Influential Houston Artist and “Art Guy” Michael Galbreth, 1956-2019

by Christina Rees October 21, 2019

Michael Galbreth. Photo: Molly Glentzer for the Houston Chronicle.

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. 

The Art Guys, The Longest Street in Houston, performance, 2013. Photo: Everett Taasevigen.

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 art guys Giant_googly eyes camh museum

For their show ‘Think Twice:1983-1995,’ The Art Guys placed giant googly eyes on the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s facade.

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. 

The Art Guys, SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man, 1998-99. Photo: Mark Seliger.

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, Stop n Go, 1995. A “behavioral event” for which the artists worked a 24-hour shift at a Houston convenience store.

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 marry a plant

The Art Guys Marry A Plant, 2009. Photo: Everett Taasevigen.

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.

The Art Guys Agree On Painting, 1983.

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. 

Statue of Four lies by the art guys at the university of Houston

The Art Guys, The Statue of Four Lies, 2010. Students on the University of Houston campus interact with the sculpture, sometimes dressing it up or painting it, as seen here. Photo: Trevor Nolley/The Cougar.

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.”

Michael Galbreth, photo taken in 1983 in the art department’s sound studio at the University of Houston.

In 1986 Michael Galbreth organized New Music America, a city-wide festival of experimental art and music led by the composer Pauline Oliveros.

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. 

The Art Guys in a 2008 photo for the piece Forever Yours. Photo: Kevin Fujii, Staff/Houston Chronicle.

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?”


You may also like


Joachim West October 21, 2019 - 22:05

I always thought that the Art Guys were genius. I only got to meet Michael once. I got to tell him that I have been a big fan of his since I was a teenager. He was super kind in person and gave me a business card. It isn’t often that I get to meet my heroes and end up liking them more afterwards than I did before. I’m so sad to hear that he has passed. I really loved, loved his work and the truth is that I’m fairly picky in what I like. Art lost one of it’s greats when he passed and Texas lost a treasure.
I really feel so sorry for all of his friends and family who are mourning his loss. My heart goes out to you.

michael chmiel October 21, 2019 - 22:24

“Ars longa vita brevis”

seth mittag October 21, 2019 - 23:09

I was sitting in my studio sweating bullets because the Art Guys were scheduled for studio visits. They showed up and made me feel immediately like I wasn’t just a weirdo or a hack. They convinced me I “belonged” in Mike’s word’s I was a “lifer”, during the studio visit both he and Jack told me to move to Houston and enroll in the MFA program at UH. I did and it made a huge difference in my life.

Overtime I fished, played chess and learned more about art from Michael than from anyone else. He not only was my “Art Dad” but helped me with the passing of my own father. I loved Michael very much and he made a real positive difference in my life.

For the record he was damn good at art however, I thoroughly enjoyed whooping him in chess and fishing! E4 Michael….

Chris Lockwood October 22, 2019 - 07:40

I’ve learned that it’s impossible to fully appreciate art without knowing the artist. That was never more true than with The Art Guys who often used themselves as their canvas. Their artwork is a wink at the absurdity of what it means to be human.

Neil Fauerso October 22, 2019 - 09:02

What a beautiful obituary. Michael was a true genius and also one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Truly one of a kind. I am so sad, but feel so lucky I got to know him, even just a little bit.

Nic Nicosia October 22, 2019 - 09:07

Very sad news and a great loss. Rainey my deepest condolences.

Greg Metz October 22, 2019 - 09:25

SO SAD TO HEAR of THIS!!! A Spark of Art in Houston and Beyond who will be so Missed. Inspiration, Dedication and Infiltration beyond just the art world. A fitting tribute to Michael, so thank you Christina Rees- this must have been a challenge to encapsulate his many contributions that so enlivened our vision and the diverse perspectives of how art and life could be expressed.

carolyn October 22, 2019 - 09:52

The Art Guys have been one of the best “artists” around for at least as long as I’ve been aware of them (since the early ’90’s), often working at the cutting edge both aesthetically and politically, but with so much inspiration, grace, and humor that no one could fail to come away from their work with both food for thought and a smile; their work has been an inspiration to me. I can’t imagine how painful this loss must be for those close to Michael – my deepest sympathy to Rainey Knudson and others who survive him – it’s painful for us all. Fortunately, his brilliant, hilarious legacy will live on in more ways that usual. Thank you, Michael, for all you gave us.

Sara Kellner October 22, 2019 - 09:54

I first got to know Mike when he and Jack came to Buffalo NY to do an artist residency at Hallwalls. I will always treasure our friendship. Rainey, my heart goes out to you and Tenn.

