Matt Magee: Seven Questions for Matt Magee
April 3, 2017
What motivated you to become an artist?
It was a combination of a lot of things, but I’d say that from a fairly early age I was always working with my hands—whether I was making origami or collecting rocks and shells with my geologist father, or making ceramics in classes in London when I was nine or ten. My parents always gave me free rein to explore my interests and with their encouragement I enrolled in art classes in high school in Dallas in the mid-1970s, and by my senior year I was taking drawing classes at a local college.
I’ve always gravitated towards creative people and, bottom line, always used my spare time to make things—my hands are never idle. At one point during high school I volunteered in the library at the Dallas Museum of Art so I could look at art books all day. One of my early high-school jobs was working retail in a mall in Dallas in the 1970s and I’d collect the plastic bags that wrapped the clothes shipments and bring them home to twist, melt, wad and weave into sculptures and wall pieces.
I went to Trinity University in San Antonio for undergraduate from 1979 to 1983 and majored in art history, but again was constantly making drawings and objects during that period. My dorm room was a complete environmental installation of hanging forms, like an underwater kelp forest with stenciled pictograms on the floor.
My posse of friends at the time included the Butthole Surfers, and all of us associated in an entourage of fandom and went to shows at Club Foot in Austin and to gigs in Houston and around Texas. Gibby Haynes, lead singer of the Buttholes, and his right hand man Paul Walthal were both students at Trinity during my time there and we had a lot of raucous crazy, ultimately creative times. Gibby and Paul made really cool zines and the Buttholes’ club shows can best be described as Dada performance with video and references to Bertolt Brecht, et al.
During those undergraduate years at Trinity I also did three summer internships at the Guggenheim Museum—two at 1071 Fifth Avenue in New York and the third at Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, during my graduate summer of 1983. I was constantly taking photographs and making objects during this time. While in Venice, circa 1983, I was collecting detergent bottles from the canals and making sculptures from them with wire and spray paint.
During my early twenties I realized that what held my interest and made me happiest was to make things. There wasn’t a conscious ‘I’m an artist’ epiphany but more like, ‘this is just what I am.’
Why did you decide to move to New York and how did you survive once you got there?
My mom grew up in New York City on the Upper West Side and at West Point and went to the Horace Mann School in the 1940s. Her aunt, my grandmother’s sister Esther Lloyd-Jones, was a professor at Columbia University and head of the guidance department there for 40 years and also on the board of Pratt Institute for some 30 years. I grew up hearing about Pratt and it became what I’d say was the natural choice when applying to graduate school.
After the Guggenheim internships my goal in late 1983 was to get to New York and focus on my studio work. I applied to the MFA program at Pratt with a portfolio of work from the 1970s, was accepted and began there fall of 1984. Since my work didn’t fit into the traditional painting and sculpture program it was defined as New Forms, an exploration of non-traditional media and process.
My friends and classmates during the years at Pratt included Jim Hodges, who now shows with Barbara Gladstone, and Ava Gerber, who early on was showing with Jose Freire [Team Gallery]. While Pratt provided two years of extreme focus on my studio work and a thesis show, I also gained a circle of friends and we all helped each other find studios in Brooklyn when graduating in 1986. A high point during this time was a summer residency in 1985 at Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, with the Texas artist James Surls as mentor and advisor.
My first job out of Pratt in 1986 was working as a preparator for Barbara Toll, who had a gallery in SoHo on Greene Street in the 1980s, next to Castelli Warehouse. At that time I lived in a one-room apartment in a brownstone in Brooklyn and was biking every weekday over the Brooklyn Bridge to Lower Manhattan for work. Evenings, weekends and any days off were spent working in my Bed-Stuy studio, a space I kept from 1986 to 2004. I was constantly moving, biking to work, biking to the studio, biking to openings, biking in all weather at all times of the day and night. I was seeing and doing and participating. I was hanging out with Tony Feher and Hunter Reynolds, who both worked for Paula Cooper at the time when she had her gallery on Wooster Street. Also I had become friends with the artist Win Knowlton and helped him in his studio from time to time, while he was showing at Blum Helman. Chris Martin is also a friend from those days and I’d visit him in his studio on Graham Avenue, where we traded work. I also met Bill Arning around 1986-87, when he was director of White Columns on far west Spring Street. He was the first person to show some of my early sculptures.
The Butthole Surfers would also have gigs in New York in the 1980s and through them and my friend Cheryl Dyer I met David Wojnarowicz, Carlos McCormick, Walter Robinson and others. Charlie Finch was also part of this world, though I didn’t meet him until later.
