View of The Hill, James Magee’s masterwork in west Texas

I finally received my copy of James Magee, The Hill, by Richard R. Brettell and Jed Morse. This publication accompanies a show of Magee’s work currently on exhibit at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas through November 28.

The Hill is hard to describe. Yes, it is a structure constructed by Magee in the west Texas desert outside El Paso, and any number of words could be used to capture its essence: architectural, sculptural, land art, monumental, personal, esoteric, spiritual, minimalist, sublime, symbolist, open, closed. Other artists who touch into the transcendental come to mind as well: James Turrell, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Maya Lin, Nancy Holt, Olafur Eliasson, even Bill Viola.

From Willard Spiegelman’s description in the Wall Street Journal:

It consists of a quartet of 14-foot-high, flat-roofed buildings (one of which still lacks a finished interior), in a cruciform shape, sitting atop two intersecting elevated stone causeways. All is stone and metal. Light seeps through fiberglass panels from above. There is no electricity. Mr. Magee has done all the work, by hand, with the help of hired assistants who come and go. For the sake of the lucky visitor, they open and close the large metallic doors into the three edifices. Nondoctrinal religion, a pervading spirituality, defines the place and the experience of being there. Mr. Magee is the creator, the servant, the priest and—for the most part—the congregation.

The photos in the book by Tom Jenkins are sumptuous, with deeply saturated color. The high contrast light is particularly dramatic in large format as is the intoxicating absence of anything human. Jenkins’ photos capture a haunting timelessness that is reminiscent of the mystery of the ancient Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert or the incomprehensible grandeur of the Neolithic stone circles that dot the Celtic coastline of Great Britain.

It is a singular accomplishment. And not surprisingly, the Marfa-style art pilgrimaging has begun. And who would not want to experience this setting? I would love to be able to visit in person some day.

James Magee

Turns out Magee’s story is much more complex than it might appear. Magee (who looks more like one of the prospectors in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre than a sly art world type) actually has more in common with the persona-bending Marcel Duchamp than meets the eye. In an effort to answer to all of his many parts, Magee has invented two other artists, one male and one female, to drain off the parts that would not blend into the supramacist purity of The Hill. These two artist personas, Annabel Livermore and Horace Mayfield, have successful careers making and selling art that is unrelated to the numinous perfection of the Hill. While some may view that splintering as a from of deception, I have come to think that Magee found the perfect solution to the many and often conflicting force fields that most of us carry inside. Approaching his artmaking in multiple has allowed him to craft something extraordinary and other worldly while still having a rooted existence on the terrestrial plane.

The value of this approach is described well by Pamela Petro in her piece for Granta:

Annabel is pure colour. She’s the gendered expression of place and time: Juarez nights and the desert at dusk and dawn, Pickerel Lake in Michigan when Jim was a kid. Horace (born in Chicago in 1932, as one catalogue notes) is campy and allusive; if sex doesn’t spill onto the surfaces of his work, it roils beneath.

There is no home for these passions in the exacting geometries and grave dialogues of The Hill. Rick Brettell says that ‘Annabel and Horace are necessary because they keep The Hill pure. Horace is a queen who likes to work on shower curtains. So God bless Horace from keeping The Hill free of shower curtains’.

The Hill isn’t a repository for interpersonal relationships or emotional responses. It may generate them, but it doesn’t exhibit those of its creator. The Hill is nothing if not the product of great passion, but the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded. In my mind I complete this process. I see the complex as I never saw it in person — as it hopefully will never be until a very long time from now: stripped of people, the doors ajar, shadows slowly circling the structures like rearguard troops left behind after the war, when everyone else has gone home. The installations house colonies of insects and animals who come and go uninterrupted on the beautiful stone causeways, unconcerned about whose God made their home.

Another view of The Hill