Matt Magee’s award-winning career spans over 4 decades. His work explores themes of language, coding and repetition. The son of a geologist and archaeologist, his childhood was spent traversing the globe from Turkey to Libya to Native American reservations in the American West. The former NYC club kid who spent nights at Danceteria and Save the Robots finds himself waxing lyrical about the beauty found in the desert, his current home. The one-time assistant to Robert Rauschenberg forged his career in the 80’s and 90’s New York Art Scene among such peers as painter Chris Martin, sculptor Win Knowlton and multimedia artist Jim Hodges. The connections he made then have held and supported him throughout the turbulent year that has just been. As he launches Abecedarium online with Print Editions Gallery and prepares for upcoming shows he takes a pause from the busy routine of his studio.
Interview by Lisa Hobbs
Hopi Reservation, Northern Arizona. Photo: Matt Magee
Tell me about ABECEDARIUM.
It’s a word I’ve been interested in for a long time. In the 1980’s as a young artist I was actively looking for a visual vocabulary and language and the idea of starting with the ABC’s seemed a good place to start. It was fitting to call this new series Abecedarium because it riffed on the idea of an alphabet in sequence and is a continuation of my exploration of language.
So, it’s a personal alphabet?
Yes. The works were conceived individually though I’d painted variations of almost all of them over the years. Black Radish and Green Janus are new but the 7 for example, is a number I’ve been painting since the early 1990’s. It’s a lucky number, it’s a lucky charm. All the images in Abecedarium are the underpinnings and representations of my artistic language.
I made the painting of the M back in 1993 when my practice was evolving and getting more personal. I wanted to get to something basic and thought yeah why not paint my own initial
but then it became something else when I focused on the shape and negative spaces which is why it’s titled 3 Points.
Black Radish is a new image and was drawn from my interests in Tantric art, and the idea that an image can become a source of contemplation and take the viewer inwards towards a place of clarity. Black Radish is both a zero and a formal construct, the central black oval bringing the gaze both inwards and outwards simultaneously.
And of course Green Janus, ‘the God of beginnings, gates and doorways often shown with 2 faces.’
I love the play of words, Janus, J-ness. A good friend whose name begins with J used to sign off his emails with a row of lower case letter j’s. I was struck by the beauty of the sequence and was compelled to type a complete paragraph via Microsoft Word of lower case j’s. Green Janus celebrates upper case letter J’s and creates a new form celebrating J-ness.
How did it happen that you left Manhattan for the Sonoran Desert?
My father retired to Texas after working overseas for 30 years. We began exploring West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in the 1970’s and as the years passed and I moved to New York City I would always return home to see my parents and my dad and I would take these drives west. It became an annual thing, sometimes twice annually I’d escape Manhattan and have a field trip to the west with my dad. My partner and I made a conscious choice to move to the desert in 2012, it was a familiar place that I’d fallen in love with over the years. The sky, the horizon lines, the stars and seeing way into the distance are part of this love. And I’m a formalist, the desert landscape is composed of shapes, there’s a correspondence with my aesthetic sense.
Studio View. Photo: Matt Magee
Your early years were quite nomadic.
These years are the foundation of who I am. I remember London more than Tripoli, Istanbul more than Bengazi, Cornwall more than Kirkeness. My dad’s job took us to these places and all these experiences are somehow embedded in who I am and how I work. I see more single images and memories than strings of images and memories. When living in Libya my younger brother and I went to an Italian school and at a young age we had a fairly decent grasp of the Italian language. I’d like to think that this is how the idea of language in my practice first became embedded.
How has the past year affected you? What’s life like for an artist during a pandemic?
I have to say it has been one of my most productive and the routine didn’t change so much.
Self-isolation is common practice amongst artists and coming to studio everyday for the past year and locking the door once here is my normal. The support system via collectors and my galleries was omnipresent and though various shows were cancelled and rescheduled my day to day work in the studio continued and was a source of constancy.
So did you create a lot of new work?
Yes and I was working specifically towards a show that opened with Zane Bennett Gallery in Santa Fe in late February 2021. As we move forward through 2021 the work created during the height of the 2020 pandemic has become the basis for numerous future projects.