In 1989 I interviewed with Sean Kelly and Peter Goulds for the preparator job at Louver Gallery New York, was given the job and we opened in September 1989 with an Ed Kienholz show. The artist arrived from Idaho with an entourage, including his wife Nancy Reddin. We had a case of Jack Daniels ready for him and his posse. Sean Kelly eventually left Louver to start his own gallery and we’ve remained friends. I recently saw him at Zona MACO in Mexico City.
During the late 1980s and into the early ’90s my work was shown at Artist Space, PS1 Contemporary Art Center, and with Amy Lipton’s gallery. Bill Arning included a large rubber piece in the outdoor sculpture show he curated in 1992 on the grounds of the Rushmore Estate, where some of Polly Apfelbaum’s flower sculptures sprouted next to my large rubber X in the grass.
These formative years lay the groundwork and foundation for my practice today. The friendships are still there from the 1980s and we all manage to keep in touch via social media and other ways.
How did you start working at Robert Rauschenberg’s studio and what did you do there?
In spring 1994 Louver Gallery New York closed and I worked for about six months for Nancy Hoffman Gallery on West Broadway. Jim Hodges had left his job as preparator there and I was given his gig. In October 1994 my friend Maureen Mahoney, then a director at Castelli Graphics, called to say there was a job at Rauschenberg’s studio at 381 Lafayette and that I should go for it. I interviewed (along with a lot of other guys) with David White, Rauschenberg’s curator, got the job and began working there in November 1994. I was hired as an art handler, but quickly realized there were a lot of responsibilities in helping manage 381 Lafayette Street, a five-floor former 19th-century orphanage that Rauschenberg bought in the mid-‘60s.
My duties quickly expanded to updating exhibition history in the registry books; filing the constant flow of news clippings; maintaining the rooftop garden; packing, unpacking and installing art at 381 and at the warehouse on 38th Street (the former Kostabi World). I was at the studio at 381 in 1995 when the first glass tires arrived from UrbanGlass. I put some of the first proofs in the basement storage there and prepared and installed them in their nickel-plated carriages for various shows.
After a few years I began traveling as a courier with shipments going to exhibitions in Paris, Madrid, Salzburg, Luxembourg and other locales. One of the most interesting trips was taking Jasper Johns’ Flashlight sculpture, circa 1955, from Rauschenberg’s collection to a Pop Art exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris. After flying from JFK with the then $1million object by my side, I was met by armed guards at the Charles de Gaulle Airport. We took an armored vehicle directly from the airport to the museum and took an elevator up to the exhibition galleries, where I put on my white gloves and placed the object in a vitrine.
The studio’s New York staff of four was often invited to events and openings, including Rauschenberg’s retrospectives at the Guggenheim at 1071 Fifth Avenue and the Guggenheim Bilbao. Over the years we also helped work on and research numerous exhibition catalogues and are credited in the acknowledgements of many of them. I became adept at going through the photo archives over and over again, looking for images for these various catalogues and thus became the chief photo archivist by dint of my experience.
Rauschenberg—we called him Bob—had left New York in 1970 and set up shop on Captiva, a barrier island off the west coast of Florida, near Ft. Myers. He had a full-time staff of 12 there who assisted with his daily studio practice, managed the business and maintained the 38 acres surrounding his home and studio complex. I visited twice, but there was no need to be there—my work was with the New York archives, helping manage the art storage, 381 Lafayette and assisting curatorial staff.
The job evolved into five days a week and seemed to get busier and busier as the years rolled by. I kept my objectives clear with my own studio practice and was in my Bed-Stuy studio fairly consistently night after night and on weekends and holidays. I began showing with the Bill Maynes Gallery in Chelsea and in 1997 had a two-person show with Jim Torok and then a solo in 2000, which was reviewed positively in Art in America by Bob Berland. There were also many group shows during these years—here, there and everywhere.
Rauschenberg was a person who said yes more than he said no and would kiss you full on the lips whenever he saw you. He was omnivorous in his passions and interests and was very generous spiritually. He inspired in every way by his total commitment to his daily practice, which was fully integrated into his life. I carry memories of the 18 years I worked with him and my colleagues there. At the time of his death in 2008 there were memorials at the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and at his studio on Captiva—a true testament to his legacy and importance as an artist, but more simply to celebrate a very special human being. I went to all the memorials and was struck that Bob had so many friends in so many different places. He was loved.
A few months after Bob’s death we were all given some of his and his tortoise Rocky’s ashes in two copper vials, fabricated by his chief studio assistant Lawrence Voytek. I cherish them to this day.
What motivated you to move out West after the job ended at Rauschenberg’s studio and how is that working out?
