‘That’s Where the Beauty Is’: The Late Street Artist Margaret Kilgallen on Finding Inspiration in Everyday Life

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Place" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 1. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

With artists like KAWS and Banksy regularly topping lists of the most expensive artists, it’s easy to forget there was a time when street art and graffiti were considered low brow nuisances. The drastic surge of interest in those artists is due in large part to the paths paved by the late artist Margaret Kilgallen and her husband Barry McGee, who together helped bring San Francisco’s underground art scene to the attention of critics, institutions, and audiences.

“I like things that are handmade,” Kilgallen said in an exclusive interview for Art21’s “Place” series, riding her bicycle around San Francisco’s Mission district and taking pictures of hand-painted signs adorning mom-and-pop shops. Kilgallen’s background in printmaking and rare books instilled in her an appreciation of low-tech processes and an interest in found objects as sources of inspiration. Her flat, graphic style unites American folk art with the typography of illuminated manuscripts.

Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled (around 2000). Courtesy the Estate of Margaret Kilgallen and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

The documentary follows Kilgallen as she created a site-specific wall painting for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “I do spend a lot of time trying to perfect my line work… when you get close up, you can always see the line waver,” she said. “And I think that’s where the beauty is.”

The film, from Art21’s inaugural season in 2001, aired shortly after the artist’s premature death from breast cancer at age 33. Her quote now has new life as the title for “Margaret Kilgallen: that’s where the beauty is.,” opening at the Aspen Art Museum this month. The show is the first posthumous museum exhibition of her work, and the largest since the 2005 show “In the Sweet Bye & Bye” at REDCAT in Los Angeles. It positions Kilgallen as an integral part of the West Coast art landscape, and an important female pioneer of a vernacular street art.

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Margaret Kilgallen: that’s where the beauty is.” is on view at the Aspen Art Museum from January 12–June 16, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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