Robyn O’Neil may as well have been born with a pencil in her hand.
Her Grandma Ginny was her first art teacher, and young Robyn’s precociousness was obvious from the start.
“I just had a very natural impulse not only to make art, but to make art that really spoke of melancholy,
even when I was in kindergarten,” O’Neil says. “It’s been true from day one.”
Now the work of the Los Angeles-based graphite Goliath is being celebrated at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth with Robyn
O’Neil: WE, THE MASSES, running from October 18 through February 9, 2020.
The show is a 20-year survey exploring the breadth of the artist’s oeuvre, from small-scale to monumental, banal to heroic, bleak to hopeful, black- and-white to color.
Organized by the museum’s associate curator Alison Hearst,
it’s the first-ever overview of O’Neil’s career, and a don’tmiss-it coup for the Modern.
WE, THE MASSES is comprised of nearly 60 works— graphite on paper, multipaneled epics, collage,
animated film— dating back to 2000, when the artist was moving away from painting and embracing drawing.
The Omaha-born, North Texas-raised O’Neil was in grad school at the University of Illinois at Chicago then,
working toward a never-completed MFA, and remembers the epiphany when a professor perused some of her small study drawings.
“She very bluntly told me, ‘Robyn, these are a million times better than your paintings,
and I dare you to not pick up a paintbrush for the next six months and see what happens,’” O’Neil recalls with a laugh.
“I loved the idea, went with what she said, and it’s been that way ever since.”
Along the way to the present, O’Neil’s been a resident artist at Artpace San Antonio, was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, won a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant,
the Hunting Art Prize, and more—in addition to having national solo exhibitions and works in public collections nationwide.
But accolades aside, O’Neil is recognized for her large-scale drawings featuring small male figures uniformly clad in black sweat suits
and Nike sneakers, variously involved in her fantastical, dystopian landscapes.
She began the 200-plus drawings that comprise the so-called end of the world series with 2003’s Everything that stands will be at odds with its neighbor,
and everything that falls will perish without grace, a massive triptych measuring 91.75 x 150.375 inches.
The final work in the series is 2007’s These final hours embrace at last; this is our ending, this is our past, a three-panel work that’s in the Modern’s collection.
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