Alan Magee: Songs for All Hours, Forum Gallery, NY
by Henry Adams, 2016
Purely as visual artifacts, Alan Magee’s paintings are completely astonishing—surely among the most amazing objects created by any contemporary painter—and when we encounter them one can instantly feel that they are somehow quite different from the work of most realist and photo-realist artists, although exactly why that is the case is hard to say, or even to mentally get a grip on, except in a visceral and intuitive way.
What accounts for their peculiar visual intensity? While ostensibly they’re realistic, It’s intriguing that when he sought to describe their power, the art critic Theodore Wolff invoked realism’s opposite, Abstract Art, and declared: 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 Clyfford Still. In both cases I felt that a page of art history was in the process of being turned.
Indeed, as this suggests, the impact of Magee’s paintings is not purely visual—visually astonishing as they are. His paintings feel more momentous than the work of most realist painters, as though they’re expressing an intent or philosophical position that has grand and deep implications for the way we live our lives.
This last fact is surprising, since the ostensible subject matter of Alan’s work—such as spark plugs, electric tools, and beach stones seem fairly ordinary and these objects are presented in a seemingly straightforward, rather frontal way, without much emphasis on daring of composition. These works don’t initially communicate a narrative or set of social or political meanings, so what is the intensity of feeling that we can sense in them?
Indeed, the paintings are so pure, so straightforward and direct, so narrowly focused, that it’s something of a surprise to discover that Alan is not a narrowly directed monomaniac, but is a reader of polymathic breadth and interests, as well as a figure of multiple talents: not only a painter, but a sculptor, puppet-maker, printmaker, musician, singer/songwriter, film-maker—and even a political activist, deeply concerned about injustice, war, and other horrors of the modern age, as well as about modern society’s encroachment on privacy and human rights. Significantly, a lot of this wide-ranging knowledge is suppressed or repressed in his realist art. But in some odd way this erudition and sense of social engagement suffuses his work—contributes to its emotional intensity, and to the subtly and ingenuity of his artistic program.
Alan was nurtured, as he fondly recalls, by “skilled, creative parents” who gave him unlimited support. He traces many of his artistic and social ideals to their influence. He grew up in art-conscious Bucks County Pennsylvania where his father owned a service station—in this, perhaps, lays a good part of Alan’s fascination with machine parts, old chains, and tools, as well as with the creative mechanics of working with physical things. His father taught him a number of skills still germane to his work, including the techniques of sign painting—the use of flat brushes and the discipline of making each stroke of the letter only once. His mother came from a religiously-austere background, and encouraged his art in response to the challenges she had faced as a child. As he explains:
"When she was a child my mother was unusually gifted at drawing. Her childhood work had an extraordinary accuracy and emotion, but she was actively disparaged by her mother. My mother’s drawings were used as kindling in the cookstove to underscore the lesson that she “not get a swelled head.” She once said to me that not being able to draw was the equivalent to not being able to breathe; nevertheless, she had given up drawing by her early teens. I think that legacy helped to shape my life. My mother encouraged me in drawing and made sure I had colored pencils and plenty of paper to draw on. Nothing that I drew, beginning with my first crude attempt to draw her clothesline was ever thrown out. I still have all the drawings she saved."
Alan Magee now lives in rural Maine, far from the urban centers, and the inspirations for his work are curious ones, not neatly aligned with the traditional lock-step progressions of modern painting, as defined for example, by critics like Clement Greenberg, with his formalist doctrines, or the programs of the Museum of Modern Art. For one thing, many of his inspirations are Central European rather than French; indeed he favors creations with a dark urgency that seem peculiar to the middle-European temperament, and some of his greatest inspirations are writers rather than painters, notably the novelists Bohumil Hrabal and Thomas Mann; the poet, playwright, and songwriter, Bertolt Brecht; and the critic and social theorist Walter Benjamin (author of a famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). On his painting easel, Magee keeps a small photo of the master novelist and story-teller Franz Kafka, seer and chronicler of the dislocations of the modern age. In explaining his own goals as an artist he often cites Kafka’s goal of using reality as a step to a world beyond—a sort of realism, in short, that sees the real world as the foundation for the metaphysical.
Alan began his career when realism was out of favor, when concerns such as beauty or narrative were considered old-fashioned, and when the chief concern of most artists was to pick up the thread of modern painting and push modernism one step further. As a result, he entered the profession of painter, as it were, through the back door. As a student he didn’t study fine art but illustration—then considered an entirely different profession. Although he had hoped to enter the Philadelphia College of Art as a painting major, the college offered him only a place in the illustration department. This derailment of his intentions was disappointing, but in the end it was fortunate; it led to more than a decade of work as an editorial and book illustrator for publishers in New York. He describes his illustration years as an “alternative graduate school,” where an intense practice of drawing and painting merged with the world of literature.
Alan quickly achieved success in the specialized field of book jacket design, which demands a peculiar responsiveness to the symbolic interplay of images and words. It’s an art form that demands severe abbreviation—the visual equivalent of a haiku—which distills many thousands of words into a few evocative objects and symbols. Because he had a somewhat surreal style, he was given particularly interesting books to illustrate, including multiple titles by two great writers, Graham Greene and Bernard Malamud. Alan’s designs were commercially successful and widely admired; some winning prizes; but he grew frustrated with the quick pace of the work and the randomness of the assignments, which seemed to offer no opportunity to plumb the depths of his own life and experience. What’s more, with the consolidation of publishing firms into conglomerates, the book world changed—became more commercial. At one point, for example, he was instructed that a cover for a Bernard Malamud novel could have no references to jails, Jewish toughs, or hard luck—the central themes of the book.
