We are sad to report the passing of renowned realist painter and San Francisco State Professor Emeritus of Art Richard McLean on January 3rd, 2014 at age 73.
McLean taught at SFSU for more than thirty years, having been hired to teach painting and drawing in 1965 and retiring in 1996. He was closely associated with the first generation of photorealist painters and became best known for his meticulous paintings of horses, a series he began in 1967.
Born in 1934 in Hoquiam, Washington, McLean grew up in Idaho. Though a talented jazz trumpet player as a young man, he ultimately chose to study visual art: in 1958 he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied with Richard Diebenkorn, and then served in the military in Okinawa before finishing his Master of Fine Arts at Mills College in 1962. He first began exhibiting his work in 1957 with a solo exhibition at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery in San Francisco and two group exhibitions at the Oakland Museum.
Realist painter Guy Diehl numbered among the thousands of young artists who received training from McLean. “Of all the instructors I had in college, he was the most personable,” remembers Diehl. “He had a way of talking to me about my work that was very insightful — it was as if he could put how you were feeling into words. I said, ‘how do you know what I’m feeling?’ He said it was just from being a painter.” Of studying with McLean and Robert Bechtle, Diehl says, “it was a truly remarkable thing to have two first-generation photorealists talking to you about your work. They were pioneers, though they didn’t know it at the time — coming out of Abstract Expressionism and reinstating the visual object. They were both mentors and explorers.” Diehl also recalls McLean’s ever-present wit: “he was very funny; he’d always introduce some element of humor. I remember really smiling every time I heard him talk.”
Gallerist Jeremy Stone recalls meeting McLean in the fall of 1982, when he came into her then-fledgling gallery to see a show of Yves Klein drawings and the two immediately struck up an impassioned conversation. “I developed a great friendship with Richard and his wife Darlene,” Stone says; “He was one of the really great storytellers and big personalities – so educated and focused, and so articulate about art.” McLean loved teaching and discussing work; even when he grew discouraged with the art world, he never wavered from his dedication to his own work. “He approached everything with such integrity,” Stone says. When her gallery was mounting a show of self-portraits, she asked McLean to contribute: “I said, ‘I know you’re represented by OK Harris and I know you only paint horses, but could you possibly do a self-portrait for this show?’ He demurred at first. But eventually he called and said, ‘I’ve got it!’” The resulting painting shows a man with a furrowed brow – clearly quite serious about the craft he loved — who will be remembered not only as a technically flawless painter but for his personal levity, generosity, and warmth.