likens Hollis’ imagery to Paul Klee.  I see Joan Miro.  Hollis said he admired Arthur Dove.  I wondered about the 30 canvasses from the Bottega show in 1965 and wondered how many paintings of Hollis exist.  Through the internet I can only find six.  Nothing since 1967.

A research librarian at the MIA eventually responded to my inquiry about Could The Heart But Know The Way saying bluntly the painting was deaccessioned in 2014.

I wrote back:  Where is it now?

I hoped it had been sold, donated or otherwise acquired by another museum like the Weisman, somebody who would actually appreciate it and put it on view.  Where my grandkids could see it.

untitled      1960s

Over the next five days a correspondent from the MIA Visitor and Member Services acknowledged the deaccession of the painting but could not account for its whereabouts; then assured me the painting was still in storage at the museum but he did not know the reason for its deaccession.  I asked if he would find out.  And how was its existence tracked?  How can anybody see this painting if it’s in storage but deaccessioned?

Deaccessioned is a synonym for disowned.  Hollis MacDonald disowned by the MIA.  Same year as the artist’s death.  I couldn’t summon the cynical heart to see a conspiracy theory in the making.  The irony seemed all too appropriate though.  Undeserved and unjust but not unbelievable.

Steve from Visitor and Member Services — by now we were on familiar name basis — emailed me:  “The painting is in storage with the artwork that is not on view, and is tracked in our system as any other stored artwork would be.  None of the paintings in storage are available for public viewing.  (Most of our collection is in storage.)

“It appears the previous curator did not feel the piece was relevant to our collection, and suggested it to be deaccessioned.  The accessions committee of museum trustees voted to accept that opinion.  Deaccessioned pieces are typically stored until another institution is found that has interest.  Sometimes deaccessioned pieces are sold.  At this time, no decision about this piece has been made in that regard.”  He concluded our correspondence:  “If I hear more about this painting’s next phase of life, I’ll look up this email chain and let you know.”

Hard to put a sinister bend on such cordiality.

If nobody else wants the painting I’ll take it, hang it in my house.

I don’t understand why Hollis MacDonald is not recognized, why he is obscure.  Do I look at his paintings and fail to observe the irrelevance?  Am I so much bumpkin I fail to see the obvious ugly?

Far as I can find Hollis MacDonald had no criminal record and especially no accusations of sex predation.  Yet the art community of his home town shuns him and his work as if his symbolism and visual memes were not hip enough at least, too heinously commonplace at worst, his moral character vile or pathetic, a moral plagiarist, a failure to act stellar.

All I know about Hollis is hearsay and gossip.  By his paintings I am awed.  I hoped his civil service pension kept him comfortable enough.

I engaged Sean Smuda in correspondence and informed him Could The Heart But Know The Way was deaccessioned from the MIA.  In some way I meant to enlist an ally in case something fishy became of the painting.  Mostly I wrote as a belated fan.  I didn’t want to feel sad for Hollis and I drew comfort knowing Hollis had a friend to the end with Sean.  I asked if Hollis died happy.

“Hollis remained consistently driven and differentiating,” he wrote back, “as though the tough-nut aesthetic, philosophic and social questions that obsessed him could crack open in an explosion rather than a slow reveal.”

photo by Sean Smuda

He kindly assured me Hollis had friends.  His last years he lived in an assisted care facility, as most people do his age.  Sean visited him regularly, and a coterie of social workers befriended him and helped him relax.

A certain middle aged female Presbyterian minister developed a crush on him at his advanced age and they talked metaphysics and God’s beauty.

None of this explains why there’s no evidence he produced any art the last 40 years.  And no evidence he didn’t.

In the folklore of the MIA you would think he would be legend.  Instead he’s disowned.

Sean said there’s interest in a retrospective exhibition but acknowledges it may be years away as these things go.

There’s talk of a body of his work going to the Minnesota Museum of American Art where my Clara and Tess can go view them with me — after they get drivers licenses and register to vote at this rate of attrition.

Hollis left no offspring to remember him or emulate him genetically.  His paintings are all he left this world as what Sean Smuda called his blueprint for others to follow, not a dynasty it appears but a subtle and nuanced tribe of orphaned enigmas.

Of inspiration and essence Hollis himself said, “I try to make a painting… that lives.”








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