In 1971, Todd McKie, Martin Mull, Kristin Johnson, Jo Sandman, David Raymond and Bob “Sidewalk Sam” Guillermin snuck their artworks into a basement bathroom at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for a guerrilla exhibition and wine and cheese reception they dubbed “Flush with the Walls.” On the one hand, it poked the museum for failing to show works by local living artists, but it was also a joke, a lark.
McKie had come up with the idea. “We did want to shake things up a little and have some fun,” he told Carl Belz for the catalog to a 1990 exhibition at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum. “With the mens’s room show there were people in the group of us who did it who wanted to make it a much more political event, but I think the politics were so closely connected with the fun part of it that, to me, the meaning seemed clear. It wasn’t done as a political move, although it had political implications. For me it wasn’t done to affect any particular change. It just sprang out.”
McKie’s art is the subject of “Last But Not Least,” an exhibition at Boston’s Gallery Naga from June 10 to July 15, 2022, of paintings he was working on before his death on Jan. 30 at age 77 from lung disease. The photos here by Bill Kipp (courtesy of Gallery Naga) show McKie’s studio at his Cambridge home as he left it.
McKie was an inspiration for me. In June 2011, I organized a 40th anniversary homage to “Flush with the Walls” as a guerrilla exhibition in a different Museum of Fine Arts bathroom including Sandman, Raymond, Guillermin and several other artists. I invited McKie to take part too. He politely declined. But it was the beginning of an occasional conversation, though we never met.
Todd McKie was born in Boston in 1944, grew up in New Hope, Pennsylvania (he told The Boston Globe in 1972), and graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in Providence in 1966, where he met his wife Judy Kensley McKie, a studio furniture creator, and moved to Cambridge.
The couple was commissioned to make banners illustrating the zodiac for the Woodstock music festival in 1969. When rains came, audience members ripped them down to use as makeshift tents.
Along with the bathroom exhibition, McKie and Mull partnered with Fred Brink as Smart Ducky for more art world shenanigans—like Mull and McKie wearing chefs’ hats and serving hors d’oeurves resembling Brancusi, Pollock, Seurat and Matisse artworks. “Brancusi is probably best known for his birds in flight,” McKie told The Boston Globe in 1972. “I’m convinced that if he’d been working in food, he would have used wieners and cheese.”
McKie’s art often evoked a reverence for and bemusement with art history. It sometimes felt like a blend of Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miro and William Steig. One could see a kinship in his art with Chicago Imagism and San Francisco funk. His paintings were cartoony and painterly and suffused with a wry comedy and childlike playfulness.
“It just seems natural to me,” McKie told The Boston Globe in 1972. “I will choose a funny movie over a sad, poignant one every time. Humor is a natural part of life. Some people share the attitude that art should be treated like a sacred icon or an object to be revered. That’s baloney.”
Then he added, as he often did, “I’m pretty serious about what I do.”
McKie painted watercolors in 1970s and ‘80s. He told Belz, you “have to work very fast, it’s very athletic in some ways, especially those big watercolor paintings of mine. … You have to have a plan of attack. I like that, I like planning it out. There’s a part of me that’s anal/compulsive enough to love being totally in control. With watercolor I was finally able to get quite a bit of control, and that’s probably why I stopped doing it. I think what drove me out of it was that I didn’t want to know exactly how it was going to come out. I wanted to be more out of control. Now I’m learning to use that, but I have to keep slapping myself because I know part of me wants to make it totally controlled.”
In the late 1980s and into the ‘90s, McKie switched to enamel and flashe acrylic paintings (he had a way of evoking mood with color), handmade paper compositions, and ceramics. He made goofy heads from stones and doodled faces on photos of the backs of bald men’s heads. He painted murals for Boston’s South Station bus terminal. He published short funny stories in McSweeney’s.
McKie told Belz in 1990, “I’d go nuts if I were just painting—it’s too lonely a pursuit, you get too focused, you lose the forest for the trees.”
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