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On the Road with Matt Magee

Matt Magee, "Souvenir" (2014), oil on panel, 18 x 24 inches. (Courtesy: inde/jacobs, Marfa)

By PAUL LASTER, JUN. 2016

A painter, sculptor and printmaker living in Phoenix, Arizona, Matt Magee spent his formative years in a somewhat nomadic existence and nearly 20 years of his adult life working for Robert Rauschenberg, while exhibiting his own artwork. Back in the studio full-time since 2012, Magee is enjoying the fruits of his artistic labor with a string of solos and group shows, artist residencies and the publication of new prints and multiples. Whitehot recently caught up with the artist to discuss his life and work, time with Rauschenberg, lessons learned at artist residencies and his recent solo shows in New York, Albuquerque and Houston.

Whitehot Magazine: How did you first become interested in art?

Matt Magee: It was in London, maybe 1969-70, when my mother enrolled me in Saturday morning ceramics classes at Camden Arts Centre. I remember making a life-sized turtle and a vessel completely covered in rows of hatch marks, with a brown glaze. We traveled a lot as a family and my dad was always taking us on fieldtrips to see Roman ruins (in Libya) and out to the Sahara, to cathedrals and museums in the UK. A lot of visual information was coming at us all. My dad took pictures along the way and we'd have family slide shows. So there was an emphasis on visual information and experience.

My interest in art evolved from the encouragement of my parents and this visual history. In public high school in Texas in the late 1970s I gravitated to the art department as a safe haven and found my people there and found a voice there. I liked experimenting with media and by my senior year was taking drawing classes at a local junior college, again a conscious effort to be around creative people who spoke my language.

WM: I know that you did your undergrad studies in Texas, but did some internships at the Guggenheim in New York and Venice before settling in New York and going to grad school at Pratt Institute. What drew you to New York and what kept you there for 28 years?

MM: I think every young creative person must want to spend time in NYC at some point. I definitely felt a strong pull and yearned to be there as a teenager and knew somehow I'd get there. Pratt was finally the entry point after the internships. Pratt also provided me with my first core group of artist friends and colleagues and we helped each other after graduating to find studio spaces and jobs.

My first job in 1986 in NYC was as preparator for Barbara Toll Fine Art, and once one works in the art world for awhile more connections are made and more opportunities present themselves and one becomes part of a continuum, which builds on itself. NYC has a rhythm and one hooks into it, it's a continuous flow.

The job with Robert Rauschenberg was also interesting and presented many opportunities. It was this combination of positive things happening with the work in the studio, as well as positive, interesting and steady jobs, and good friends that made for so many years in the city.

Matt Magee, "Seven Towers" (2016), oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches. (Photo: Carlos Mandelaveitia)

WM: You mention the job with Rauschenberg. How did you happen into it? How long did you work there? What did you do? And what was the takeaway?

MM: In 1994 my friend Maureen Mahoney called from Castelli Graphics to say there was a job opening at Rauschenberg Studio at 381 Lafayette. I interviewed with Bob's chief curator David White and was hired a week or two later. There was never a clear job description, but I understood fairly quickly that an important aspect of the position was to keep things organized. There was a mountain of paperwork and archives that were continuously growing each day, not to mention the artwork that was being made in Captiva that needed photography, registry numbers and cataloguing. I was the photo archivist and helped research many of the catalogues. The work was endless. It also included maintenance of the building, which meant painting walls, installing art, dealing with the rooftop garden and caretaking Bob's tortoise. And also working at the warehouse on an almost weekly basis packing and unpacking crates, and organizing the storage. Also attending and helping organize events at 381 Lafayette was an interesting aspect of the job. And there were courier trips, which took me to Paris, Madrid, Bilbao, Salzburg and Luxembourg.

At one point I was asked to take the Jasper Johns sculpmetal “Flashlight” in Bob's collection to Paris for a show at the Pompidou Centre. At the time it was insured for $1million and traveled in a small, heavy wooden box. I was stopped at customs at JFK, but made my way through with the paperwork in hand and then was met by armed guards and an armored vehicle at De Gaulle in Paris and taken directly to the Pompidou. I put on white gloves and gently placed “Flashlight” in its vitrine. Another 24 hours in Paris and I flew home.

