Tribute to Michael McKinnell, artist and architect, 1935-2020

By CAM Docent, Bonnie Sontag

Michael McKinnell was first recognized as an architect and designer of Boston’s City Hall, an example of “Modernist” or “Brutalist” architecture. The image below shows the box-like, poured concrete structure that has been hailed as “beautiful” and “ugly”, sometimes by the same person! He said: “in architecture, I’ve always been interested in materials, showing how the stuff is formed”.

Boston City Hall, photography by Steve Rosenthal, 9/24/1974.

McKinnell has imbued his paintings with this sensibility. In Quarry Triptych, 2013-2014, oil on board, (CAM collection) he emphasizes the paint and the brushstrokes, and exposes bits of bare board; he mixes sand and dirt into paint, varying texture and surface just like he sees in the granite rocks he is painting.

Michael McKinnell (1936-2020), Quarry Triptych. Oil on board. Gift of the artist, 2014 [2014.71]. From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

Here we see a landscape with giant, sturdy stones in the foreground that contrast with the soft grass in the middle-ground, and a glimpse of the calm, beautiful sea in the upper background. The artist has interpreted nature by creating geometric shapes on a flattened picture plane with the strong presence of his use of materials. “I make the painting to be an autonomous thing unto itself. It’s like the rocks you see. I love the rocks by the sea. They’re worked over—some smooth, some rough.” Are you not surprised to learn that McKinnell worked in a light-filled studio on Cape Ann looking out over the ocean?

The quarries provide building materials which McKinnell saw in stone buildings around Cape Ann. He observed: “[the quarry and stone buildings are] nature that’s been transformed by man’s hand.”

Don’t these triptych images of granite remind you of the raw surface of the poured concrete City Hall? That’s probably because McKinnell connected architecture and art when he stated: “It’s all art; it’s a way of life.”

In closing, we can reflect on the words of art dealer Amnon Goldman & owner of Mercury Gallery, Rockport: “I love how the concepts of this architect are reflected in his art.”