ALAN MAGEE: AN APPRECIATION

Excerpt from: Alan Magee, an Appreciation
by Jonathan Weiner


...As a writer with an interest in science and nature, I feel the strongest sense of personal connection with Alan Magee's work. In his realist paintings--the work that he does on the day shift, so to speak--he accomplishes what writers try to do in creative, or literary, nonfiction. This kind of writing (Richard Rhodes calls it verity) uses all the tools of the novelist and the journalist to paint portraits of the way things are. And what Magee does when he takes off on his fantastic flights from realism--the work he does on the night shift--reminds me of the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the greatest master of the form, Franz Kafka. But like the best work in any medium, Magee's paintings seem to exist outside all schools. Partly, perhaps, because he grew up in small towns, not cities, his paintings are not about art, about trends or theories, but about the beauty and magic of the thing seen, and the things unseen beyond it.

In the 1960s, Magee went to the Tyler School of Art, and then the Philadelphia College of Art (PCA), now the University of the Arts. At the time, realistic art was down and out. Painting from life was supposed to be dead. His interest in drawing figures and portraits landed him by default in PCA's illustration department. At first this felt like a kind of banishment. (He had applied to the fine arts department.) But the banishment turned out to be a wonderful experience for him. In those classes he met some extraordinarily talented students, including the Quay Brothers, who later became extraordinary filmmakers, and also the late Richard Amsel, who was so skilled as a draftsman and illustrator that he began drawing art for Hollywood and Broadway while he was still a student, working on his mother's dining-room table. Magee graduated in 1969 and soon he too was in demand as an illustrator in New York. He did high-profile assignments for Time, Playboy, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and the city's paperback houses. His work won him many prizes, including the American Book Award for a collection of surrealist work by the Czech writer John Sladek. Magee feels that back in the Seventies, illustrators enjoyed more freedom than they do now. The big corporate and commercial publishing agendas have changed the nature of the job. He got his first taste of what the multinational takeovers would mean for publishing when he was working on a doomed cover illustration for Bernard Malamud's novel The Fixer. The publisher's sales team told him to avoid any references to jails, Jewish toughs, and hard luck--the themes of the book. They asked him to paint something like the movie poster for Fiddler on the Roof.

By the late 1970s, Magee was phasing out his illustration work, and painting the first of his gemlike studies of things as they are. It may seem strange to talk about the supernatural in the presence of these realist paintings, which seem so completely natural, but from the beginning his best work reached a level where we have to believe that an element of magic comes into it. He leads us to contemplate and celebrate the object before us in ways we have forgotten. He makes a common thing like a pebble, a drill, a braid, a gourd, or an envelope speak to our own secret passions, agitations, and preoccupations. His craftsmanship is so fine that many of his paintings compare with the greatest works of tromp l'oiel. But that term suggests trickery. Here the technique has a serious purpose, an involvement with the way things are, and we feel as we look at them that we share in the visual communion.

In one early review, the art critic Theodore Wolff wrote in The Christian Science Monitor: "His best paintings can stand beside the best modernist art produced since World War II, in much the same way that the best modernists can stand beside the good art of the past. Viewing Magee's paintings I had the same feeling of being in the presence of something truly vital that I had in the mid 1940s standing before the early abstract canvases of Jackson Pollock and Clifford Still. In both cases I felt that a page from art history was in the process of being turned."

Magee invites us to stare at a utilitarian object like an envelope, and as we look it begins to assert and reveal itself. In ordinary life, of course, an envelope comes and goes. Its wrinkles, frayed corners, stamps, and postmarks never have time to reveal themselves to us. In one of Magee's paintings, contemplated so respectfully, the envelope itself becomes a letter to us, and however exotic the stamps and postmarks, it reaches us. A dozen years ago, in an essay about Magee's work, Barry Lopez wrote that "if art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer." Alan Magee's envelopes say so much so well that we do not quite know how to reply, but we always feel that they require an answer.