The job ended at Rauschenberg’s studio in 2012, four years after Bob died. The steady stream of new work stopped arriving to New York from Captiva and a lot of what my job was about ceased to be. There was a position at Pace I was considering, but my partner Randall and I decided maybe 30 years in New York was long enough, and that it was time to turn the page. We thought about Austin, Houston or Los Angeles, but then settled on Phoenix, where my brother, his wife and my grown nephews and niece have lived since the mid-1980s. I’d explored West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona many times with my father on field trips from Brooklyn and Manhattan, and had grown to love the desert.
I found a studio in Phoenix at Cattle Track Arts Compound, a complex of adobe and mid-20th century structures with a community of artists, who have worked and lived nearby for many years. The compound functions as a non-profit organization and we’ve received two Rauschenberg Foundation grants in the past couple of years for operating costs and general expenses.
My studio is located in a barn that used to house turkeys and cows. It’s very quiet and there are two doors, a front and a back, that are open 99% of the time, which is quite different from all of my Brooklyn and Manhattan studios, where I was up a series of staircases and often behind three or four doors.
The lower cost of living in the Southwest has allowed me to be in the studio full-time, usually seven days a week. This kind of studio time has enabled me to slow down and to focus on the craft and quality of my work. I often give paintings three to four coats of paint now, focusing on the brushwork and richness of the color. I’ve been able to produce more work and thus have been able to provide my various galleries with more material, which in turn has led to more sales. There have been shows recently in New York City, Albuquerque, Houston, Chicago, Upstate New York, London, Connecticut, and now at inde/jacobs in Marfa.
What can you tell us about your work in the show at inde/jacobs and what do you think about it being paired with the work of Glen Hanson?
Scale is one of the unifying factors in the show at inde/jacobs. I’d never considered making an entire body of work at a certain scale, so it was an interesting challenge. A couple of my pieces are made from plastic bags, which I’ve sewn through with thread and yarn in horizontal rows. I first made one of these kinds of pieces in 1981, and it was featured in my show in Chicago last fall. The idea is to construct a paragraph of sewn text using thread to fill the flattened bag with a type of information. The stitching in ‘Red Thread Bag’ forms a vessel within the vessel of the bag surface.
My work shares the inde/jacobs space with the beaded works of Glen Hanson, whom I met in the course of the installation week in Marfa, where he’s a full time resident. In the late-1970s he owned an important Minneapolis gallery, where he mounted a Joseph Beuys show and the artist actually came for the opening.
Hanson had also worked with Rauschenberg in the mid-1970s, on the 54-foot silkscreen Bob created for Dayton’s Department Store in Minneapolis. Hanson’s work follows in the Lakota tradition of beading. In his very minimal, 10-inch by 10-inch surfaces some 30,000 beads are used. What links our work and gave the gallery owner Vilis Inde impetus to pair us is the sense of process, repetition, stitching, and seriality.
We also installed a few of my paintings, Queue and Shard 1, for example. The first is on a narrow panel and is an enumeration of vertical red blocks in rows falling or waiting in line—the idea of sequencing comes to mind. Shard 1, titled for a building in London, is painted on a shaped panel that I originally had fabricated to make a painting titled Granite Reef, with Shard 1 evolving from its failure. The red triangle became a way to overwhelm the construct of the shaped panel.
During the installation in Marfa, I made the seventh in a series of wall paintings. The others this past year were painted for Tamarind Institute, EXPO Chicago, Re-Institute in Upstate New York, the Tucson Museum of Art and in London for my solo show with Emma Hill. The one for inde/jacobs is titled Marfa Grapheme and is a bit different, in that small dots are suspended in the drawn grid as opposed to circles and ovals like the others. The matrix references Agnes Martin’s 1973 screen-print edition On a clear day, a source of inspiration for the past 10 years. The Grapheme at inde/jacobs reads linguistically, though the language is an intuitive one.
Let’s revisit those three summers that you interned at the Guggenheim Museum when you were in college. How did they come to be and what can you tell us about the experience?
In the winter of 1981, when I was a twenty-year-old sophomore at Trinity, I was looking for a way to spend the summer break in New York. I spoke to the head of the art history department and he suggested applying to museums for internships with the idea that I could get credits toward my art history degree. I set my sights high and applied to the Guggenheim. My high school friend David Storey was living in New York at the time and working in the production of 42nd Street on Broadway, and I knew I’d be able to stay with him. The Guggenheim accepted my application and the first internship began there in the summer of 1981. There was an Arshile Gorky retrospective installed at the museum and one of my initial tasks was to Xerox mountains of press releases in the Aye Simon Reading Room, just off the third floor ramp. It was not an organized room, like it is now, and I found myself filing and looking at catalogues in there.
