Alan Magee, photo ©Monika Magee
Interview by Robert Jackson, for the book, Behind the Easel, 2014
1. What is your daily routine?
My working practice is variable—not what you could call a routine. When I’m preparing an exhibition or am intent on finishing a series of paintings I work fairly long hours, beginning around 8 AM and winding down at 6 or 7 PM. In the past, I often worked into the evening; now I try to do something completely unrelated to visual art after the work day. When there is no show pending I spend more time out of the studio. I need time away from the studio work in order to be responsive to what might be the appropriate next step.
2. What is your process for coming up with new painting ideas?
For me, the self-conscious search for inspiration can be a hinderance. I’ve found that new ideas will always appear. They take shape from living, and by not forcing the mind to search for them. Travel, friendships, reading, and attention to the natural world generate more potential directions for visual art than I can use. It has been my experience that an idea or a theme arises from my real-world concerns, rather than from a pursuit of what is sometimes called “subject matter”. In the late 1970s, for example, an unarticulated need for a creative renewal—a counterbalance to a decade spent illustrating for New York publishers—allowed me to recognize a pivotal new direction in my work on a pebble beach near my home in Maine. If that psychological need had not corresponded with my first visit to Pemaquid Point, that beach would probably not have called out to me with such insistence, and stones would not have become a recurrent subject in my work.
My interest in Weimar-era German history and art, to site another example, has led me to embark on a diverse body of work that gives me an alternative voice—one that engages with the forces of society and is suited for protest. In this realm I don’t have to come up with ideas; the social arena teems with them. The question for me then becomes: which of these concerns is the most pressing, and how can my personal disquiet—over racism, war, violence, or injustice—be shaped into a poetic, lasting work of art?
3. Which artists from history have inspired you the most and why?
The artists who inspire and challenge me are often those whose work is different from my own. I am drawn to work that retains some mystery. Lately, I have been incorporating an introduction to the German artist Käthe Kollwitz into talks about my own work. Her life and work moves me on several levels. The first is her extraordinary mastery of drawing and her ability to imbue highly representational images with enormous emotional power. But Kollwitz also possessed an empathy, a decency, unique in the visual arts.
I was influenced by the masterful, quiet gravity in the work of Cristobal Toral, Antonio Lopez Garcia, and Claudio Bravo—three artists who were represented at Staempfli Gallery when I was also showing there in the 1980s. While I was in my early thirties and developing as a painter, I was able to spend time and study their original works at the gallery.
The art of French sculptors Louis Pons and Jacques Klavé, the Russian painter Yuri Kuper, the German collagist and political activist Klaus Staeck, the portraits of Chaim Soutine and Alice Neel all play a part in my own imagery. Also, certain works of art are always internally present: Goya’s Dog in Sand, Hannah Höch’s Der Melancholiker, Otto Dix’s Portraits of Sylvia Von Harden, Antonio Lopez-Garcia’s graphite Portrait of Maria, Kollwitz’ The Grieving Parents, and Giacomo Manzu’s powerful Doors of Death on Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
4. Apart from art history where do you find inspiration?
Nature, of course, is the great teacher. Any painting, sculpture, or monotype of mine owes a fundamental debt to incredible beauty and complexity of this world. The visual marvels within a wrinkled mailing envelope or my own timeworn watercolor box can open the door to this inexhaustible visual realm.
I find inspiration, too, in any form of human mastery—from Pablo Casals’s rendition of Bach’s cello suites to an elegantly crafted sentence. These are reminders of what is possible.
In an equally important way, I am inspired by any man or woman who defies conventions and comfort in pursuit of humane and transcendent values. I admire rebellious people for whom principles are more important than praise. Since reading is an important part of my life, many of these have been writers. I try to stay aware of what Kafka achieved in his small bedroom after hours (I keep a photograph of him attached to my easel), and to what the American writers Thoreau, Emerson, and Melville accomplished in rural, nineteenth-century New England.
I am inspired by contemporary nonfiction writers and journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Naomi Klein, and Chris Hedges, who accept the risks of writing the truth. Art is not journalism, but I believe that it can be truthful enough to belong in this company.
