Barry McGee started his art career painting graffiti on rusty train cars and concrete walls around his native San Francisco. He long ago left the streets and the rail yards for galleries and museums. His mid-career retrospective is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston through Sept. 2.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
MCGEE: I read in a weird way. It comes in waves, and then I start like five different books at once. It takes me six months to a year to finish them all since I read mostly on planes. Right now I have just two books I’m reading. They are about the painter Philip Guston. One I’m having trouble getting through. The one I like is “Guston in Time” by the critic Ross Feld. Guston and Feld used to exchange letters and meet to talk about art. It seems so old world to me. I know a lot of artists, and they would never take a break to write letters or meet.
BOOKS: Do you read a lot of biographies?
MCGEE: I love biographies. I read Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.” I’m into that time frame in New York, the ’70s and ’80s. In art school I read “Close to the Knives,” the autobiography of the artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. I’d like to read Eric Fischl’s new biography, “Bad Boy.” When I was in art school he and the painter David Sale were at the top of their games.
BOOKS: Do you read fiction, too?
MCGEE: I’ve read all Dave Eggers’ stuff since he’s from here. He used to be a cartoonist for a weekly rag. The word bubbles in his comic strips got bigger and bigger until there was all that there was. I designed the cover for an edition he put out with his students in San Francisco, “The Best American Nonrequired Reading.” But I mostly read biographies.
BOOKS: About what types of people?
MCGEE: I really love “Booky Wook” by the stand-up comic Russell Brand. The British humor, his delivery, is like junk food to me. But mostly I read biographies of artists to have a better understanding of how art works. It’s freeing to read about the other artists. It clears my mind in some ways. Though to be perfectly honest I am more moved by imagery. I have tons of art books. I have them all over the place. They are in my car, in my bag, and in my studio. There are books around me all the time. I bought a lot at Adobe Books, a fixture in San Francisco. I picked a book up there for 99 cents two months ago, “Athenian Black Figure Vases” by John Boardman, that I love. I have a book on Francesco Clemente by writer Rene Ricard and photographer Luca Babini. For eight months I’ve had it opened to the same page, a picture of him just sitting in his studio space. It does so much for me.
BOOKS: Does your reading influence your art?
MCGEE: For sure. It has a big influence some times. As soon as I start reading drawing comes to me more easily. I find I work in my sketchbooks more. But if I’m working on a new show, my reading completely stops except when I’m on a plane. I take a stack of New Yorkers with me. I feel awful about those stacks of New Yorkers.
BOOKS: Do you read about graffiti?
MCGEE: Yes. There are some amazing books about it, like “Getting Up” by Craig Castleman. It’s fantastic. There’s also a really good book, “Fuzz One” by Vincent Fedorchak about growing up in the Bronx and doing graffiti. And I read the streets. I’m constantly reading the streets.