Charles McGill never feared unpacking golf’s difficult relationship with race
Words by Judd SpicerPhotos by The Charles McGill Estate and Pavel Zoubok Gallery
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Golf and race have never been particularly agreeable playing partners. Black men didn’t play on the PGA Tour until Charlie Sifford broke the color barrier in 1961, and an African-American didn’t play in the Masters until Lee Elder’s appearance in 1975. Today there remains a disturbing dearth of diversity from the PGA Tour on down to the amateur ranks.
For better and sometimes worse, golf is different than other sports. It isn’t just a game; rather, it’s a lifestyle, graduating the discussion from an analysis of mere stats and results to a broader—if not painful, necessary and troubled—dissection of cultural meaning.
How, then, to address it? Programs and possible solutions abound. Charles McGill took these issues head on, putting the complicated racial disparity between golf and life on poignant and at times challenging display. He did it in ways never before seen—and, sadly, ones we’ll likely never see again.
In July 2017, after a diagnosis of aggressive cancer a mere seven months prior, McGill died in his Peekskill, New York, home’s studio loft. The rising-star artist was 53 years old.
To those who knew him best, from course to canvas, McGill was never one to lay up.
“He’d always push the envelope; he always took chances,” says McGill’s sister, Carmen McCarty. “He’d always, when he wanted to do something, go and try it.”
While McGill’s work stands out as singular and seminal, his artistic base was founded, in part, by a passion not so uncommon: At his core, the man was a golf nut.
“He always dressed the part, always some kind of golf logo on,” McCarty remembers. “Everywhere he traveled, if he wasn’t on his Harley, he had his clubs, he had his shoes. He was prepared to play golf every place he went.”
In the 1990s, while supporting himself through teaching art, McGill also took a job at the former Richard Metz Golf instructional school in New York City as a means of easing his financial access to the game. Via his eponymous boss, the gig led to getting hired to run the bag room at Westchester Country Club, an affluent private club in Rye, about 40 minutes from Manhattan.
As he attempted to satisfy his insatiable golf needs across Westchester’s historic 36 holes, McGill’s time in the bag room had a clear impact on his work to come.
As his game and art progressed in concert, McGill earned the good fortune of having his work noticed by Robert Rubin, a former Wall Street commodities trader who left a booming business in 2000 to turn his attentions (and fortune) to, among myriad other interests, collecting art and founding The Bridge golf club in Southampton, New York.
“I’d read a small review of a show Charles had in a Harlem gallery, and I was so interested in the idea of a golfer making art that I wanted to meet him,” recalls Rubin.
“I called the gallery and was told that Charles was living at the workers’ dormitory at the Westchester Country Club. So I drove up to meet him and he laid out a bunch of his pieces in the hallway, and I got it right away. I bought a couple of pieces and then we started playing golf together.”
As the unlikely duo played at the Rees Jones–designed Bridge, Rubin saw the potent force bubbling between McGill the artist and McGill the golfer.
“Charles hit the ball a ton,” Rubin details. “He had one of the biggest windups I’ve ever seen; my bones cracked just watching his backswing. He was an ardent competitor, and he was a little less casual than what many people might bring to the game. Charles was very, very hard on himself when he played.”
While McGill’s friendship and playing opportunities blossomed with Rubin, his art followed suit. Seemingly fueled by a soul both recalcitrant and playful, McGill’s grappling with golf and race gave birth to an alter ego, Arthur “Art” Negro, the founder and head pro at the fictional Former Black Militant Country Club.
This alter ego didn’t create in the studio; he brought art directly to the people, many of whom had never seen golf up close. Clad in argyle and plus fours, McGill took Negro to the streets of Harlem across a multi-site series of live performances called Playing Through, which featured Negro playing from the top of a broken-down car, hitting a watermelon-teed ball across Lenox Avenue and providing putting lessons in vacant lots.
Announcing his performances in tune with Malcolm X speeches and challenges of stereotype (“I’m not a lawn jockey”) no doubt added to the shock value.
“He’s swinging golf clubs through watermelons, which, of course, has always had the ‘black thing’ stigma,” McCarty says. “By bringing that to Harlem, people were looking at him like he’s crazy.”
The performances announced McGill as a vital new artistic voice in both racial politics and golf. After opening The Bridge, Rubin co-founded The Bridge Golf Foundation in Harlem, which aims to advance the lives of young men of color through golf. He saw the performances as a vehicle of McGill’s process.
