Micheal Galbreth, a central figure of the Houston art world, died at Methodist Hospital in Houston on Saturday evening, October 19, 2019, following emergency surgery for an aortic dissection. He was 63.
Mr. Galbreth’s influence on and contributions to the growth of Houston’s robust art scene cannot be overstated. The creative career of this multidisciplinary artist, organizer, collaborator, provocateur, and teacher evolved in tandem and intertwined with the evolution of contemporary art in Houston since the 1980s.
Mr. Galbreth was best known as one-half of The Art Guys, a 35-year collaboration with Jack Massing that began in 1983 after the two met as students at the University of Houston. Their prolific output not only helped shape Houston’s relationship with contemporary art, but often thrust The Art Guys into the national and international spotlight, and established the duo as critically acclaimed figures in the American canon of conceptual art. “The Art Guys are conceptual artists of the highest order,” wrote the New York Times in 2013. The Times referred to their work as “part Dada, part David Letterman, pushing the concept of performance art to the outer limits. Or maybe they’re a cross between John Cage and the Smothers Brothers.”
Mr. Galbreth’s output both in and outside of The Art Guys included performance, endurance art, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, installation, writing, sound, and public and private art commissions. The Art Guys described their various projects and objects with terms like “pursuances” “disturbances” “procurements” and “doohickeys.” Humor and absurdity were Art Guys hallmarks. From the duo’s smallest gestures to their most sweeping projects, their works often read as jokes, but ones that circled back on themselves in ever-deepening layers of meaning. In their “direct-to-the public” methodology, The Art Guys expanded the very definition of art.
In a 1995 interview for ARTnews, Mr. Galbreth explained The Art Guys’ modus operandi: “We realized that the big artistic issue of our age is not formal, it’s social. General society does not know what art is, and the richness and value that it has. What artists do is confusing to people. We try to bring people into dialogue, and we found that the best way to welcome a large audience was through humor.”
In essays and articles relating to The Art Guys’ early career retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 1995, titled Think Twice:1983-1995, Walter Hopps, then curator at the Menil Collection, stated: “the interesting thing about the Art Guys is that they meet head-on one of the more vulgar sides of art objects: that they’re products. They demystify, or, in fancy language, deconstruct what’s really going on.” Curator Toby Kamps, then based in San Diego, wrote: “Deliberately taking to an absurd extreme the modern notion of everyday things and situations as the raw materials of art, they seem to practice and at the same time parody every aspect of art and commercial production.”
The critic Dave Hickey wrote that The Art Guys remind us of “just how far we are from having it all by demonstrating that even what we had, just a moment ago, has been stolen from us: little things — like laughter, volition, and happy anxiety — and other things we didn’t even know were gone until the Art Guys proposed to sell them back to us… .”
And critic David Levi Strauss wrote, “like Fluxus artists, they go toward the expressive side of conceptualism, use cheap, everyday materials, and stage theatrical events that stress the communal and democratic.”
In all of his artistic output, Mr. Galbreth applied tremendous rigor to even his most ephemeral projects. His humor may have mitigated the evidence of his intellectual and philosophical labor, but that foundation is what made the artworks land so solidly and memorably. No matter how ridiculous or speculative his work, it was often truly sublime.
And prescient. More then 20 years before our age of self-branding and “influencers,” The Art Guys presented one of their most famous works, SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man (1997-98). It was an elaborate conceptual piece for which Mr. Galbreth and Mr. Massing leased advertising space on gray flannel suits (designed for them by Todd Oldham); The Art Guys wore the suits — embroidered with 62 logos from 56 companies — in public for a year throughout the country. (SUITS resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s permanent collection.)
And while Mr. Galbreth and The Art Guys exhibited and lectured nationally and internationally, Houston was central to Mr. Galbreth and The Art Guys’ practice. The city was not only the backdrop of Mr. Galbreth and The Art Guys’ work, but often, using themselves as art materials, Houston served as the work’s subject and content.
The Art Guys’ Houston-based output was so prolific and varied that it’s difficult to summarize, but to offer some snapshots: In the name of art, without permission they mowed the lawn at the CAMH (Yard Crew, 1990); they swam across Buffalo Bayou and drank glasses of its water (Down the Hatch, 2002); they walked ten miles through downtown Houston with buckets of water on their feet (Bucket Feet, 1994); in 1998 they were commissioned by Absolut Vodka to create a Houston billboard that they painted with at least three coats of paint every day for nine months (this was just one project for the artists’ ongoing 1000 Coats of Paint series).
The Art Guys’ 30th anniversary year, 2013, was an especially active one for the artists. For the year-long project 12 Events, The Art Guys performed one major action per month. Among them, they walked all 29.6 miles of Houston’s longest road, Little York (The Longest Street in Houston); they drove the I-610 loop around Houston for 24 hours —12 hours in one direction, then 12 hours in the opposite direction (Loop); they told jokes for eight hours straight at the Houston bar Notsuoh (Never Not Funny). They also recreated the piece that kicked off their partnership, The Art Guys Agree On Painting, adding the 2013 subtitle This Time From Thirty Feet Up.