381 Lafayette was also RR's house, so keeping the fridge stocked with weekly trips to the supermarket and taking laundry and bedding to the drycleaners were also part of my duties. I was there for 18 years, and the four years after Bob died (2008-2012) were the most difficult. The spirit head of our organization had left the room. I was released from the job in 2012.

Takeaway: Bob said yes more than he said no. He had a very positive aspect to his being; I carry that with me today. He worked everyday in the studio and had a strong work ethic; I admire that and do the same. He gave out a lot of love; I try to do the same.

The connections that I made through the years at RR carry into the present day. The support and friendship I still get from my former colleagues at RR helps propel me, and my work, forward.

WM: What did you do when you were released from the job with Rauschenberg?

MM: For a day or two I looked at the possibility of getting another job; there was one at Pace actually. But then, after talking it over with my partner Randall Seale, we decided it was time to leave NYC. We had nothing holding us there. We sold the apartment in the Wall Street area in about a month and left NYC in July 2012 on a six-week road trip across country to Arizona.

We decided on settling in Arizona, after some debate about Austin and Houston. My brother and his family have lived in Phoenix since 1986 and I've visited many times and fallen in love with the desert.

For the past three years I've been in the studio pretty much seven days a week.

WM: I know that you'd been exhibiting regularly while working for Rauschenberg, but did anything about showing change after you were able to dedicate yourself solely to your work?

MM: The opportunities have been coming hard and fast since I've been able to focus solely on the studio work. I'm able to produce more work, so I have more objects and paintings for whatever projects present themselves. Everything seems to build on what comes before.

Matt Magee, "Hammurabi's Code" (2015), gravel on canvas board, 25 x 21 inches. (Photo: Carlos Mandelaveitia)


Matt Magee, "Aluminum Circuit 1" (2014), aluminum on plywood, 35 x 43 inches. (Courtesy: Planthouse, New York)Matt Magee, "Narita" (2014), oil on board, 10 x 10 inches. (Photo: Carlos Mandelaveitia)

WM: Let's talk about your recent solo shows. In your show at John Molloy Gallery in New York last fall you showed minimal, nonrepresentational paintings in which pebbles replaced letters in texts, recycled aluminum cans were cut up and arranged to represent circuit boards and airport floor plans inspired abstract paintings. What's the painting language and representational symbolism that you are exploring?

MM: Sequencing has become important in the work. It was always there, but in the past year or two I've felt this continuity and passage of time. Laying things in rows is about marking time in a way that I think Agnes Martin must have thought about it; it's a deeply satisfying act. The aluminum circuit boards are paragraphs carefully placed, that function as a kind of map — like a painting is a map leading your eye here and there. The composite density of the aluminum surface is also like the bark of a tree, an intriguing almost organic texture, derived from a man-made material.

A rock line placed by Richard Long is the same as a row of pebbles placed one after the other, going forward like a path. A line of pebbles could also be a stroke of paint; it's the same kind of intuitive gesture.

The glyph-like forms of airport terminals, as seen in the back of inflight magazines are suggestive of abstract Native American pictographs and petroglyphs. I've been to 35 or 40 of these sites in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Native American pictographs have both a clear but oftentimes mysterious symbolism. I see the shapes of the airport terminals as having this very same kind of mystery, when taken out of context.

The images then in the paintings all come from something observed. This kind of looking might derive from my years with Rauschenberg. He was an omnivorous, sharp-eyed observer and collector of images, and my own eye has been perhaps honed to always watch and look carefully.

Matt Magee, "Green ABQ7" (2015), oil on panel, 20 x 16 inches. (Courtesy: Richard Levy Gallery, Albuquerque)

WM: "Seven" at Richard Levy Gallery — your first solo show with the gallery earlier this year — was a survey of seven paintings from the last seven years. What was the point of departure and nature of that show?

MM: “Seven” at Richard Levy was in fact a show of 15 to 20 paintings, dating from 2009 to 2016 (a span of seven years) that was organized by Viviette Hunt, the gallery's director. The number seven and sequences of seven elements have been evident in my work since the early 1980's when I was working as a young artist in Texas. Building on the fact that the number denotes completeness and perfection, I feel an emotional and physical connection to its symbolism.  

