The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has acquired a major untitled Margaret Kilgallen painting from 2000 (above), the museum’s first significant work by the San Francisco-based artist. SFMOMA already owned a small painting, Low (1998). The lack of a major Kilgallen had long been a notable gap in the museum’s collection.
Kilgallen was arguably the best of a group of artists who coalesced in the city’s Mission district in the 1990s. Her work is characterized by her interest in street art — she was married to the artist Barry McGee, known early in his career by the graffiti tag “Twist” — but is also richly informed by Western literature, art history and her own academic background. (Kilgallen earned an MFA at Stanford.)
Kilgallen died in 2001 from breast cancer after forgoing chemotherapy so that she could bring a child, daughter Asha, to term. At her death, Kilgallen was just 33. She was featured on the first season of art21 and in a 2005 retrospective organized by Eungie Joo and Clara Kim for REDCAT. SFMOMA curator Janet Bishop led the acquisition, which came from Kilgallen’s estate via San Francisco’s Ratio 3 gallery. The museum also conserved it before placing it on view. (McGee recently told me that for years the canvas had been rolled up in his studio and that paint was flaking on the edges of the canvas.)
While Kilgallen was born in Washington, DC and grew up in suburban Kensington, Maryland, she went West to attend Colorado College and Stanford. Her work, especially the new SFMOMA piece, is packed with references to the land and to the art history of her adopted home. It features a Dorothea Lange-esque couple presented in a deadpan manner, as if they were both aware of and weary of a camera in front of them. They wear the humble, almost traditional clothing of migrants recently arrived in California, the sort of people about whom Woody Guthrie sang and John Steinbeck wrote. The color of their clothes and skin, ruddy reds and washed-out yellow-greens, echo the other colors in the painting, further flattening their appearance.
The female half of the couple stares out to the right, initiating the narrative that holds together the 11-by-26 foot canvas. In the woman’s line of sight is a group of abstract squares that suggest both a softening of California hard-edge painting and a simple home sitting on the (pale green) landscape. Beyond the squares is an solitary tree which has grown to a majestic height. Just below the couple, a seedling in a line of shadowed, curvilinear shapes — read hills — suggests that the seemingly forlorn couple might make it.
The tree is particularly terrific and is as rooted in American art history as the couple is in our photographic and literary history. Similarly awestruck representations of imposing trees are a staple of American art of the West, especially in the work of Carleton Watkins and Georgia O’Keeffe. Ed Ruscha has also investigated this trope, first in his 1962 artist’s book “A Few Palm Trees,” and more recently in paintings such as Joshua Tree (1986), Yes Tree (1986) and Joshua Tree (1991). [Above, right: O'Keeffe, The Lawrence Tree, 1929. Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.]
Kilgallen’s lack of painterly depth is also all-American. It seems to come less from turn-of-the-20th-century Paris and more from her interest in typography, the flatness inherent in letter-box printing and from painters such as Arthur Dove and William Baziotes, who often laid simple shapes on washed-out colors. In Kilgallens, the colors seem to come from the landscape of the West, the dried grasses, the bleached, washed-out earth and the gentle colors of adobe and other building materials that accept the sun’s light while trying to reject its heat. (That rolling series of curves at the bottom of the new painting suggest both vernacular buildings of the West that date back to the Spanish colonial era, Baziotes’s worm-like-shapes and the hills between California’s coastal mountain ranges and the San Joaquin valley. It’s a great example of Kilgallen’s ability to pack numerous references into a single passage.)
Despite all Kilgallen’s flatness, the narrative of the painting communicates optimism: The couple at left may seem tired and withdrawn, but the narrative circle of the seedling and the tree offer hope. The couple seems on the cusp, just as Kilgallen herself was before her death.
Related: In the SF Chronicle, Kimberly Chun looked at a recent Ratio 3 show of Kilgallen’s work.