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Matt Keegan is an artist, a New Yorker, and a great friend. We've worked together on many publications including North Drive Press. Here's a little Q & A from my visit to his most recent show, which opens tonight at D'Amelio Terras.
Su Barber: I really enjoyed your interview with Milton Glaser, which is also the press release for this show, what inspired you to seek him out?
Matt Keegan: Working with you on North Drive Press for five years, and more recently talking with David Reinfurt, who I collaborated with on the logo for this show, I've thought a lot about design. It was really nice to talk with such a significant New York-based graphic designer, and to touch upon a lot of topics that are related to my show. I knew Mr. Glaser designed the I heart NY logo, and then I watched this documentary on his life called To Observe and Delight, and viewed several Youtube interviews and lecture recordings, and found him to be so compelling. He's a born and raised New Yorker; he went to LaGuardia High School then Cooper Union and in his semester abroad studied with Morandi; he co-founded New York magazine; he designed what I think of as the most iconic image of Bob Dylan; he designed The Nation magazine… the breadth of his career is incredible. And his way of talking about design is very interesting—for example, he's a progressive thinker in terms of copyright. So, the I heart NY logo—the thing he's most known for—was my point of entry, but not why I wound up enjoying the interview and wanting it to be a central part of my show.
SB: I wonder if he'll come to the show?
MK: I hope so!
SB: I was going to ask you about that I apple NY logo, that was a commission?
MK: I asked David Reinfurt if he'd collaborate on something for the show, and after a series of discussions we decided he'd make an editioned artwork that would also function as the title for the show. We were both excited about the Milton Glaser interview, and David suggested to riff on I heart NY. Of course, the apple icon connects to the big apple, but it also has a nice history as it was provided to David from Will Holder who used this same apple illustration to design the logo for the Dutch art institution, de Appel (providing a nice nod to New York's settlers). The apple is also a perfect stand in for the heart, in it's red and shape. I also like how it confuses the legibility... what does it mean to apple something? I'm very interested in the space between language and photography or language and image, so I love the pause that this may generate. I know some people will just read it as I heart NY, but if you really look at it… I mean, the gallery had to ask me, do we call the show, "I Apple NY"?
SB: Design seems to occur frequently at the periphery of your work, whether it's in the publications you do, or in your text pieces, even the installation of this show feels very carefully and purposefully designed… do you have an insight as to where that interest began?
MK: The design is a way of tailoring the space. I've always really enjoyed the act of installing shows, and I tailor each show to its space. I have made shows which are, you know, framed things on a wall, but even then there's some kind of installation strategy. The last show I had, in San Francisco, was a photo show for all intensive purposes, but I had the gallery painted in 31 shades of white, and that ended up being one of my favorite parts of that project. It's also a way to claim ownership of the space for the brief amount of time my work is in that particular venue.
SB: Where did the colors of the painted metal come from?
MK: The colors are used to paint bridges in the five boroughs of Manhattan.
SB: That's so cool! How did you get access to the colors?
MK: I met with a representative of the design commission that works across the street from City Hall, and was provided samples for each of the 8 colors. The yellow used for the text piece is not a bridge color, it comes from the larger federally assigned/maintained color system which is used to assign colors to everything from mailbox blue to the colors that NASA and OSHA use. The text for that sculpture came from a poem by Josef Albers which my friend Jim Richards had appropriated. I like that it originally came from Albers since color was so central to his work and teaching.
SB: What about the shapes of the metal sculptures?
MK: The shapes all come from folding flat 4 x 8 foot panels of sheet metal. 4 x 8 is a standard size in building material such as sheet rock, which I worked with for seven years. Also, I was interested in having parameters to work within. The frieze around the room uses the same 4' x 8' sheets, and the folded sculptures each use an entire sheet. To come up with the shapes, my assistant, Milano and I cut paper to those proportions, folded a bunch of shapes, and edited them down to those five. The blue for me alludes to a skyscraper, or some kind of door; then I wanted something utilitarian, like the box; and something that felt designed, like a Frank Gehry shape; the corner with the posters I think of like a city newsstand; and for the Pulaski bridge red I wanted something that functioned like a barrier or divider.
SB: What about the CIRCULATION sign?
MK: I made a book, A History of New York, in conjunction with this show, and it's composed mainly of pictures from the NY Public Library's picture collection, which is housed at the mid-Manhattan branch. This CIRCULATION sign is patterned after the sign at the circulation desk there.
SB: I love the picture collection!
MK: I know, it's incredible. Also, all the photographs in this show, with the exception of the Dr. Zizmor portrait, are traditional C-prints. So, there's a real investment in the analog for this show, which I feel is generational. We're not a computer generation, so I still have a real connection to the physical image, the physical material. Also, the NY Public Library is one of the great public projects within the city, so to use that resource relates back to the narrative itself. And the photograph at the front desk is of the mail carrier for the gallery, Debra. In regards to this idea of circulation, I liked the idea of implicating the person who brings information in from the outside world. She delivers mail to all the galleries on this side of the street. I liked making a portrait of someone with a very different relationship to the neighborhood.
SB: Did you find any new spots in the city while you were taking these pictures?
MK: I really enjoyed walking around Flushing Meadows, Corona Park. It's close to where my parents grew up, it's where the World's Fair grounds were, and it's really dilapidated in some ways, but at the same time it's a very well-used park. The model of New York at the Queens Museum is incredible. In thinking about the boroughs, and the building of all the bridges and roadways and the circulatory system of the city, it was nice to think about the expansiveness of the city, even though my normal life is relegated to such a small portion of it. So it's not so much finding a particular spot, as being reminded of all that's always going on.
SB: Do you think that there's an autobiographical aspect to this show?
MK: That's a hard question. I mean, there's the video of my father… I wanted to mine the space of the traditional, documentary film and make something that could hold it's own in relation to that mode of filmmaking. At certain points, I was able to approach the interview as first-hand historic material, that happen to be conveyed by my father. But when it came to the final edit, I sent links to two friends who make films, and they suggested that I cut the footage of my father on the Pulaski Bridge, when he's looking toward the camera. They thought it felt staged, and I was like, "Absolutely not! That's beautiful footage of my father!"
SB: Your dad is so composed on film! Was that a surprise to you?
MK: Well, the video is 9 minutes long, and it was culled from over 90 minutes of footage. He is a compelling story teller, but it also has a lot to do with my editor's skills.
SB: Were these stories you'd grown up hearing or were there surprises for you along the way?
MK: It's a funny thing about parents, that I think everybody can relate to… they say something and you're just like, "whatever, who cares" [laughs]. But in doing research for this show I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities [by Jane Jacobs] and watched the Ric Burns PBS documentary series New York, and was reminded of Robert Moses' role as a central architect of the city as we know it. I remembered my father telling a story of having met him, but it was through my interviews for the video that I learned that my dad had actually worked for eight years at a golf club where Moses was a member, and that he'd caddied for various people who were central to Moses and his public projects. It was a really significant time in my dad's life—he put himself through school with money from that job, and it modeled his understanding of how to handle oneself as a businessman, which I think played a significant role in him eventually becoming a salesman.