I painted a variety of images of the number seven in 1994 and had it tattooed on my left ankle. It functions as a talisman and charm in my mind's eye. In 2013, during my first print residency at Tamarind Institute, I saw a large, neon seven at an intersection in Albuquerque, in front of a corporate building. I photographed the seven and it's become the basis for a series of paintings titled “ABQ7.” It also became the subject of my largest lithograph completed at Tamarind in the second residency February 2016.

I continue to explore the number and sequences of it as a way to understand myself. I recently completed a painting titled “Seven Towers.”

Matt Magee, Installation view of "prima materia" at Hiram Butler Gallery (2016). (Courtesy: Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston)

WM: Your current show at Hiram Butler Gallery in Houston features 36 found object sculptures made between 1987 and 2016. What are you thinking about when you find the object on the street or in a junk shop or in a landscape, and how do those objects get transformed to become the completed sculptural works?

MM: I see some inherent interest in their form, substance, color or oddity. A friend recently sent me her seashell collection; so I not only find the components for the object sculptures, but I accumulate things that are given to me. These found and accumulated things sit on my worktable and get moved here and there, and get stacked on one another, migrate towards and away from one another until likely pairs and trios find themselves. Rightness happens in the joining up of certain shapes and an object sculpture is formed.

Matt Magee, Detail of installation view of "prima materia" at Hiram Butler Gallery (2016). (Courtesy: Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston)Matt Magee "Mnemosyne"(1987), pebbles and plywood, 9 x 5 inches. (Courtesy: Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston)

WM: You mentioned making prints during a second residency at Tamarind Institute and I see from your biography that you have gone to a few residencies. What are the significant ones and what role have they played in your development as an artist?

MM: The two most recent residencies at the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation and Tamarind Institute have been the most significant. I was at Albers for two months in October/November 2015 and with this amount of focused time a lot of progress and thinking can be done. I laid out a course of action for this residency and shipped the various media I hoped to work with before arriving. I even shipped a painting wet that was mid way completed so I'd have a project immediately to get the flow going. Working in an environment such as Albers, one becomes aware of the legacy surrounding the place; and for me it set a bar and standard of discipline to work towards and within. Also being close to the Yale University Art Gallery I was able to study the cultural riches offered by such an institution. There was also an Albers symposium at Yale during the tenure of the residency, which I attended, and a day trip to the ICA Boston to see the Black Mountain show [Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957]. Intellectually and visually, the two months were very inspiring.

The second Tamarind residency in February 2016 was also especially intense and interesting. Again, discipline characterizes the day-to-day activities in the lithography print shop. Working with the new master printer Valpuri Remling was eye opening because of her quick decision making and problem solving.

I would say then the role that these residencies play is through the gift of time and a conscious discipline, the studio work experienced growth and a new level of maturity.

Matt Magee, "Wall Grapheme 1" (2016), acrylic and china marker, 70 x 100 inches. (Photo: Logan Bellew)

WM: When you were in residence at the Tamarind for the second time you painted an abstract mural on a wall of the Institute. Had you ever previously painted a mural? What was the concept for it? Do you think you'll do more?

MM: I went back in May to do the commissioned mural at the invitation of Meghan Ferguson, the gallery director at Tamarind, and Tamarind director Diana Gaston. I'd never done a project like it, and the scale of it — at 70 by 100 inches — makes it the largest painting I've done.

I've always responded to Agnes Martin's 1973 screen-print edition “On a clear day,” which I've seen in museums, galleries and private collections over the years. It's a meditation on the grid in 30 different formats. In 2005 I began exploring ways to fill in the grid with a kind of encoded semaphore/stenographic language of ovals, dots and blips. I painted this language on a series of gallery postcards announcing an Agnes Martin show, which were then featured in my own show at Knoedler in 2010. We installed them as a grid with 24 pieces.

At Tamarind in 2013, during my first residency, we did the “Grapheme” prints, which relate directly to the paintings I made on the gallery announcements. A grapheme is an essential unit of language, and the marks made within the Martin grid are meant to reference a paragraph of the most basic gestures, sounds and information. 

I'll be doing more of these murals, titled “Wall Graphemes,” in New York, Chicago and London this fall. WM

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.

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