Surfing's coolest artist and his sad, beautiful life…
Maybe you know the artist Barry McGee from the RCVA hats and tees that are everywhere, maybe from the Beautiful Losers exhibitions he did with Ed Templeton, Mike Mills, Thomas Campbell, his wife Margaret Kilgallen (more on this amazing gal real soon) and co a while back.
Maybe you just know his bleakly pessimistic, but still kinda sweet, characters that he paints for high-end exhibition and also as graffiti on walls and train carriages.
The story below (reproduced in part to get y’in, then you’ll hit a link to The New Yorker), is called The Ghostly Love Triangle of the Mission School, and it tells the story of Barry, his wife and contemporary Margaret Kilgallen and a third artist, Clare Rojas.
I don’t want to bust open the narrative here, but read, read. It’s sad (death), it’s kooky (Clare is also a country singer) and it sends the spirit all over the place…
Early on the morning I went to see the San Francisco artists Barry McGee and Clare Rojas at their weekend place, in Marin County, a robin redbreast began hurling itself at a window in their living room. “It won’t stop,” Rojas said. She picked up a sculpture of a bird from the inside sill to warn it off. When that didn’t work, Rojas instructed her fourteen-year-old daughter, Asha, to cut out three paper birds, which she taped to the window, as if to say: GO AWAY. “Can I let it in, Clare?” McGee asked gently. Absolutely not, Rojas answered. Thud. The bird hit the glass again, and their three dogs barked wildly. “I think it’s time to let it in,” McGee said. Rojas shook her head, smiled tightly, and said, “Maybe it’s Margaret.”
It was 1999, and Rojas was newly graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, when she first saw the work of the painter Margaret Kilgallen, who was thirty-one. It was at Deitch Projects, in SoHo. For the exhibit, a solo show called “To Friend + Foe,” Kilgallen had painted freehand on the gallery walls, in a flat, folk-art style, a pair of enormous brawling women, one wielding a broken bottle, the other with her fists up. At the time, Rojas was painting miniature dark-hearted fairy tales—girls in the woods with fierce animals—and, like many young painters, she was struck by the scale of Kilgallen’s work. “I was, like, ‘Who is this?’ ” Rojas told me. “There were not many women artists out there being outspoken and loud and big and feminine. I remember saying, ‘I want to see big women everywhere now!’ ” Rojas was living in a small apartment in Philadelphia, folding clothes at Banana Republic and working as a secretary to pay off student loans, painting her miniatures when she got home, tired out, at night. She couldn’t wait to make big paintings of her own.
Kilgallen, a book conservator at the San Francisco Public Library, drew upon old typography, hand-lettered signs, and the gritty urban environment of the Mission, where she lived and worked, to evoke a wistful, rough-edged West Coast landscape. She used leftover latex house paint in vintage circus-poster colors like blood red, ochre, and bird’s-egg blue-green, and, when she wasn’t painting straight on the wall, worked on found wood. She represented women as stoic, defiant, and usually alone—surfing, smoking, crying, cooking, playing the banjo. She admired physical endurance and courage. One of her icons was Fanny Durack, a pioneering swimmer who won a gold medal at the 1912 Olympics. Her word paintings, playful and fatalistic, provided a melancholy undertow to the bravado: “Windsome Lose Some,” “Woe Begone,” “So Long Lief.”
In her work, Kilgallen dropped arcane hints about herself. “To Friend + Foe” included a painting of two surfers, female and male, holding hands; a month before the opening, Kilgallen had used the image on the invitation to her wedding, to Barry McGee, in the hills overlooking San Francisco’s Linda Mar Beach, where the couple surfed together. McGee, who is Chinese and Irish, grew up in South San Francisco, where his father worked at an auto-body shop, and started writing graffiti under the name Twist when he was a teen-ager. Even now that he is nearly fifty, and has shown at the Venice Biennale and at the Carnegie International, crowds of teen-agers show up at his openings to have him sign their skateboards.
Among the artists associated with the Mission School—a loose group working in San Francisco in the nineties who shared an affinity for old wood, streetscapes, and anything raw or unschooled—Kilgallen and McGee were the most visible and the most admired. “They were the king and queen,” Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles, says. “They were the opposite of putting themselves forward in that kind of way, but everyone understood that they were such exceptional artists and so supremely talented, and, by the way, so beautiful.”