Organized activities for the interns included visits to the conservation, preparation, photography and art storage departments with talks by museum staff about what went on in these areas. We also visited the Liederkranz building, where the Guggenheim’s archives were stored. Artist studio tours were also part of the program and we visited Christo and his wife Jean-Claude at their building on Howard Street, Leonard Baskin, and Jack Youngerman in his studio in the West Village.
I applied for a second internship at the Guggenheim in my junior year, in the summer of 1982, and was accepted again. This time I worked in the preparation department with Saul Fuerstein and a staff of two to three others in 2A, an annex in the building at 1071 Fifth Avenue. Mr. Fuerstein asked that I do an inventory of the collection of unframed works on paper, which were stored in solander boxes that were up a ladder in this alcove in 2A. I spent hours and hours up there looking at small drawings and works on paper by Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Hilla Rebay et al. The contents of each of the solander boxes were noted on the inside of the lid and if there were any discrepancies I’d let Mr. Fuerstein know. During that summer I also volunteered as assistant to Cynthia Kassel, who ran the internship program and helped lead the weekly meetings in the auditorium.
I applied for a third internship to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice for my graduate year in the summer of 1983 and was accepted. It was just four years since Peggy Guggenheim had died in 1979 and the internship program was in its initial stages. There were seven of us welcomed by the director Philip Rylands that summer and I stayed for three months—living on the Giudecca with two colleagues. I spoke enough French, Spanish, Italian, and German to be able to deal with the daily crowds that came to the museum. Our duties as interns included guarding the museum galleries in the 19th-century palazzo that housed the collection, with an hourly rotation from gallery to gallery. We also took the tickets, manned the coat and bag check and each morning swept the garden—cleaning the Arnaldo Pomodoro and Max Ernst sculptures of bird droppings, as needed. I took supplemental Italian classes at the Dante Alighieri Society in the evenings and also set up my Giudecca living quarters as a studio, where I was busy making sculpture in my spare time.
As interns we were around each other 24/7 and became friends, eating meals together and taking day trips to the Lido and out to the Veneto. Some of these friends went on to open galleries and work at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York and London. My recent London show came about through one of the friendships that I made in Venice in 1983.
The internships exposed me to Art History 101—everyday, all day—and it’s all there, somehow recorded in my mind’s eye. I understand as an artist that we build on what has come before and that we’re part of a continuum and timeline. I would recommend internships as an introduction to anyone looking to seriously pursue something that they’re passionate about, whether it’s in the arts or medicine or the sciences.
Now that we’ve discussed the present and revisited the past, maybe you can consider the future. What do you foresee for yourself over the next 20 or 30 years—where do you see your work and career going?
I reflected on this question last night and this morning and the word interconnectivity kept coming to mind. I thought about how in many of my sculptures disparate elements are linked together by sections of wire. And how I’ve been sewing cotton thread through paper and plastic bags as a way to convey a language borne of labor. Interconnectivity refers to the potential to connect in an easy and effective way. Social media, email and texting interconnect us all globally in a fast efficient system. The order manifested in my work derives from interconnectedness and, as I read a definition of that word just now, I understand that it refers to a worldview that finds oneness in all things.
I’d like to continue on as I have, seeking opportunities for the work. In the past year seven of the largest paintings I’ve ever done were completed in different sites around the U.S. and in the U.K. To realize that I’m now capable of these large-scale, site-specific projects, and that they’re generally performative, has opened up a new and interesting arena. I’m no longer sequestered to the studio and working quietly. Instead, during the process of making these murals, I have become consciously engaged and connected to external variables, such as conversation and commentary by the passerby and, in the case of the outdoor projects, to elements like wind and rain and sun. Creating them has become my own internal response to these external stimuli, and in their references to text and language they become my own commentary.
Taking on larger and more ambitious projects then is a goal for the future. Since moving to the Southwest I’ve been commissioned to make a 12-foot bronze version of a 17-inch wood and graphite sculpture that I made in Brooklyn in 1990, titled Crinoid Sceptre. It has become symbolic of the trajectory forward.
I’m especially interested in doing more projects with museums and alternative venues, which are not usually considered traditional models for exhibiting work. I recently saw an article about German artist Wolfgang Laib’s show at the Secretariat in the capital of Myanmar and was interested to read how it challenged the local arts community. Laib’s medium, bee pollen, had become politicized because of the history of this particular venue, even though Laib stated that the pollen is ‘in itself the artwork.’ I once met Laib and his wife while in Salzburg a few years ago and had breakfast with them. What struck me most about him were his bright eyes and a kind of purposeful observant quiet, which still resonates and is memorable because it seems the right course to take. The way Laib’s work connected to the history of the building in Myanmar was oblique yet, as the author of the article stated, his work somehow provided an antidote to all that had come before.