R.I.P. Todd McKie

Remembering Todd McKie, a painter known for his bright palette, dark humor, and friendship
The artist, who died at 77 last month, was a mainstay in the Boston arts scene and beyond
The Boston Globe
Feb 10, 2022
By Cate McQuaid

The people in Todd McKie’s paintings are as simple as figures in children’s drawings, but their lopsided smiles, clenched teeth, and skewed eyes reveal how tender we all are. McKie, who died at home in Cambridge on Jan. 30 at 77 from lung disease, was a master at gently honoring angst with humor.

A warm light shone from his opulent palette, from the offbeat, self-deprecating charm of his paintings, and from the man himself. A memorial service is being planned for the spring.

His wry, deceptively simple paintings approach life’s challenges with dark humor. In “The Basket Case,” from 2011, a blue figure holds up a yellow basket, both bright against a murky background. A black, upside-down head floats beside the basket, as if the awkward darkness has inevitably escaped its pretty confines.

McKie’s works have a heartfelt following in New England and beyond and are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Rose Art Museum, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art. Among artists, he was well known for his friendship. McKie and his wife, furniture artist Judy Kensley McKie, who survives him, were regulars at opening receptions.

“Most artists have a singular focus — the confidence and the ego to put your work out there. Todd had that, but that’s not what he expressed to his friends,” said Meg White, director of Gallery NAGA, which has represented McKie since 2005, and will have an exhibition of his works in June. “He was really caring and thoughtful. He remembered details about other people’s lives.”

Todd and Judy McKie met as students at Rhode Island School of Design and moved to the Boston area in 1967, a year after they graduated. Photographer David Caras met Todd at a reception in the late 1970s and became a close friend. At the time, the painter was plying his humor in watercolors that were unusually precise for that medium.

“Everybody wanted them,” said Caras. “Then he decided he was done with them and wanted to move on. Some people thought it was a big mistake. But not at all.”

McKie moved to Flashe acrylics, known for their intense pigments, and his works got looser and simpler. Many featured just one figure.

Nick Capasso, director of the Fitchburg Art Museum, included McKie in the 2002 exhibition “Painting in Boston: 1950-2000” at deCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, where Capasso was then curator. He placed the artist squarely in the psychologically attuned and painterly tradition of Boston Expressionism.

“Todd’s paintings often feature a single, very abstract person, surrounded by odd things, and a funny title,” said Capasso. “The key is the single person — a stand-in for both the artist and the viewer. You could put yourself in the shoes of the figure, and get the existential problem the figure was having.”

In “Bad Fall,” from 2019, a head bobs beneath the triangular form of a bent-over figure, as if it has fallen off. Haven’t we all lost our heads?

The colors in “Bad Fall” sing. “He was the greatest colorist I’ve ever worked with,” said White.

“The color leads you to think they’re these cheery, bright paintings,” she added, “but there was always an undercurrent of something deeper there.”

In 1990, the McKies’ only child, Jesse, was murdered at 21 on a Cambridge Street. Following that terrible loss, Judy helped found Garden of Peace, a Beacon Hill memorial for homicide victims, and McKie served on the board. He never stopped painting — that same year, the Rose Art Museum held a joint exhibition of the McKies’ work.

“After Jesse died, there was some humor, but if you knew Todd …,” Caras said, trailing off. “There’d be a painting of a head or face, and something painted above it that related to — I don’t want to say ‘death,’ but that took the painting to another level. A dark, horrible level.”

McKie worked in many mediums. He was a writer, publishing comic short stories with McSweeney’s. He illustrated children’s books by author Harriet Ziefert. He worked in ceramics and made expressive faces with rocks.

In 2000, as artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, McKie made drawings inspired by the lace he found there, such as the goofy “How Are Things at Home?” in which a figure seems flummoxed by his surroundings — a bird on his head, a leaning woman with a vase of flowers — all rendered as if in lace. It’s a poignant blend of refinement and neurosis.

He was always on the lookout for ideas. “He’d see something or read something, and he’d call, and say, ‘Have you watched “My 600-lb Life”?’ — this reality show,” Caras said. McKie would take notes and bring them to his studio.

If his approach was ironic, it was also fueled by compassion.

“There’s a quality in his work of ‘We’re all in this together. We all understand the human problem, and we can all laugh at it together,’” said Capasso. “The whole community is going to miss him.”

“He left a mark,” said Caras. “A very good mark. And a funny one.”