By Kevin Comer
Despite a career in software development, I went to art school. I stopped doing art—except for home design and decorating—and started collecting long ago. My wife and I currently focus our interest on plein-air paintings of the countryside and coast near our home. I’ve noticed Travis McGee is something of an aficionado of the visual arts as well.
The first hints appear in Nightmare in Pink (1964). Travis is in the NYC apartment of commecial package designer, Nina Gibson. Nina is the sister of McGee’s tragically injured war buddy, Mike. Mike has asked Trav to check up on her following the murder of her fiancé:
Nina Gibson was clean but not neat. Great stacks of decorator and craft and design magazines. Shelves of presentation designs that never quite worked out. A huge drawing table with Luxo lamps clamped onto it, like big gray metal grasshoppers. Art books. Big action paintings, Klinelike, but without Kline’s sober weight and dignity…
“Kline” is Franz Kline, a New York based abstract expressionist painter—like Jackson Pollock—who was active during the 1940s and ’50s. Abstract Expressionism is sometimes called “Action Painting” because paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied. This is a pretty sophisticated, well-informed opinion T. McGee is uttering here.
Later in Pink, Travis is twiddling his thumbs waiting to talk to Terry Drummond, Charlie Armister’s sister-in-law. Nina’s murdered fiancé worked for Charlie. Extremely wealthy Charlie has been acting strangely of late and McGee is seeking insight into his behavior:
I picked through the magazines on the coffee table, and sat and leafed through one. There were some excellent color reproductions of three recent paintings by Tapies, work that had the burned, parched, textured, solemn, heartbreak look of his native Spain. I lusted to own one. I told myself I could bundle [Terry] into the sack and use her up, and she’d buy me one as a party favor.
“Tapies” is Antoni Tàpies i Puig, 1st Marquess of Tàpies, who began his career as a surrealist painter, but switched to mixed media in the early 1950s. He added clay and marble dust to his paint and used waste paper, string, and rags. No doubt creating works that “had the burned, parched, textured, solemn, heartbreak look of his native Spain.” Travis is no end of surprising when it comes to art appreciation.
One of the most surprising expressions of McGee’s insight into painting comes in One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966). Travis has flown to Chicago to investigate the mysterious disappearance of $600,000 from the estate of Dr. Fortner Geis. One of Travis’ broken birds, Glory Doyle, married Fort following a therapeutic interlude aboard the Flush. Fort has succumbed to a lengthy illness and the missing money means Glory is soon to be out of house and home.
His investigation brings Travis into contact with Fort’s 25-year-old artist daughter, Heidi. Heidi doesn’t know it yet, but she is going to benefit mightily from getting to know Travis McGee. But, things do not get off to a good start:
She came up and handed me my drink and stood beside me looking into the studio. “Please don’t ask me to explain my work.”
She had a rare talent for irritating me. So I said, “I doubt if you could, Mrs. Trumbill.”
With a cold smile as she turned toward me, she said, “And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Sorry. I don’t think you know what you’re doing.”
“My dear man, abstract expressionism has been around so long that it…”
“That it gets imitated too much. You’ve got some color sense. You go too far in setting up weird composition. But that doesn’t mean you are setting problems or trying to solve them. It’s glib stuff, Heidi. It hasn’t got any bones. It hasn’t got any symbol values, any underlying feeling of weight or inevitability. It’s just sort of shock-pretty, and you certainly get some satisfaction out of doing it, but just don’t start taking it or yourself too seriously.”
Fury drained the color out of her face. She went striding away, whirled so quickly she slopped some of her sherry onto the living-room rug. “Just who the hell are you? My work sells! I’ve been in damned good juried shows. I’ve had some fantastic reviews.”
“I’m just a guy who buys a painting once in a while.”
“Then what could you possibly know about it? You jackasses learn a couple of stock words and voila! You’re a critic yet.”
“There’s nothing wrong with decoration, Heidi.”
“You will call me Mrs. Trumbill if you don’t mind.”
“I mind, Heidi. Your stuff will melt right into the wall after a week. Nobody will see it. That’s no disgrace. It’s decorative, but it ain’t art.”
“Get out of here!”
“You can call me Trav, or Travis.” There was a piece of paper on a table beside a lamp. I saw a pencil on the coffee table. I took the blank paper over and put it beside the pencil. “Just make me a sketch of that lamp and the window beyond it, girl, and I’ll go quietly.”
“Oh, you mean draw you a cow that looks like a cow?” she said with a poisonous and knowing smile.
“Go ahead. Funny, but everybody I can think of right off the top of the head could sure God draw a fat realistic cow if they ever happened to want to. Hans Hoffman, Kline, Marca-Relli, Guston, Solomon, Rivers, Picasso, Kandinsky, Motherwell, Pollock. And you know it, baby. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. You dabblers bug me. You want the applause without all the thousands of hours of labor learning how to draw, how to make brush strokes, learning all the things that give painting some bite and bones even when you don’t use any part of it. Go ahead, draw the lamp. Quick sketch. Prove I’m a jackass.”
Where on earth could Travis have picked up this more than passing understanding of mid-century art and the journey of the artist? Could it have been around the dinner table with Mrs. MacDonald?
Dorothy MacDonald graduated from the School of Fine Arts at Syracuse University in 1931. That fall, she began teaching art and French at the nearby Cazenovia Seminary. Cazenovia had been founded by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, but was an academic, not a religious, institution and is now known as Cazenovia College. Dorothy could certainly have instructed McGee in the elements of fine art.
But so could some of JDM’s neighbors. In the autobiographical The House Guests (1964), JDM mentions Syd Solomon lives 10 minutes from his home on Point Crisp in Sarasota. McGee’s love interest Dana Holtzer, in The Quick Red Fox (1964), happens to admire a painting by Syd hanging in the lounge of the Busted Flush. Travis may have been buying direct from the artist.
Click here to watch a fascinating short video about Syd and his work. It might give you a sense of the milieu JDM and Dorothy inhabited in Sarasota; and an insight into McGee’s tastes in the visual arts.