Kevin MacDonald never quite became a national art star. But the 59-year-old Silver Spring painter, who died June 2 after a lengthy struggle with kidney cancer, was acclaimed as both an artist and a person by an exceptionally difficult audience: his peers.
“He was a real role model for me when I was getting my art career off the ground,” says longtime friend and fellow artist Mark Clark. “He was really funny and almost unflappable. He was an extremely moral individual and very tolerant. He very seldom had an unkind word about anyone, and he could deal with the most difficult people on the planet.”
MacDonald depicted various subjects over the course of his career, inspired by his interest in Mexico and such literary figures as Jack Kerouac and Rainer Maria Rilke. But he’s probably best known for renderings of unpopulated buildings, interiors, and street scenes, often in colored pencil or pastels. MacDonald studied at George Washington University and the Corcoran School of Art and began showing his art in the late ’60s, when the postpainterly abstraction of the Washington Color School was still in vogue. He soon became part of an informal group of local representational artists that also included Mark Clark and his brother, Michael Clark, as well as Joe White and Michael Reidy.
“He was in the first generation of Washington artists to jump the traces and start working representationally,” notes Mark Clark. “Before MacDonald, it wasn’t hip to be a realist painter. When we were coming up, if you weren’t doing Washington Color School, you may as well have been doing nothing. He made it safe for everybody else.
“He had a style that was really clean and was really true to himself,” he adds. “He made a few changes throughout his career, but he was always true to his vision.”
“Kevin’s work had that quality that you just couldn’t deny,” says Richard Siegman of Dupont Circle’s PASS Gallery, which presented MacDonald’s final show this past November. (The artist was too sick to attend the opening.) “The more you learned from him what it was about, the more astounded you’d be about how he approached things.”
In the late ’70s, when the local art world was attracted to the ferment of punk rock, MacDonald served as the art director of Infiltrator, a short-lived fanzine. He also began playing bass and singing with Twisted Teenage Plot, an art-scene band organized by Michael Clark. The group’s other musicians included two former members of D.C. punk outfit Urban Verbs, guitarist/composer Robert Goldstein and synthesizer player and abstract painter Robin Rose.
MacDonald also incorporated music into his work in a collaboration with Rose called Scriptronics. “Kevin would do this dancing around with these Magic Markers that were wired for sound,” Michael Clark recalls. “They’d make all these screwy noises, and then he’d have the drawing and the recording. Rose thought it was the biggest invention since peanut butter, but nobody dug it.”
MacDonald’s art was shown by galleries in Washington, New York, and elsewhere and is in the collections of several museums. But he never experienced a commercial breakthrough, and from 1998 to 2003, he supplemented his income by doing faux finishes for interior designer Paula Schumann, who says MacDonald “had just the best disposition. He was very refreshing to be around.”
“He was really doing well for awhile,” says Michael Clark. “And then it was just the typical thing that happens in Washington. It’s hard to find customers when you get your prices up to where they ought to be—people either quit buying or it really slacks off.”
Most reminiscences of MacDonald ultimately turn to his benevolent character. Reidy used to call him “the St. Francis of Assisi of D.C. art,” only half in jest. Michael Clark says that MacDonald rarely criticized anyone and that when he did, he always added, “but he’s a great guy.”
“The art world is just full of back-biting bullshit artists,” he says, “and I never had a fight with him in 40 years.” —Mark Jenkins