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McGuire's Mark

Flinner Gallery Displays a Life in Pictures

Ralph McGuire landscapes such as "Scene at Hawkins Point" provide a visual record of 20th-century Baltimore

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 11/15/2000

Ralph McGuire, Poetic Modernist: A Retrospective Show

In this age of detailed wall plaques and oversized exhibit catalogs, the true test of art may be whether it can speak for itself. In the case of Ralph McGuire, the art has to do even more. It must speak for the artist.

At age 83, McGuire suffers from dementia, and as he stands in the Craig Flinner Gallery, surrounded by a lifetime of his work, his wife, Tobia McGuire, tries to answer questions for him. She talks about her favorite paintings (she's allotted them the show's highest prices in the hope that they won't sell) and she points out the familiar Baltimore views in some of her husband's landscapes. She's fuzzy on many of the details. She jokes about not knowing about McGuire's life during some of the earliest paintings, as the couple didn't meet until the late 1940s. Looking around, it doesn't matter. The 30-plus paintings, sketches, ink drawings, watercolors, and wood assemblages in this retrospective exhibit fill in the gaps in McGuire's life story.

Born in Baltimore in 1917, McGuire grew up in large working-class family in Hampden. He attended City College, and after graduation he took a job at the Social Security Administration. But he spent his spare hours painting; he liked to hop on the No. 1 streetcar at Druid Hill Park and ride it all the way to Fort McHenry, jumping off occasionally to sketch the sights.

He sought out opportunities to refine his skills. He met renowned local painter Herman Maril when he took a summer art class, and Maril became the younger artist's lifelong mentor and friend. McGuire caught the eye of Adelyn Breeskin, then the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), and with her help he won a scholarship to study with Karl Knaths at the Phillips Gallery in Washington. McGuire showed his work at galleries and restaurants around town, and in 1947 he was honored with a one-man show at the BMA.

Soon after that BMA exhibit, a collector visited McGuire's studio and bought everything in sight, about 700 drawings, watercolors, and paintings. The $5,000 check was a blessing, but the money didn't last forever. McGuire and his wife opened a frame shop on the third floor of a Mulberry Street rowhouse. And there, for the next 50 years, McGuire played his part in the local art scene.

He nurtured young artists such as Raoul Middleman, who first met McGuire in the late 1950s, when Middleman, then in the Army, got his first art show. McGuire encouraged the younger man, and Middleman believes he was drawn to McGuire's attitude as much as his words. "He had an artistic temperament, he was not plugged into the banalities of the everyday," Middleman says. "He was in his own time, he didn't have that pedestrian urgency."

McGuire approached his customers as a friend, and, in some cases, a mentor. Painter Greg Fletcher says McGuire was "very influential in my work. I would bring my work to be framed, and he would say things that, if you listened to them, would make your work stronger."

During the five decades when McGuire made an art out of framing other people's work, he never gave up his own. He painted throughout, perfecting his signature flat style, now considered by the art world to be akin to folk art. He worked with beautiful, lively colors and always rendered the sky as a significant part of a landscape. He painted people who were whimsical, who sometimes stood on their heads as they passed a shipyard. He even experimented with op art, producing work that's only identifiable as his because of the color choices.

He also worked with found objects. He once dragged home an entire piano, and piece by piece it became part of his art. He created wood assemblages, sculptures so wonderfully constructed that they look as if they might have a practical function. For one work he created a faux printer's box, full of found and carved wooden objects resembling type.

But the paintings best tell McGuire's story. They work as a historical record of Baltimore in his lifetime--the old look of Hollins Market, a scene from Federal Hill, the view from a backyard in Ridgely's Delight. His paintings celebrate the dignity in humble things, giving beautiful life to a scene of clothing drying on the line.

Tobia McGuire bemoans how few of her husband's paintings they still have at their disposal. "He sold a lot of works over the years," she says, "and we really never kept track." In 1993, the couple fought a public battle with the BMA to display or make available the 124 McGuire paintings in the museum's collection, donated by the collector who cleaned out McGuire's studio all those years before. Seven years later, the matter is still unresolved.

So, the three dozen or so pieces in the Craig Flinner Gallery will have to do for now. They put visitors at ease, making them laugh and nod with familiarity. "Most of his things make you smile," his wife says.

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A Reservoir Hill Childhood, Yesterday and Today

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