“I think his Playing Through pieces in Harlem…it was complicated for him,” Rubin says. “But I think he became an exponent for the game’s evolution—that if golf is self-aware enough to embrace his art, that shows some progress on the part of the game.”
McGill then dug even further into the complex relationship between race and golf, resulting in the powerful Baggage series. The full force of his power is on display in this exhibition, which repurposed old golf bags to take on new, sometimes haunting, forms.
“He’d go exploring throughout the Northeast to different Salvation Armies to buy up old golf bags. It was like a circuit he went on to find these out-of-fashion or broken bags,” says Simon Carr, the deputy chair and associate professor of the Music and Art Department at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), where McGill was hired as assistant professor of art in 2014.
The result of the explorations were works like Love Love Love and Night of Mischief, in which McGill reworked the bags’ time-worn leather and metal to construct the striking appearance of Klansmen figures. From 1999 to 2010, McGill’s Baggage series seemed to finally bring together the man, artist and golfer. Often, the works required sheer force to construct, echoing McGill’s battle with the game and its racial imbalance.
“In wrestling with these golf bags, with tearing them apart and bending them and using muscle to staple them, that physical struggle also had a lot to do with the racial struggle,” McCarty says. “He had to go through that twisting to get ahead, to get that finished product.”
Like Ben Hogan finding secrets in the dirt, McGill found results in working the leather.
“He was deeply concentrated; he really worried it and labored it and struggled with it,” Rubin says. “As an artist, he’d live with a piece of art for a long time before he deemed it finished.”
As McGill’s work with the golf bags became expert, he evolved as an artist.
“He became less didactic and more timeless,” Rubin continues. “It still carries a political message, but really took on a life of its own as standalone art. He found his medium in the repurposed golf bags; they just became more and more beautiful, and the art is more eloquent as he worked through the material.”
McGill’s colleagues concur.
“I think Charles would want people to look at the work and think about what it means to enjoy a sport or activity that, to some extent, is exclusionary,” Harold Meltzer, professor of music at BMCC, says. “And how do you make that less so? How do you make people aware that the enjoyment has a kind of social cost?”
McGill’s work, already respected in New York art circles, began receiving wider notice. In 2015 he was awarded a prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant, and one year later he achieved his first major solo exhibition, Front Line, Back Nine, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. But life, like golf, is unpredictable and sometimes terribly unfair. For McGill, his illness and passing came just as he was emerging as an artistic star.
“He was by far the most successful commercial artist in a department full of painters and sculptors. And he never, ever played that card,” Carr says. “He’d had a lot of success, but he was really on the way to a very successful career. Never once did I hear him say, ‘Oh darn, I was just about to be a famous artist.’ How cruel is fate?”
Amid the rapid descent in his final months, McGill was surrounded by family, friends and colleagues. Peripherally, his loft-space-turned-hospice was surrounded by the tools of his trade.
“The way he worked, it wasn’t like a painter’s studio; it was almost a construction site,” Carr says.
Despite the increasing recognition for his work, McGill’s adoration of the classroom seemed most resonant in his final days.
“When he was dying, one of the last nights of his life, he was basically delirious—and he was teaching,” Carr recalls. “He taught a whole class—walked into the room, talked to the students, got enthusiastic—and this was all in his head. It was like the teaching soul of Charles was speaking.”
For all of his challenging work and in-your-face expression, there was a peace in his passing.
“The last few years of his life, he was the man he wanted to be,” McCarty says.
For Rubin, the legacy of his friend and playing partner will live on through the 20 McGill pieces in his personal collection, additional works located at The Bridge Golf Foundation and the life-size Arthur Negro I statue at his golf club. Still, discussing
McGill’s legacy is bittersweet.
“I thought it was kind of neat,” Rubin says of the Sarcophagus bag piece in his personal collection, “but now I feel overwhelmed with sadness when I see it.…He died just as he was hitting his stride as an artist.”
To a person, everyone involved in McGill’s personal and professional life believes he left the world of golf, and the world of art, not with an ellipsis, but with an exclamation point.
“I hope that we get past the point in our political and social lives where people see his art, say, 50 or 60 years from now as a commentary about where we were and not where we are,” Meltzer says.
So the game plays on, as does the art of Charles McGill. The swing of his life abbreviated, it is now left to the viewer and the player to take a balanced, powerful and proactive follow-through.