Barry McGee on Refining His Art For New Shows in Fort Worth and Boston

Barry McGee surfing
(Courtesy Ratio 3, San Francisco )

Long a hero to street artists, McGee has found acceptance from the mainstream art world, exhibiting at Ratio 3, in San Francisco, and Modern Art, in London, among other galleries. The artist who used to tag as Twist has two high-profile shows this spring: a solo exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and a midcareer retrospective at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston. McGee never imagined himself reaching this point when he first began posting his work on the streets of his native San Francisco in the 1980s. And in some ways he still isn’t sure what exactly is the key to winning recognition from galleries and museums. Bryan Hood spoke with the artist about graffiti’s history and how it transitions into the white cube.

What is the idea behind your show in Fort Worth?

It feels the same as any other show to me, in some weird way. I’m doing an exhibition at a community college this month also, and I’m just as anxious about that as I am the others. I try to treat everything equally somehow. It’s new work for Fort Worth, pretty straightforward, three pieces in a mature setting. Sometimes it’s hard for me figure out how to edit. What goes in, what doesn’t. I just want to put in everything. I’m going to do drawing, painting, and sculpture. I’m interested in anything but installation right now. I’m intrigued by the idea of a painting or a drawing hanging on the wall, a sculpture sitting on the floor, with nothing else around to distract it, no videos, no environment. I’ve always done painting on the walls and then brought my entire studio and assistants into a gallery, but I’m interested in the complete opposite right now.

Your survey at ICA Boston is roughly the same show that was up at the Berkeley Art Museum, right?

Yes. It’s an edited version, but there will be some similar pieces. Berkeley lends itself to building bigger works and some environmental things. That helped illustrate some of the points better. In Boston it’s a more formal gallery setting with white walls. It might read better. I’m thinking in Boston it will seem more serious. The artifacts will look more like artifacts, whereas in Berkeley they just looked like garbage from the street. It fascinates me a little bit, the authority of a white room. A’m also going to do an outdoor project for the exhibition, somewhere along the freeway, which will take care of my desire to communicate to younger, more diverse people. I’ve always liked a mix of audiences, no matter if it was on the street or indoors. The walls along the freeways and the train tracks—I still think about locations like that. That’s the way graffiti works: It communicates to a different audience that something is in their city.

Do you worry that you’ll lose your grasp on street art as you get older?

I lost my grasp long ago! I haven’t given up on it; it still informs my work but not in the same way as when I was in my early 20s. There’s something about the street, a messiness or a fleeting moment that I still try to keep in my work.

What’s it like looking back on your earlier career now?

I have to be perfectly honest: It’s very difficult to look at some of that work, to be in the same room with it. That’s the thing about graffiti: Normally it gets painted over and there’s not a good record of what happened. I’ve always liked being in charge of what happens, that imagery. But with works that were made at that time it’s impossible. Someone can pull it off the street; it was just impossible to control where it went or how it would be reeled back into a show.

Early on, could you ever have imagined having a midcareer retrospective?

I was going to museums and trying to find a connection at that young age. I liked the challenge of it, but I found there was nothing that spoke to me about what my friends and I were doing. I didn’t understand how people got there at that point, what the process was to make it into a museum. I’m still not exactly sure.

Do you feel a responsibility to the younger generation?

There’s a history with graffiti that has to be shared. That sharing is done in different ways now, obviously, through the Internet. But to see a work that was part of something bigger, I think it can inspire kids.