It’s important to recognize that Alan’s career as a painter grew to some extent out of his work as an illustrator—and in particular out of a desire to produce visual forms which have meanings that go beyond the visual, that have a touch of poetry, obliquely invoke narratives, explore matters of philosophical meaning, perhaps even have an element of beauty. When he seriously took up painting, he saw it as a distinctly separate enterprise from his illustration work—and marked this distinction by renting a studio apart from where he made his illustrations, so that his paintings could stand separate and apart, in a universe that was completely their own. What is it about Alan’s realism that’s so extraordinary? Let’s start with a word about his technique:
Alan Magee is looking at objects so closely, so minutely, that the areas he looks at become abstract patterns. What he sees is not shaped by preconceptions, but is something more optical, luminous and visually pure. To see the objects this closely he uses a range of magnifying glasses, and it’s significant that he looks at what he paints both from a distance and at different levels of magnification, and then layers veils of transparent and translucent color on top of one another, as if he were seeing at different levels of closeness all at once, somewhat akin to a photograph with multiple exposures, one layer on top of another. His images are not a snapshot, such as produced by a camera, but a composite of successive views seen over time.
“Representational painting appeals to me, in part, precisely because of the time involvement required, because it forces me to go back to the beginning to a very basic process of looking, and understanding, and studying, and being confronted with my failures, and then trying again.”
When Alan paints he’s astonishingly attentive to the most delicate and subtle value shifts and temperature shifts—that is, of color variations from warm to cool. He is thinking about what he sees “abstractly,” which is to say that he’s trying to record the pure sensation without stopping to interpret or analyze the object itself or his technical approach to rendering it. While small in scale and fully realized as an optical illusion, his work is extremely painterly—that is to say, he layers abstract patches and veils of color rather than using hard outlines. As he declares:
"Nature is chaotic, but within that apparent chaos is a marvelous consistency and structure. In order to grasp this ever-present material grace I have to partially abandon a painstaking, methodical approach to painting. I have to ask: how can my gestures and marks give credit to what I am seeing? It seems possible only by bringing an abstract sensibility together with the necessary scrutiny."
"If I examine a stone and try to understand it by mimicking it mark by mark, I will have missed how nature works. I have to get behind that and allow nature—through the movement of fluids, accidental marks, and my hand’s own spontaneous movements—to describe itself. Experience has shown me that paint knows what to do, and when I paint I am often following its lead."
What’s extraordinary is that in the end this process of laying down assortments of little brushstrokes comes together so effectively; that a vision that’s one of tiny, discreet patches coalesces into a coherent image. Because of these shifting layers of pigment, his work is never quite firm or fixed but mobile and evocative, suggesting a spiritual aura.
In fact, when you look very closely at Alan’s work its “realism” dissolves. As already suggested in the statement by Theodore Wolff, what you discern is an “abstract” painting, not unlike the “White Writing” paintings of Mark Tobey. Which is not to say that he does not observe closely, but that he observes so closely that the normal meaning of things is suspended, and we see “reality” in a different way—one that invites a “going over” into another realm. (Magee explains that this phrase is one used by Franz Kafka, to describe the point at which a work of realistic fiction passes into the realm of the dream.) As a result, the things he paints, while intensely real, are also strangely “luminous,” and paradoxically, the intensity of their realism depends on the ambiguity of the brushstrokes when seen up close set in counterpoint to how we view the image when we step back.
In a visit to Alan’s studio, it’s startling to see the relative ordinariness of the objects he collects and paints—little bones, bits of paper, postage stamps, stones, rusty nails, rusty chains—and the quite magical way that they’re transformed in his paintings.
But, what of the deeper philosophical messages of these paintings? Since Alan’s paintings, within their seemingly straightforward presentation, contain layers of associations and reechoing meanings, in a fashion similar to a good poem, it’s impossible to fully describe each painting exhibited here. But Alan has explained this aspect of his work quite vividly, with reference to two of the paintings shown here, and for the sensitive observer it’s not difficult to extrapolate from these examples, and apply this metaphorical approach more widely. Magee explains:
"The process starts with my recognition that an object is significant, that it connects with my sensibilities and my work. However undistinguished it might be, it has to possess an engaging complexity—conveying at first sight that it will require full engagement from me if I hope to do it justice. There is always more there than I can see at the beginning. The deeper beauty of an object and its metaphorical associations reveal themselves gradually while I observe and paint.
Afterword depicts a row of rusted and decayed sparkplugs. The realism and clarity invite a viewer in, but the painting is also an open door to reflections on our experience of the world in the age of machines (the era of oil and the internal-combustion engine that we’ve come to see as the normal condition of living). The same could be said for This Half-Century: Matinicus—showing a row of five heavy, distorted and rusted nails. The painting could stand as emblematic of fifty years of decaying material and social infrastructure. It isn’t necessary that a viewer follow these paths, but it is important to me that they are offered through the work."
Alan’s paintings seem to propose that if we would look at reality carefully and closely, and if we analyze our sensations as we do so, we would discover that reality is something quite strange, which has a sensory, or spiritual, or psychological aspect, and is full of poetic reverberations. There’s a moral discipline that underlies his remarkable work.
To closely examine these paintings is to be drawn into the actions by which they were made, and into a process of painting that is at once a form of discipline and an act of meditation. They are invocations to follow a pathway of spiritual focus, moral clarity, and contemplation of the deepest things in life. His paintings are dedicated not to topical issues, but to something more profound—to the notion that if we can attain “true seeing,” that the rest will follow. They present an odd mix of old-fashioned moralism and modern skepticism, they’re based on the premise that if we could see truly we could also learn to think and feel more deeply, and to connect with life and the world with enhanced intensity, awareness, and spiritual vision.
Henry Adams is the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland