Profile and Interview by Annaliese Jakimides
Bangor Metro magazine, May 2009
Three studio spaces support the varied visions of Alan Magee—quick two-minute pencil sketches, realist paintings, haunting monotypes, wall-sized tapestries, collages, and sculptures made from found materials and “brutalized” objects. His primary studio is open and huge, running along the second floor of his house, with multiple easels in action, clusters of figures in process, disparate materials everywhere, and that coastal light that is to die for. The other two studios are freestanding buildings across and up the road a bit—one for printing his monotypes and hanging the tapestries he meticulously designs, and one for all the rough and dirty work, like sawing up old hunks of wood, reconfiguring rusty pipes, sheets of metal. Magee grew up in a small Pennsylvania town in which 5-year-olds had free reign to wander the little creeks that ran through the town center, to explore back lots and scrounge behind gas stations. That’s when he learned “to take a couple of sticks and make something of them,” which he will gladly tell you he is still doing to this day.
For many years he was an illustrator, working for The New York Times, Atlantic, Time, Playboy, responsible for magazine covers that marked the seminal events and subjects of our time, like Vietnam and genetic engineering. He designed covers for books by Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Agatha Christie, Bernard Malamud, and many others, at a time when no one told him what a cover should be and he was free to “look for the essence of a book.” Alan Magee’s work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe, and has been the subject of a number of books,
most recently Alan Magee: Paintings, Sculpture, Graphics. His work is in collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Farnsworth Art Museum, among others, as well as in many private collections, including those of Mobil Oil, the Bank of Japan, Nicolas Cage, and Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer. He has received awards as a painter and as an illustrator, including a National Book Award in 1982.
Probably his most recognizable work is the paintings of beach stones and solitary tools that can fill a huge canvas. They are so realistic you might want to reach out and touch them, feel the sun’s heat on the surface, lift them up, and yet they are hauntingly insightful—much like the other work that occupies Magee most days, and has for some time. These days, that means sculptures made from materials he has collected for years without quite knowing how or if he would use them—distressed fabric, hardwood from the beaches of the Northwest, coconuts from Florida, bone, pieces of metal, old wire, anything that he’s stumbled on that had potential. For years Magee worked day and night, ferocious hours, but he is now “peaceful about the fact there are other things that need doing.” And if he gets half a day, three-quarters of a day, it’s enough. Until his next major exhibition, March 2010 in New York City, his work may be seen the first weekend in August at his upcoming open studio exhibit in Cushing.
Is much of your work inspired by actual events?
It is. It’s absolutely necessary for me to take on that accrued charge of concerns about things that are happening in the world. And at a certain point it seems equally necessary to swing back into the world of appreciation for things of beauty, for things that are in themselves complete—stones, tools, paint boxes. I don’t think I could say that one is more valuable to me than the other. But I think because drawing is a language for me, and it started so early, even if I did nothing but doodles, human behavior would pop out.
You say early. How early?
My mother tells me I was about 2 when I started to draw. She was a passionate drawer herself, but she grew up in a religious family that used her drawings for kindling in the fire. And so she made sure—never in a dramatic or outspoken way—that I was respected for doing that. She made sure that I had everything I needed—a little desk, colored pencils, typewriter paper or shirt cardboards.
Are you ever surprised by where the work takes you?
I guess always. That’s the great joy of this. Accidents that happen this afternoon—if I work or I don’t—will result in something else. It’s tying strings together that I didn’t know belonged together.
Maybe that’s why I often feel as if I’m “reading” your work.
I’m a narrative artist. I really can’t get away from it. I don’t think I could love work unless it had some sort of grit of human experience in it. Some level that was like literature.
What are you working on now?
These sculptural pieces [referring to a cluster of figures on the worktable in various stages of completion]. I’ve been enormously wound up, bound up, in the emotional possibilities inherent in the process of gluing two pieces of wood together, how such an elemental thing can have a psychological reach and communicate these feelings about people and their behaviors, and their secrets.
You work in many mediums. Why one versus another?
Every medium—its tools, its properties—brings up a different aspect of thought, and with that medium a different family of things surfaces that could not be communicated in another medium. When I began to take time aside from realist painting to do quick drawings in line, which resulted in that series of children, all of a sudden it became clear that I was dealing with a completely different set of ideas, and a door to a previously unused storehouse of concerns is now wide open.
Why did you decide to make tapestries of your paintings?
The inventors of this process—kind of an interface between a Jacquard loom and a modern, up-to-date Macintosh—are friends of mine. In 2002 they came to my show in Los Angeles—just about the time they had finished working out the fine points—and they offered to teach me how to make tapestries of my work. Immediately I realized the intensity of these pieces made large [often 11 feet high by 8 feet across] and how the tapestry allowed a different viewing, not sidetracked by the artist’s technique, by the paint qualities. From the beginning it seemed irresistibly fascinating.
How do you make them?
If I told you, it would be more information than you would want. It takes me quite a long time to translate each piece into a weavable design. I have to look at it pixel by pixel, and work in little pools of color. Then they’re woven in Belgium.
Have you ever worried about marketability?
I never knew I should. I found, when I started [his personal artwork] in the late ’70s, I was doing what fascinated me. I assumed if I used my own interests as a measure somebody would be interested as well. There are so many opinions out there you’d be wondering which ones should I be attending to? So might as well attend to your own.
Could you speak to the role of tenderness in the work you create?
That’s often overlooked, but I think there has to be empathy down to the lowest level. Tenderness is so out in the art world today. You wouldn’t want to be caught dead being tender; on the other hand, a good writer does that, a good musician does that. I think it’s just the visual arts that have hardened themselves against what that word implies. Would you want to live without tenderness? It’s a part of the essence of communicating. We’re all in this together.
Do you ever create work that is so private that it’s not even for us?
Never intentionally. But there are some things that I don’t show. And it’s good because if everything were suitable for public display then I’d be curtailing the edges of my thinking.
See illustrated article at www.bangormetro.com