Five feet ten and slender, Kilgallen was intrepid, stubborn, and mischievous, a winsome tomboy with curly reddish-brown hair that she often pulled back in a clip at her temple. She was stylish and insouciant; she shoplifted lingerie from Goodwill and wore an orange ribbon tied around her neck. When I asked McGee the color of her eyes, he wrote, “Margaret’s eyes were blue as can be.” He was also tall and slim, with boyish dark hair that flopped into his eyes. Where Kilgallen was direct, McGee was subtle and evasive. Each was the other’s first love. “In social situations, Barry let Margaret do the talking,” Jeffrey Deitch, who founded Deitch Projects, says. “He’d be shuffling around shyly.” Cheryl Dunn, a filmmaker who spent time with Kilgallen and McGee, remembers her saying that if she didn’t tell him to have a sandwich he’d forget to eat.
Like children playing away from the adults, Kilgallen and McGee occupied a world of their own invention. They lived cheaply and resourcefully, scavenging art supplies and furniture. Pack rats, they filled their home—first a warehouse building and then a two-story row house in the Mission—with skateboards, surfboards, paintings, thrift-store clothes, and other useful junk. At night, dressed identically in pegged work pants and Adidas shoes, they went on graffiti-writing adventures. She was daring, scaling buildings and sneaking into forbidden sites. He once painted the inside of a tunnel with a series of faces so that, like a flip book, it animated as you drove past.
In the studio they shared, Kilgallen and McGee worked side by side. He showed her how to make her own panels, and she brought home from the library the yellowing endpapers of old books, which they started painting on. She worked on her women; he painted and repainted the sad, sagging faces of the outcast men he saw around the city. They worked obsessively, perfecting their lettering, their cursives, and their lines. “Barry is busy downstairs making stickers,” Kilgallen wrote to a friend. “I hear the squeak of his pen—chisel tipped permanent black—I have been drawing pretty much every day, mostly, silly things; and when I feel brave I have been trying to teach myself how to paint.” When he needed an idea, he’d go over to her space and lift one. Deitch likens them to Picasso and Braque. From a distance, Rojas, too, idealized them. “That was a perfect union, Barry and Margaret,” she says. “You couldn’t get more parallel than the feminine and the masculine communing together.”
As recognition of Kilgallen’s and McGee’s work grew, they tried to retain the ephemeral, pure quality of paintings made on the street. Little pieces they recycled or reworked, sold for a pittance, or let be stolen from the galleries. Wall paintings were whited out when shows closed. When Kilgallen became fascinated by hobo culture, she and McGee started travelling up and down the West Coast to tag train cars with their secret nicknames: B. Vernon, after one of McGee’s uncles, and Matokie Slaughter, a nineteen-forties banjo player Kilgallen revered. The cars marked “B.V. + M.S.” are still out there.
Rojas, too, had an alternate identity: Peggy Honeywell, a lonesome Loretta Lynn-like country singer who sang her heart out at open mikes around Philadelphia. Rojas is short and strong, half Peruvian, from Ohio, with nape-length dark hair and a smattering of freckles across her nose. As Peggy Honeywell, she wore a long wig and flouncy calico dresses, and sometimes, because she was shy, a paper bag over her head. Her boyfriend at the time, an artist named Andrew Jeffrey Wright, idolized McGee; he and his guy friends called McGee and his graffiti contemporaries the Big Kids. Smitten by Kilgallen’s work, Rojas started sending her and McGee cassette tapes of Peggy Honeywell, recorded with a four-track in her bedroom, and decorated with covers she had silk-screened.
The songs Rojas wrote were naïve and stripped down, just a guitar and her voice. “Can’t seem to paint good pictures / you want good pictures don’t listen to my words / But my paintings are pretty to look at / can’t find a rhythm of my own so I listen carefully to yours and probably will steal it.” Kilgallen, who was, like many of her subjects, a banjo player, loved homespun music. She and McGee started listening to the Peggy Honeywell tapes incessantly. “It was like a soundtrack for us,” McGee said. “Whenever we’d go on a drive, we’d play those tapes.” They began a correspondence with Rojas, encouraging her music and her painting, and Rojas sent more tapes.
