Back in the Picture Much of the Baltimore that Ralph McGuire loved and painted is gone, along with his too-brief fame. Thankfully, the artist is still hanging around.

July 11, 1998|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

Ralph McGuire has come back from the dead -- metaphorically speaking, that is.

Obscurity is a kind of death for artists, isn't it? Especially for those who enjoyed the sunshine of fame, at least for a little while.

Thus it was for Ralph McGuire, who decades ago made Baltimore take notice with his charming cityscapes, bright abstractions and other unexpected interpretations of the world around him.

At his peak in the 1940s, this painter from Hampden, a fresh success in his early 30s, was one of only three artists chosen to have one-man shows at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A collector showed up one day and bought every piece of art in his studio: paintings, drawings, sketches, even his notes -- about 700 items for $5,000.

"I felt like a man in the opera," McGuire recalls. "I felt like singing all the time."

Such was the unpredictable and intoxicating life of success ... until his steady decline into obscurity.

These days, there aren't too many people around Baltimore younger than 50 who know who he is.

That might change: McGuire is having his first one-man exhibit in years.

The University of Maryland University College, in College Park, has mounted 31 of his pictures, spanning his career from the '40s to 1990, for a show that runs through Aug. 2.

It couldn't be in a better place. The University of Maryland Foundation has the largest collection of works by Maryland artists anywhere. During the many years, recently passed, when the Baltimore Museum of Art displayed little interest in the works of regional artists, the university quietly collected them, with the encouragement of Bylee Massey, wife of the soon-to-retire president of the college, T. Benjamin Massey. Bylee Massey finds McGuire's work "delightful," and speaks of putting some of his pictures on permanent display.

McGuire is 80 now, and his face is wizened and a little out of kilter, and his eyes are nests of fine wrinkles. His hair is steel gray; it is thick and rises in a ridge from the center of his head. His ears lean out as if they're trying to catch your attention.

McGuire is called a naive artist, meaning he paints in the flat, depthless way that untrained artists often do, though he is not without formal training.

It would be more than a stretch to compare him to Edward Hopper, but there are similarities. Like Hopper, McGuire can create powerful atmospheres through his representations of inanimate things, bricks and rubble in back yards and demolished houses, ships slumping in their berths, railroad scenes, old houses facing lonely streets.

He can evoke feelings through these scenes, empty of all human presence. These are never so powerfully melancholic as Hopper's, or as psychologically profound, but they are more likely to be winsome.

"Ralph has a gaiety to his pictures," says Dena Crosson, curator of the arts program at University College. "There is no sense of ... dark expectation."

Drawing on his background

McGuire was a city kid, which explains his affection for urban scenery. He was born in Hampden in 1917, the oldest of six children. His father was an oiler on the railroad and his mother worked in the textile mills in the Jones Falls Valley. He liked to draw as a child, then moved on to painting.

He also liked to walk, an inclination that took him all over the city and fed his imagination. "I painted everything," he said.

He especially liked views of Baltimore's docks and bridges.

After graduating from City College, he took a job at the Social Security Administration, and continued to paint in his off hours. He took a summer class offered by painters Donald Coale and Herman Maril. The latter became his mentor, guided him and critiqued his work for many years, until Maril's death in 1986.

Soon McGuire was showing in galleries around Baltimore, and he came to the notice of Adelyn Breeskin, then BMA director. She recommended him for a scholarship at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, where he studied under Karl Knaths.

Then, in 1947, came the one-man BMA show, and shortly after, the collector, a man by the name of J. Blankfard Martenet, bought his whole collection.

After that came the decline. To make extra money, he and his wife, Tobia, who studied sculpture under Henry Berge at the Maryland Institute, College of Art started a framing gallery on the top floor of an old townhouse on Mulberry Steet, right behind the Pratt Library. (They're still there -- they've been there for 49 years. They never advertise, but have a steady stream of customers.)

For the first year or so, the artist and his new art-student wife of 17 lived there, too. McGuire painted there, had a few students. Then as the family expanded with the arrival of two daughters, the framing became more necessary and ultimately their principal source of income. McGuire continued to paint, but not so much as before; nor was he selling as successfully as he once did.

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