The images layered together in Ryan McGinness‘s 32-foot-long Art History Is Not Linear (VMFA), 2009, come from all over the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The 16-panel painting presents 200 of McGinness’s signature “logo” drawings, each based on a work in the collection, such as a Nancy Grossman leather-bound head, a big-horned Cameroonian buffalo mask, and a George Segal sculpture. The museum commissioned the piece as part of a five-year expansion that has added a sculpture garden and a glass-covered wing with 50,000 square feet of gallery space. When the museum reopens, on May 1, Art History Is Not Linear, hanging in the entry of the new wing, will be the first work visitors encounter.
McGinness, a Virginia Beach native who lives in New York, started the project by poring over catalogues of the museum’s holdings. He drew works in a notebook, and then refined and stylized his sketches to create monochrome pictograms, which he silk-screened onto wood, using vivid hues of acrylic paint. McGinness arranged these symbols in a purely visual way, without regard to geography or chronology, often repeating images. “It all has to do with just form,” the artist explains in an interview the museum posted on YouTube, “just line and form and shape.”
In the resulting mash-up, a modernist chair sits beside a multiarmed Indian sculpture, which overlaps a detail from an Andrew Wyethpainting. By separating artworks from their original contexts, “I am kind of flattening out all these different elements; they kind of get neutralized,” he says.
John Ravenal, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, told ARTnews, “He’s created an alphabet, if you will.”
McGinness has described his work as an attempt to harness the power of logos and branding for his own–at times subversive–ends, but this project was different. “I really don’t like the kind of art that you have to know a lot about art history to understand,” McGinness says. “I never liked that kind of work. And then here I am making this whole body of work based on that idea. So I’ve kind of had to come to terms with that.”