It was more than a year before Kilgallen and Rojas met properly, in May, 2001, installing “East Meets West”—three West Coast artists and their East Coast counterparts—at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. For Rojas, the exhibition was a milestone: it was her first museum show and it placed her in a context with an artist that to some extent she’d been modelling herself on. “Clare was sort of in awe of Margaret—that’s how it all started,” Alex Baker, who curated the show, told me. Rojas, who was by then finishing her first year of graduate school, at the Art Institute of Chicago, had introduced him to Kilgallen’s work. Baker says that the admiration went both ways; Kilgallen was astounded by how psychologically complex and refined Rojas’s paintings were. “She said, ‘I could never make work like this! It’s beyond my abilities.’ ”
Kilgallen arrived in Philadelphia seven months pregnant and set about her usual installation process: attacking a blank wall that, in this case, was thirty-two feet tall. She insisted on working alone, using a hydraulic lift, which she pushed from spot to spot. When it was time to paint, she took the lift up, put a roller to the wall, and pressed the down button. In the early morning, after working all night, she rode a bicycle from the museum to Baker’s house, where she was staying. Her back hurt and her stomach was bothering her, but she refused offers of help. No one was to hover over her. At one point, she started sleeping in a surf shack she had made from recycled panels, part of her installation. Rojas was impressed, but she also disapproved. She told me, “There were some things about her that I was, like, ‘You are crazy, and I don’t like the way you’re acting, pregnant, at all. Where’s your husband? He should be here with you. And why are you smelling paint fumes?’ ”
One evening, in the gallery, Rojas saw Kilgallen run to the bathroom, crying. She followed her in. Kilgallen was scared. She kept touching the top of her belly and saying she could feel something hard, and it hurt. Rojas suggested that they call Kilgallen’s mother, but she strenuously refused. “She was really stubborn,” Rojas says. She persuaded her to call McGee, who was in Venice, getting ready for the Biennale, but they couldn’t reach him. Finally, Rojas called her own mother, who got Kilgallen to agree to go to the hospital. Baker took her the next day. At the hospital, she was given a sonogram, told to drink some Gatorade, and sent home. She declined the Gatorade—too artificial. Baker says, “Once the baby was confirmed as being healthy, she acted like everything was fine. Obviously, something else was going on, but she didn’t want to talk about it.”
Kilgallen’s secret was that she had recently had cancer; in the fall of 1999, immediately following the opening of her show at Deitch, she had gone home to San Francisco to have a mastectomy. She told almost no one. Her mother, Dena Kilgallen, took a month off work to come and help her while McGee installed a show in Houston. Margaret’s cancer was small, three millimetres, and it was caught early. She refused chemotherapy, a decision that Dena, herself a breast-cancer survivor, found maddening, if consistent with her daughter’s headstrong ways. But the surgeon didn’t disagree with Margaret; chemotherapy, she counselled, would probably decrease her risk of a recurrence within five years by just two to three per cent. Margaret started a course of Chinese herbal medicine instead.
Kilgallen had regular follow-up visits, and every time was given a clean bill of health. She got pregnant, and around the same time started a new sketchbook. She filled its pages with baby names: Piper, Mojave, Biancha, Clare. McGee says that they were happy and busy and didn’t think about the cancer, but the sketchbook betrays a creeping awareness of her illness. Always alert to language, Kilgallen began compiling ominous word lists: “smother,” “black out,” “keep dark,” “far away,” “underground,” “underneath.”
Two days before leaving for Philadelphia to work on her “East Meets West” installation, the most ambitious of her career, Kilgallen felt a tender lump below her diaphragm. At an appointment with a midwife, she promised to have it checked upon her return, a few weeks later. Like one of her heroines, she was determined to see her job through—the installation and the pregnancy. “Blind bargain,” she wrote in her sketchbook.
When Kilgallen got back to San Francisco, McGee was still in Europe, scheduled to return before the baby’s expected arrival, in late July. Alone, she learned that the cancer had metastasized to her liver; that tender, palpable mass was an organ seventy-five per cent overtaken by disease. Still, she held off telling her husband and her mother. When Kilgallen arrived at the hospital, she was jaundiced and extremely weak. “She was one of the sickest women I’ve ever met,” a nurse who examined her told me. “You looked in her eyes—she knew. But she flat out wasn’t going to talk about it.” Her only concern was for the pregnancy.
On June 7th, Kilgallen gave birth to a healthy baby, six weeks premature. She and McGee named her Asha, Sanskrit for “hope.” He arrived from Europe the next day, as Kilgallen was moved down to Oncology for aggressive chemotherapy. She stayed for two weeks, before being transferred to intensive care and, ultimately, to hospice, where she would open her eyes only to see Asha. “I’m going to get better,” she said, as her organs were failing. On June 26th, with her husband and her daughter at her side, she died.