Margaret Kilgallen’s Legacy is as Essential as Ever
Time has not forgotten the works of Margaret Kilgallen, but occasionally, we’re roused with a vivid reminder of the magical brilliance of this rarified, conic artist who left us too soon. This summer and early fall, the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, the Netherlands opened that’s where the beauty is, a traveling retrospective of Kilgallen’s work from the Aspen Art Museum. It is the largest collection of the San Francisco artist’s work, and yet, hardly feels like enough of her bounty. Within each figure, phrase and object she imbued is simply profound language, seemingly from a different era, yet entirely embedded in a new folk movement that arguably hasn’t been adequately articulated. Although the Mission School has been documented frequently, branded into art history as the last great San Francisco movement, Kilgallen’s work stands out as an emblematic, focused language of our lives, a balance of craft, care and culture, encapsulating everything from surfing and nature, music to handmade objects, to activism and outsider art. And she was the doyen.
It has been 20 years since her untimely death at age of 33, and that’s where the beauty is (the name of the exhibition) a perfect articulation of that unexplainable, exhilarated feeling of encountering something timeless for the first time and seeing it countless times after. It’s so hard to speak about the things that you love and so easy it is to spend time mocking things you don’t. I love Margaret Kilgallen’s work, and her uncomplicated renderings help me understand what beauty is in the world. The colors are warm and her works feel as if pulled through a time machine, as if the paintings have been keeping good company for generations. Maybe that is why her connection to vagabonds and train culture ran so deep; the works seem borne from folklore, the femininity balanced with the rawness of street culture. There was sadness and grief, too, both personal and universal. And, there was just the incredible talent of an unmatched hand.
“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,” Kilgallen remarks in her now legendary PBS Art21 interview. “And I think that’s where the beauty is.” Margaret Kigallen was a time-traveler, and what she left behind is a legacy that still shows us how taking the time to look a little deeper, listen more and speak about the things we love connects us to the world and people in our lives in a richer, fuller way. —Evan Pricco
That’s where the beauty is will be on view at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht through November 7, 2021. This article first appeared in our Fall 2021 Quarterly.