Stephen Magsig

Stephen Magsig, 53 Greene Street, 2006 Courtesy David Klein Gallery Birmingham, MichiganStephen Magsig’s new urban streetscapes, which were on view through the end of 2006 at David Klein Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan, draw on a number of stylistic traditions, but they have their own poetic logic. Tight shots of commercial buildings dominate, usually in New York or Detroit, although Palace Detail, L.A. (2006) takes on a west coast subject. What interests the artist here, however, is less regional than compositional—the alluring curves of the italic “l” and “a” in the unlit neon sign. Magsig’s favorite subjects are building façades set in the shallow stage space of un-peopled streets. He is meticulous in his delineation of architectural details and adept at capturing the fun-house mirror effects of car surfaces, skills we associate with photorealism. And Magsig does work from photographs taken during his walking tours of city neighborhoods, using his catalogue of slides to select subjects. Yet his painting method is solidly old-fashioned: he makes preliminary drawings in indigo, then paints with hand-ground pigments on linen. His compositions are carefully composed, rather than randomly observed, and he is a master of light and shadow. His 53 Greene Street is a dead-on-straight view of a warm-colored but dusty Soho building, seen across a reflective slice of car. The first-floor entrance, flanked by fluted columns, is linteled by a fire escape, a slightly off-kilter contraption that casts modernist shadows both above and below. The building appears asleep, like the façade of shops in Edward Hopper’s Sunday Morning. The building featured in 108 Franklin Street (2006) seems sprucer, less worn, its elegantly ornamented cast iron painted a cool grey. Again, the fire escape throws elaborate patterns of shadow across the brightly sunlit surfaces. The neat white shades and slightly angled sidewalk approach make this a more inviting place. In both cases, Magsig creates a mood as well as an evocation of a particular effect of light, with everything shaped by a strong compositional geometry, echoing the primordial post-and-lintel geometry of human dwellings. There is something mythic and mysterious about doorways that Magsig taps into.

Magsig began as an abstractionist and first became interested in buildings when he started photographing Detroit factories in 1987. He has a feeling for even industrial buildings as witnesses to humanity. Rouge Bridge (2006) has an unusual amount of open sky for the artist. The metallic bridge, a utilitarian span with peeling paint and rust splotches, is seen in perspective, drawing the eye into a background cluster of low structures. The curve of its riveted bulk makes for a surprisingly graceful rollercoaster shadow across the footpath. The hard sunlight and simple shapes are reminiscent of midwest Precisionist painters such as Charles Sheeler. The eerie quietness of this full-daylight workaday scene has an existential edge, but the dignity of the manmade objects lingers. Still, Magsig seems most at home in his role as flâneur, observant denizen of the city. He also works in a hazy style that romanticizes his subjects, as in Chrysler Building in the Fog(2006), a blurred image of the art deco crown of lights shimmering in blue darkness above more mundane structures. While this image may not appeal as much to some viewers who prefer his hard-edged style, it has its own pedigree, calling up the Pictorialist photographs of Steichen and Stieglitz and the urban-reverie paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. There is a paradox at the heart of Magsig’s work, as he explained it in a magazine interview: “My paintings are more about life—about empathy—than they are about buildings. Buildings have enough humanity in them to convey that. They’ve been through so much.”  David Klein Gallery is located at 163 Townsend, Birmingham, Michigan 48009. Telephone (248) 433-3700. On the Web at

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2007, Volume 24, Number 1