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Cover illustration, TIME, April, 1985                                   BURNED, Monotype, ©2020

Alan Magee and The Politics of Seeing

by Henry Adams, September, 2019

In the late 1960s, while still a student at the Philadelphia College of Art, Alan Magee achieved remarkable and immediate success in a world that does not exist anymore—a then stunningly vital, expanding realm of journalism and illustration.


At the time, departments of painting in art schools were dominated by abstraction, and to non-representational drips and splatters, to the virtual exclusion of anything else. But for those who admired the techniques of the old masters, illustration offered an escape route, though with some interesting twists, since along with requiring traditional artistic skills it also required being in tune with popular culture—with the world of right now—with modern anxieties.


At that time magazines of all sorts were flourishing. Time and Newsweek reached millions on a weekly basis. Newspapers were developing magazines for special interests, and countercultural and dissident journals were appearing on newsstands. In addition, there was a continuous demand for cover illustrations for paperback books. It was a richly literary period, in which intellectual culture was expanding out into the world at large and mingling with it. No one then foresaw the world of the internet and social media, when print journalism of every kind would be diminished, if not pushed into extinction, and when communication would be increasingly reduced to sound bites.


By good fortune, the world of illustration in the 1970s was also more open than it is today. A young illustrator could contact the art director of Time, tell them that he was in New York and that he had a portfolio to show, and often get an appointment for that same afternoon. Alan produced nine covers (of which five were published) for Time—one of the most competitive trophies in the field of illustration, as well as creating works for the NY Times, New York magazine, Playboy, The Atlantic, and McCalls magazines. 

But Alan was particularly active as the creator of over two hundred and fifty covers for paperback books. His specialty was books that combined wide popular appeal with literary distinction—novels by Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Agatha Christie, Edward Abbey, and Lawrence Durrell. His inclinations as an illustrator were perfectly suited to this sort of work, since it tended to demand a combination of intense realism and visual drama with a touch of something enigmatic or even surreal—it needed to have an element of mystery and psychological tension that made one want to open the book. Unlike today, when imagery tends to be tightly regulated in an assignment, he was given great freedom in establishing a concept of his own. The very fact that art critics paid little attention to this realm gave artists an opportunity to develop a new poetic language. 

Indeed, one of the most challenging aspects of the work was reading all the books, particularly when he was working on seven or eight projects at once. Another challenge was to condense 100,000 words or so into a single, symbolic image that captured the feeling of the whole. He often had to work fast. Time magazine, for example, gave an artist only a few days to produce a highly realistic image. Time frequently commissioned three provisional covers for each issue and published the one which addressed the leading story of the week.


After a decade or so, Alan tired of the intense pitch of his illustration assignments and began to feel a need to dig into his own artistic soul more deeply. What’s more, the atmosphere of the publishing world began to grow more corporate, less open to individual forms of expression. When Alan first set out to create paintings which would not illustrate but stand alone as works of art he rented a separate studio for that purpose. He began to produce intensely observed paintings of commonplace objects, often things which we see every day but don’t bother to study closely, such as bones, old tools, or a watercolor box.


These visually astonishing paintings are the opposite of what they seem to be at first glance. They appear to be meticulously crafted, but they are, in a sense, impressionist paintings, executed with large gestural strokes and eventually refined with other tools and small brushes. In a sense, what he records is not the object itself but the delicate fluctuations of light, and for this reason his paintings seem both empirical and contemplative at the same moment. They have a strange floating quality that is spiritual and strangely mesmerizing—that lifts us into a different plane of existence. The paintings shimmer and bloom. The physical and the spiritual merge into each other. 

There is an element of politics in Alan’s art, and of resistance to prejudice and injustice, although one that’s often not obvious at first glance. His opposition to violence is a driving force in his life. Wide-ranging in his modes of expression, Alan is a gifted singer/songwriter who has written protest songs in the mode of Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs, and has made darkly humorous short films protesting mass surveillance and America’s culture of gun violence. 

Alan grew up in a home environment which was suffused with kindness, with parents attentively supportive of his artistic inclinations. His father ran a service station where Alan worked as a teenager. Alan’s love of tools and his clear-headed sense of how to use them is surely a legacy from his father. His mother always had art materials on hand and encouraged him to draw freely even when he turned out skeletons and other macabre subjects. She saved most of his childhood drawings, including his first—drawn at age two. 

As a ten-year-old in the bland years of the 1950s, Alan became fascinated by horror films, such as James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein. Later, he discovered the work of the German artists of the Weimar Republic: George Grosz, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, and Hannah Höch, and immediately felt a kinship with their work. One of his high school classmates noted that Alan drew faces compulsively, and what attracted him was seemingly “the opposite of beauty” in a traditional sense. He was interested in the asymmetries of the human face which create a sense of the unique character, the imperfection and troubled nature of an individual. In his mature work, this theme has emerged anew. His black and white monotypes of faces seem filled with a quality of injury, as though they are bearers of centuries of cruelty and oppression. 

Works like Alan’s monotypes and his sculptural War Toys alert us to the fact that even his paintings of simple objects have a deep sociopolitical intent. But it’s not a politics of doctrines and slogans, rather one of simply taking in the world around us, in all its nuance, complexity, and phenomenological mystery. Seeing becomes an act of spiritual meditation. The deep message of these paintings is that attentiveness, a sort of empathy with the daily objects of the world around us, can create an understanding of things that have a larger social and political resonance.

HENRY ADAMS is the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and author of Eakins Revealed, and Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock

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