James Magee L’71: “America’s greatest living unknown artist”

James Magee L'71, Associated Press image

One scholar/critic has called him “America’s greatest living unknown artist.” Others have referred to him as “unconventional,” “something of a reculse,” and “Noah in the desert.” Me? I’d describe James Magee L’71 as enigmatic, fascinating, and darn talented – and the more I read about him and look at his work, the more solidified those opinions become.

Magee has devoted the last 30 years to his masterwork, The Hill, and has said it will take another 15 years (or more) to complete, at which point he’d be in his early 80s. Rick Brettell, chair of art and aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of James Magee: The Hill, has said that “everybody who has been [there] divides their lives into two parts: before and after they’ve seen ‘The Hill.'” Jed Morse, curator of the Nasher Sculpture Center and Brettell’s co-author, has predicted that it will become “one of the great landmarks of art in the United States.” And Magee’s website promises that it’s “a profoundly original work of art; nothing like it exists anywhere else.”

So what does this life-changing work look like? Located on 2,000 acres of desert land in Cornudas, Texas – that’s about 70 miles east of El Paso – The Hill consists of four identical buildings, each one 40 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 17 feet tall. They’re made of shale rock – 2,000 tons of it, to be exact – and house installations made with metal, glass, paint, rust, textiles, wood, oil, flower petals, cinnamon and paprika. Still not quite clear on what it all looks like? Check it out in this video:

Jim Magee, creator of The Hill, is not the only artist who resides in the Penn alum’s body. To keep his masterwork pure, Magee has invented two other artist personas who function as outlets for his non-Hill artistic impulses: Annabel Livermore and Horace Mayfield.

Livermore has her own website, her own personal history (retired librarian from the Midwest), even her own New York Times reviews. (They called her “fresh,” “a tough act to follow,” and the “ultimate in transgression.”) She’s a self-taught painter – oil and watercolor, mainly – and has had numerous solo exhibitions throughout Texas and California. Her work recently appeared at the Muskegon Museum of Art in a show titled Remembering Newaygo County: The Symbolist Paintings of Annabel Livermore, and is held in public and private collections across the country, including the Yale University Art Gallery. Laura Bush is among her fans.

View of Pickerel Lake from the Front Porch by Annabel Livermore

Mayfield is an untrained artist who works with found objects and materials – fabrics, digital photography, plastic, recycled thrift store paintings, images from gay men’s magazines – along with paint and photographs. He, too, exhibits his work, though not as widely as Livermore does.

Image from Mayfield installation at CEPA Gallery, 2004

Magee himself has flown under the radar for most of his career. That is, until this past fall, when the Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas presented the first major museum exhibition of his work in 18 years and James Magee: The Hill was published. Suddenly, he had more media attention than ever before – a review in the Wall Street Journal, another written by the Associated Press; even his love life made news. Still, The Hill remains a work in progress, closed to the public until its far-off completion date. Until then, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that a Magee, Livermore, or Mayfield show might happen a bit closer to his old law-school-city stomping grounds.

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Filed under Alumni, Visual Art

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