5. For whom do you paint?
For any of us who work as artists, there is probably an imaginary viewer or reader “out there” who will comprehend what we paint or write, and who’s heart may be opened or expanded by our work. This is, in my view, the fundamental reason that we create art. But the world we inhabit is imperfect, and we have to cobble that viewer or reader together from the glimpses our fellow humans provide us. It is important to believe, even if abstractly, in an ideal recipient so that we can give the best of ourselves.
I am fortunate in that my wife, Monika, comes very close to being that ideal viewer. She is able to grasp what I’m after, whether the imagery is contemplative or angry, and to engage with it fully.
6. What do you want people to take with them from your artwork?
I want a viewer of my work to enter into the work and into the world behind it. If, through a painting, I show you an open watercolor box, I hope that the unexpected beauty of it might produce surprise, a mild shock, a temporary readjustment that frees your eye from its constant subservience to the body. Then, the metaphor within the image can begin to emerge. The paintbox holds every possibility—like our alphabet of twenty-six letters from which all past and future literature springs.
I hope, also, that something can be retained from this encounter. When I was painting a series of trompe l’oeil envelopes, a friend reported, “I can’t throw the mail away; the envelopes are too beautiful”.
In my black and white monotypes of faces I try to achieve something similar. I want a viewer to be caught by the gaze and be drawn into the life behind it.
Visual art can’t do what literature does; it is by nature condensed. It can’t present well reasoned arguments, elaborate on them or defend them. But it can implant images, forever, in a viewer’s mind. I hope to make works that are worthy of being kept in memory.
7. Which of your paintings would you use as an example of your vision and could you elaborate on it? (this image will definitely be in the book)
Making this choice is difficult because I work in several, distinctly different styles. I could select an example from my realist paintings—these are the works that are best known. But something in the question itself, the expansive idea of vision, prompts me to point to one of my black and white monotypes.
The monotype Silence was part of an ongoing series that I began in 1990, several months before the first “Gulf War”. These faces were a nearly involuntary response to the impending bombing, and to the inevitable suffering of those on the receiving end. The monotypes were made by blackening a zinc printing plate with etching ink, then rubbing out the lights of the face with a cloth. Since these images can’t be sketched out or pre-planned, and because no models or reference is used, an internal vision is central to their creation.
8. What are your most satisfying moments at work?
Once I settle in to a day’s work, the act of painting is almost always satisfying. When work is going as it should it is a kind of meditation. I don’t have to force the daily concerns out, the work displaces them.
I find particular satisfaction when a painting or sculpture asserts its own presence for the first time—when it can stand by itself and will no longer fall back into something formless. There is still a lot of work to be done, but concern for the work’s survival is past, and I can at last take pleasure in seeing it and in having it communicate back to me.
9. What is the most difficult part of the creative process for you?
All aspects of art making are difficult, but that doesn’t mean that the work is onerous or emotionally painful. Art making is difficult. The artist/designers Milton Glazer and Walter Bernard work together in a building on East 32nd Street in New York. Above the door a plaque reads: ART IS WORK. This isn’t news to any artists, but it may surprise some who misunderstand the demands of creative work or romanticize the artist’s life.
For me, the most challenging part of the process is the last stretch to the finished piece. (I mentioned above that it is also the most satisfying.) But, demanding as it is, this stage can’t be short-changed. Pushkin wrote, “the distance between the concept and the finished work is traveled on the knees”.
10. How do you keep fresh over the course of you career?
This is an important question. The quality of my work is inextricably bound to my ability to keep a fresh and fully energized attitude toward it. But, there is a natural and appropriate falling off of excitement when the work doesn’t evolve or keep pace with my thoughts. The physical body lets me know when it’s time for a change. Even entering the studio can feel tiring at such times.
I usually address this inevitable entropy by making a fundamental change in what I’m doing. Subtle changes may not be enough to steer back into the zone of the new, where the energy is. In the mid 1980s, for example, I put aside my realist painting for a time to make quick, calligraphic ink drawings on large sheets of paper. Immediately I sensed that a wellspring of power was available for this work, but I could not have accessed it through the realism.
More recently, a reengagement with music and songwriting has served the same purpose. Expanding the creative possibilities, picking up new tools, or stepping outside the imagined boundaries is the way forward when freshness fades. Finding my vitality renewed in the new activity reanimates the entire process. Then, a new spark can be carried back to the work that had begun to grow dim.