Michael Jay McClure is an art history professor, a remarkably—almost unbelievably—exceptional man, and the only reason anyone needs to visit the great state of Wisconsin. With a vocabulary that makes us question our literacy and a wardrobe that is unapologetically full of fishnet vests and choir-boy-style capes, McClure is so captivating he's addictive. Naturally, we take as many of his classes as we possibly can!
When we are in his presence, we are completely taken by his brilliance, his ability to recall the complete canons of both art history and culture in general, and his effortless and enviably confident aesthetic. Watching him lecture is a bit like walking in on an unknowing child in front of a mirror—dressed to the nines in their mother's most extravagant jewelry, shoes, and makeup‚ performing a theatrically operatic number complete with soul-piercing eye contact with themselves—and discovering they are unperturbed by your intrusion. There is undeniable talent expressed with drama, style, and a tinge of vanity—that, after experiencing McClure, we have come to demand from our art historians—but they aren't performing for you. His passion for art history may seem overly saturated with exuberance but its deceivingly genuine.
In addition to publishing impeccable art history papers and lecturing around the country, McClure teaches ever popular art history courses at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Over the course of a semester, one survey class covers what feels to be the full breadth of contemporary art from the fall of modernism around 1960 to present day, complete with Heizer, Acconci, Sherman, Nauman, Judd, and so many more. However, this isn't your typical introduction to art history because McClure isn't your typical professor. He is as much a performance artist as he is an academic instructor. With his distinctive flair, McClure is able to present contemporary art in the most mesmerizing way; so much so that his courses attract hoards of people from the Madison community who aren't affiliated at all with the University. At any lecture, two thirds of the audience is comprised of people of various ages auditing off the books to absorb his knowledge and witness his fabulously high brow monologues. It doesn't come as much surprise that McClure's magnetism is strong enough to pull students from beyond the University and, having audited art history classes around the country, we can say with the utmost confidence that none compare to McClure's.
To elaborate, we offer you one of our favorite examples of McClure's awe-inspiring personality: on the first day of a class we sat in on, McClure declared with unwavering authority that lateness would not be tolerated as he always ensured he was the last to enter the hall and "no one messes with a gay man's entrance". It's hard to argue with that and we did come to appreciate watching him float down the stairs to his podium like a professorial runway model at the beginning of each class. He teaches at the front of a large tiered lecture hall with his podium set aside a blank wall that spans the front of the space, onto which he projects slideshows of artworks free of text. Utilizing his preternatural ability to weave words into dizzyingly luscious sentences, McClure introduces, describes, and analyses each piece, effortlessly bringing them to life for his audience. No artistic nuance is overlooked, no context is ever missing, and certainly no one is ever bored.
McClure approaches art like its a striking stranger who's entered, uninvited, into his universe: he dissects them with razor-sharp insight then, upon fully understanding their strengths weaknesses, and offerings, either locks onto them—to absorb the glory that comes from basking in radiant beauty—and feverishly adds them to his endless rolodex of show-stopping party guests or deems them unworthy of his genius and proceeds to introduce them to his world with the most scathingly scientific ambivalence. After his analyses, we always feel an intimate connection to the referenced artworks, even if we can't put our finger on what that relationship is! For a taste of McClure's class, here are some quotes (almost entirely unrelated to art) that we managed to jot down over the course of the semester we spent witnessing his greatness.
"minimalism returns us to the sizzling searing quick of the present"
"oh mother of pearl thats a minimalist sculpture from hell"
"if you're unaware of what narcissism is, look at my life"
"a bento box of glitteringly fragile activity"
"a nautilus should never be confused with a womb"
"another day another high horse but