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Maureen McQuillan: Beauty in rigor

Maureen McQuillan, Untitled (TW/LPM), 2022, Ink and acrylic polymers on wood panel, 36 x 48 inches

Contributed by Adam Simon / The painter Amy Sillman once told me about being in the audience during Jon Stewart’s warm-up for his television show. When he was fielding questions, she raised her hand and said, “Do you know the art world loves you?” He responded, “I didn’t know you had your own world.” I hope none of us thinks that the art world is still a singular coherent entity, if it ever was. Laurie Fendrich aptly made the point in her recent Two Coats review of the Whitney Biennial. Quoting the late Dave Hickey, she described the art world’ as “multiple communities of desire.” For me, it sometimes feels more like my neighborhood in Brooklyn, consisting of adjoining row houses with back yards. Ours favors plants and tends to become overgrown. Our next-door neighbor’s is cemented over and has an above-ground swimming pool for the grandkids. We probably blame each other for the mosquitoes.

In the neighborhood of abstract painting, Maureen McQuillan’s backyard – reflected by works on view at McKenzie Fine Art until May 15 – features process-based or system-based painting. Loosely defined, this is painting for which the process of its making is its primary subject and the finished painting is understood as evidence of that process. This has little to do with Process Art, a movement primarily identified with sculptors who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, and Bruce Nauman. The antecedents of process-based abstract painting might rather include Thomas Downing, Robert Swain, or even Seurat – artists concerned primarily with opticality and color.

Maureen McQuillan, Untitled (TW/O/9X), 2021, Ink and acrylic polymers on wood panel, 15 3/4 x 15 inches

McQuillan uses a clear acrylic substrate to suspend pure ink colors. Veils of luminous color overlap, forming a repeating honeycomb structure of diaphanous folds. The works are mesmerizing because they manage to combine visual complexity with absolute clarity. It is remarkable how much is visible all at once, made possible by an inventive technique and the repetition that allows our eyes and brains to focus and relax simultaneously. McQuillan explained her method in a 2016 article called “Drawing Color” that appeared in Interalia Magazine:

I have created a color system for myself that is paradoxically very ordered and yet completely open to chance. As I draw, I add in a very limited and rotating number of pure, unmixed inks in a repeating but random order. In the end, the optical mixture of these many-layered colors creates a surface as well as a depth; the lines twist and turn in a way that is both gestural and geometric. In this way I create complex, unrepeatable patterns and combinations using the most simple, rudimentary rules that invariably get broken.

Maureen McQuillan, Untitled (TW/YO/BB), 2021, Ink and acrylic polymers on wood panel
15 3/4 x 15 inches

In a sense, of course, all abstract painting is process-based, and one subject of any abstract work is the tale of its making. This is part and parcel of abstraction’s eschewal of the idea of depiction. If a painting is not ‘of’ something else – not of a tree or the Rape of the Sabine Women – then it exists essentially as itself, and its only storyline is that of its own making and its relationship to other abstract paintings. Paradoxically, though, in not being about something else, abstract painting often foregrounds the artist and her involvement in the process of creation.

McKenzie Fine Art: Maureen McQuillan, Two Ways About It, Installation View

McQuillan’s work distinguishes itself from that of most other contemporary abstract painters in the degree to which it follows rules. Even if she breaks them in the process, she is effectively taking herself out of the equation, as much an observer as a creator. Her work presents as an almost scientific investigation into the phenomena of color, line and material — beauty to be sure, but without the usual degree of subjectivity. The result is paintings that are visually rich, a delight to the eyes, and anchored by the underlying detachment of investigatory rigor. 

Maureen McQuillan, “Two Ways About It,” McKenzie Fine Art, 55 Orchard Street, New York, NY. Through May 15, 2022.

About the Author: Adam Simon’s recent paintings combine corporate logotypes, stock photography, and tropes of Modernist design. He recently had work on view in “Mind the Gaps” at Osmos Address and in “MOD,” at Platform Project Space through May 21, 2022.

Related post:
The Whitney Biennial: On the heels of trauma
Non-intent, or, questioning the tyranny of curatorial premise, at Osmos Address


  1. I’ve loved Maureen’s work for years, though I think I’ve seen only a couple firsthand, in group shows years ago. The paintings are an astonishing amalgam of rigorous and mysterious. Glad to see her reviewed in Two Coats of Paint.

  2. Outstanding work. Left the gallery fufilled ( and I may term this expression)…

  3. Adam, terrific explanation of Maureen’s work, her motives, and how it “fits” into the abstract/process -based painting paradigm. What always surprises and confounds me, and keeps me coming back, is how she is able to float those colors and veils, yet retain such clarity.

  4. A terrific article written with such clarity about the process of Maureen’s abstract painting, a joy to read.

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