It was 30 years prior at Lawndale Art Center in Houston that, as Joshua Fischer wrote for Glasstire, “Jack Massing approached Michael Galbreth and told him he wanted to do something. There was no audience and Galbreth did not even know what was going on. Massing presented Galbreth with a couple of cans of paint. They each dipped their hand in a respective can, shook hands, and Massing joked, ‘I guess we’re the art guys.’” (The Art Guys’ website is comprehensive and can be found here.) For the 30-year commemoration of the piece, The Art Guys stood on a 30-foot-high scaffolding and shook one another’s paint-covered hands.
In 2016, the Art Guys announced the dissolution of their partnership with the piece The Art Guys are not artists. At the time, Mr. Galbreth told the Houston Chronicle: “What we’ve always done is question the thing: What IS this? And who are we, and why is this? There is a surprising density to our work. Each piece has a reason, a story, however meaningless and paradoxical. Which accounts for a relative lack of visual style.” He continued, “We are fortunate to have lived a good, highly recognized life in some ways. Not so much recently, but absurdly, overwhelmingly, in the past.”
In 2013, the University of Houston announced its acquisition of The Art Guys’ archive. The acquired records for UH’s Special Collections “date from the 1980s to present and include The Art Guys’ business records, publicity material, and exhibition invitations.”
Outside of The Art Guys, Mr. Galbreth worked solo and collaboratively. In 1986 Mr. Galbreth organized New Music America, a city-wide festival of experimental art and music led by the composer Pauline Oliveros. It is considered a seminal event in the evolution of Houston’s cultural history. And in a subtle and representative piece dated 1983/2017 titled Compressed and Uncompressed Merle Haggard, Mr. Galbreth “acquiesced to the inevitability” of the speeding up of life and culture by using available tools of the era to speed up and slow down the Haggard song “My Woman Loves The Devil Out Of Me,” which he recorded straight off the radio in 1983. In another work, The Human Tour, which he began in 1982 and was ongoing, Mr. Galbreth explored the city of Houston by foot, in a bid to engage with his non-walkable city in an intensively human way.
Apropos of Mr. Galbreth’s death, his artwork continues. In 2007, The Art Guys debuted Forever Yours (“For the first time, in this unprecedented work of art, a collector may purchase an actual artist”), which offered the cremated remains of the artists “after they die with accompanying bronze bust urns.” Mr. Galbreth is in fact still for sale, price on request.
Michael Galbreth was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1956, to William and Patricia Galbreth; he was the second of five children. He grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and received his BFA in painting from Memphis State University, Memphis, Tennessee in 1980. At the invitation of artist James Surls, Mr. Galbreth attended graduate school at the University of Houston, where he completed his MFA in video and sculpture in 1984.
Mr. Galbreth was a tall and lanky man with the air of a traditional gentleman; he dressed formally and carried his Tennessee background in his careful and soft-spoken manner. He noticed everything, and yet was precise with his words. His sense of humor was dry and always at the ready. He was an outstanding conversationalist who made surprising and passionate observations at every turn.
Mr. Galbreth was the husband of Glasstire’s founder, Rainey Knudson, who stepped down from Glasstire early this year. Ms. Knudson credits her husband with coming up with the name for Glasstire (after Robert Rauschenberg’s cast glass tire sculptures) and describes her husband as providing the seed of inspiration for the Glasstire website in encouraging her, in 2000, to pivot from doing a print publication to an online one. (Glasstire is the oldest online visual art magazine in the country.)
Over the years, Mr. Galbreth served on the boards of DiverseWorks, Houston (he was president of that board when the building burned down in the late ’80s), and the Contemporary Art Museum Houston; he served on the University of Houston System Wide Art Acquisitions Committee (SWAAC), was President of the New Music Alliance advisory board, and was a longtime member of the Film Committee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Most recently, Mr. Galbreth was in his second semester of teaching video and performance art and advanced studio art at Sam Houston State University in Hunstville.
He is survived by his wife, Rainey Knudson, and their son, Tennessee.
Services for Mr. Galbreth will be held on Monday, October 28, 2019 at 2 PM at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, with a reception following at the church. A celebration of his life will be held at his studio in the coming months.
In lieu of flowers, Ms. Knudson requests that donations be made to the Michael Galbreth Visiting Artist Fund at Sam Houston State University or to the Regis School of the Sacred Heart, Houston.
Countless artists, organizers, and audiences — young and old — who have encountered Mr. Galbreth and been influenced by his creative conundrums over the years now find themselves in a state of mourning and reflection. Especially in Houston, many will be pondering the collective effect of Mr. Galbreth’s activities, admiring his model of creative citizenry, and attempting his brand of simultaneously questioning “why?” and “why not?”