James McGarrell was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 22, 1930. As a teenager he had a strong interest in jazz, particularly the music of early New Orleans and Kansas City. After exhausting the books on the subject in the public library, he began to look at art books on the neighboring shelves. At twenty, he dropped out of a pre-law curriculum at Indiana University to take a job at a steel castings plant, and began to draw and paint in the basement of his family home. He returned to the University, in Bloomington as an art student, and continued his studies for a summer at the Skowhegan School in Maine, followed by two years of graduate school at UCLA, and a Fulbright grant to Stuttgart, Germany.
His first one person exhibition was at the Frank Perls Gallery in Beverly Hills in 1955. His first New York show was in 1961 with the Allan Frumkin Gallery (later Frumkin / Adams Gallery), which continued to represent him there. From the mid 1960’s, with increasing recognition in Europe, he had a series of solo exhibitions at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris, Galleria il Fante de Spade in Rome and Galleria dei Lanzi in Milan while exhibiting continuously at galleries and museums in the U.S.
His work has been included in five Whitney Museum Annuals and Biennials; the Carnegie International exhibition twice (1958 and 1983); New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art,(1960); the Dunn International at the Tate Gallery, London (1963 and 1964); Documenta III (1964) in Kassel, Germany; USA Art Vivant at the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France. He was one of five painters selected for The Figurative Tradition in American Art at the U.S. pavilion of the 1968 Venice Biennale. In 2003 several of his paintings were included in La creazione ansiosa: da Picasso a Bacon, a survey exhibition of later 20th century art at the Palazzo Forti, Verona, Italy.
Paintings by McGarrell are in the permanent collections of many institutions including the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., The Chicago Art Institute, and the art museums of New Orleans, Saint Louis, Santa Barbara, Portland (OR), Tulsa, Hamburg, Germany, the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University and the Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Institute Bellagio Residency. In 1995 he received the Jimmy Ernst Award for lifetime achievement from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 2008 the New York Community Trust awarded him The Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Prize in visual arts.
McGarrell’s teaching career – Reed College, 1956; Indiana University, 1959-81; Washington University in Saint Louis, 1982 to his retirement in 1992 – was modified by leaves of absence for uninterrupted time in the studio for more than a decade after 1970 while he lived with his family at Grimaud in Southern France and Umbertide in Northern Umbria.
He has also been invited to teach or work in residence for brief periods at many institutions, including Skowhegan, the International School in Umbria, the Roswell NM, AIR program, the New York Studio School and Dartmouth College. It was while he was at the latter, in 1993, that he and his wife of sixty years, the late writer and translator Ann McGarrell (1933-2016), settled into an early 19th century house in Newbury Vermont where he continues to live and paint.