Profile: McArthur Binion (1946-)

McArthur Binionis an American artist based in Chicago, Illinois. Binion was born in Macon, Mississippi. He holds a BFA from Wayne State University (1971) in Detroit, Michigan and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was a Professor of Art at Columbia College in Chicago from 1993-2015.


Early life

McArthur Binion was born in 1946 on a cotton farm in Macon, Mississippi to Russell Earl Binion and Martha Binion in a family of 11 children. In 1951, his family moved to Detroit.


Binion received his BFA from Wayne State University, Detroit, in 1971, and his MFA from the Cranbook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI, in 1973. In 1973, he moved to New York, where Binion worked amidst and befriended many other artists of the era working in the city, such as Jean Michel-Basquiat and Sol Lewitt. The same year he moved to New York, Binion was selected for a group show at Artists Space, the non-profit organization’s second exhibition co-curated by Mr. Lewitt and Carl Andre. Binion’s paintings have since appeared in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Studio Museum in New York, and the Detroit Institute of Art. In 1991, Binion moved to Chicago, where he took a position as Professor of Art at Columbia College in 1993. Though he worked continuously during that period, he exhibited his work infrequently until Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta began representing him in 2013. Binion was represented by Kavi Gupta and Galerie Lelong & Co. until he joined Lehmann Maupin and Massimo De Carlo galleries in 2018.  In 2017, Binion was included the Christine Macel’s curated VIVA ARTE VIVA for the 57th Venice Biennale, where his paintings from his DNA series received notable mention. A 2019 front-page article in The New York Times recognized him, and others, as among a “generation of African-American artists in their 70s and 80s who are enjoying a market renaissance after decades of indifference.”


McArthur Binion’s work primarily consists of minimalist abstract paintings, created using crayons, oil stick, and ink, often on rigid surfaces such as wood or aluminum. For many years, Binion has been incorporating laser-prints as a collaged ground on top of which he applies other mediums. Binion says that what he takes away from minimalism in his creative process is “that you want to do your own stuff in your own image.” His work has been compared to Dorothea Rockburne, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman and Jasper Johns’s “The Dutch Wives” paintings at times.

Binion identifies as a “Rural Modernist,” and says that his work “begins at the crossroads—at the intersection of Bebop improvisation and Abstract Expressionism.” His work is influenced by modernist artists such as Kasimir Severinovich Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and Wifredo Lam. He is considered “expressionistic, grided abstract paintings have garnered significant (albeit long-overdue) attention.”

In his most recent exhibition (the DNA Study series), Binion’s paintings aren’t fully abstract, but attempt to talk about the black experience and his personal history at the same time. Acting as a kind of template for gridded marks in black, white, and occasionally brightly colored oil-paint-stick layered on top, are pages from Binion’s 1970’s handwritten phone books, passport ID and negatives of his birth certificate. To fully experience this artist’s work, the viewer/participant must get close to the piece of art. Underneath the horizontal and vertical lines of various hues, a story is being told. Binion painstakingly combines his personal story with abstract shapes and patterns which are interesting to view as they draw you into the story of the artist.

Ghost: Rhythms, a 2013 of early work at Kavi Gupta Gallery, shows the influence of action painting, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Binion pulls stylistic tropes common to folk artists as well, borrowing quilting patterns, layering photographic imagery and motifs, and grids. He does all this while using one implement: his characteristic “crayon,” or paint stick, which allowed him to move past oil paint. “In 1972 when I started to use them, they were basically industrial marking sticks,” he recalls. Binion effectively converts an elementary tool into a refined hand-held instrument. He thrives in the effort of that conversion, having developed an ornate and labored approach that demands strenuous hours, and—as Binion has noted—resonates with the cotton-picking of his childhood. He had to train himself to be ambidextrous to negotiate hand fatigue, and works an entire surface of a painting in one sitting, before returning to rework that surface the next day or week or month. Some works take years to complete. Depending on how long he lets the paint dry, it becomes more or less malleable, responding to his hand like pigmented, sculptural putty. What results is a mash-up of pointillism?

“The part I took from Minimalism is that you want to do your own stuff in your own image,” Binion says in the release for this show, and this is what he always did, as one can see in the exhaustive yet delicate marks of Icecicle: Juice from 1976, which emanate an uncanny shimmer.

Small works like MAB: 1971: VIII, 2015, almost naively ram a puzzle of Binion’s portrait ID photos (the kind we all know and don’t necessarily love) directly up against the artist’s overlaid lines of oil bar, but the outcome is phenomenal. Binion’s work isn’t specifically race-related, but the pictures of the artist in his youth (with rounded afro) take stock of unaccounted for signifiers that collapse into his own particular story.

Larger works like DNA: Black Painting: Ph Bk / B Cert: II, 2015 also sideswipe racial connotation with color as racial terminology, while also ratcheting up the artist’s litany of Op art effects, ranging from Ryman’s sly use of chromatic underpainting to Jasper Johns’ shifting avalanche of cross-hatch marks.

Like many successful artists that fit the modernist profile, Binion makes work that is a study in oppositions: line and shape, figure and ground, image and abstraction, copy and original, color, and black & white. His modus operandi is to somehow magically blend an assault of binaries into a single, unified emblem of the unique and complicated self.

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