Susan Larsen October 22, 2019 - 10:48

All our love to Rainey and Tenn. How sudden and sad. Wishing you strength.

Mary Elizabeth Heard October 22, 2019 - 10:54

What a beautiful homage. I’m sorry for your loss Rainey. Mary Elizabeth

Ray Beldner October 22, 2019 - 13:00

What a wonderful tribute to a great artist and person. I was fortunate to know Micheal a bit because I curated The Art Guys into a show about money art that I was also in, and we traveled it around the West Coast. Then, I invited him and Jack to a Headlands Center for the Arts event in the Bay Area and they showed up with their sponsored suits. Fantastic! They were both great to work with–funny, smart and gracious. Their work was thoughtful, thought-provoking, and a real hoot too. Would have made Duchamp proud…….Michael’s passing will be felt way beyond Houston. My condolences to Rainey and Tennessee. I’m wishing for them the strength to get through this.

Benito Huerta October 22, 2019 - 14:54

Michael was a great guy who was pretty straightforward with everyone. A great loss and a sad moment to realize another member of our family is now gone. My deepest condolences to Rainey and their son.

joel Sampson October 22, 2019 - 15:05


I’m sorry about your loss. Michael’s body of work was so creative and he way too young.

love joel

Sheri Goodman October 22, 2019 - 23:56

Mike was a good egg.

darryl laysrter October 23, 2019 - 09:35

I will miss you Michael. You were and always will be, my friend and a class act. The world is now less interesting.

coley wood October 23, 2019 - 13:16

It was my great honor to work with Mike and Jack on several quirky projects over the years and I am stunned to hear of his untimely loss to our world. Always a serious, satirical soul, Mike usually played the straight man to Jack’s antics and left me amused and grateful for the experiences. My heart aches for Rainey and Tennessee. So long Michael…dear friend.

Nicholas Frank October 23, 2019 - 15:25

Please accept condolences for your sudden loss, Rainey and Tennessee. This impassioned history by Christina truly captures an image of a crucial figure. I only met him once as well, but as a new Texan, am honored to bask in his enduring presence.

Paul Horn October 23, 2019 - 22:11

This Suks

Paul Horn October 23, 2019 - 22:12

This Really Sucks!

Paul Horn October 23, 2019 - 22:14

This Really Really Sucks!

Robert Miskines October 24, 2019 - 08:02

What a wonderful man. His contribution to opening Art with a capital ‘A’ to the everyday person cannot be overstated.

Mario Figueroa Jr. October 24, 2019 - 09:27

I’m in disbelief. Our hearts go out to you, Rainey and Tennesse, your entire family and close friends. There will forever be a hole in Houston’s heart. The Art Guys, have lost Art Guy. – GONZO247

Jae Fleur de Lis October 24, 2019 - 15:00

I met Michael in the early 90s. I have followed his work and he inspired me in many ways. My heart genuinely aches.

Virginia Billeaud Anderson October 24, 2019 - 17:15

This is a beautiful tribute. He was kind to me. Condolences to Michael’s family.

Denise Swafford October 24, 2019 - 22:53

This is shocking to hear. My heart is shattered. It was just pure dumb luck I got to meet Michael & Jack when my obligatory “Art Appreciation” did studio tours. My, what an eye-opening year! They were so luminescent, intelligent and witty. I felt so out of my league but they were kind and gentle and enlightening. I followed their career trajectory for years. They just always WERE. I’m sad to the depths of my soul.

Thank you, Michael, for awakening in me the realization that one can converse with Art (capital A Art) and take away many universal truths; for showing me to not be afraid of my ignorance in a subject because it is there to show me a pathway to growth; for proving that it is more than acceptable, in fact it’s damn expected that you observe all aspects of society with a skeptical eye and the highest of expectations; and lastly, for not holding it against my when I bought the “Jack is my favorite Art Guy” t-shirt.

My condolences to your family, friends and co-conspirators. You will be missed. Houston grows dimmer without you.

Ed Hill & Suzanne Bloom October 25, 2019 - 14:50

Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill

We were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of Michael’s death. However, this said, it fails to express the weight of our emotions. Rainey and Tennessee, please accept our most sincere condolences for your loss.
We knew Michael for a long time, since the early 80’s. Initially as teachers, perhaps mentors, and, in turn, respectful peers. Thus, word of his death brought to mind so many interactions and so many stories, all of which, at their core, glow with his singular personality. Loss, true loss, is the dominate emotion — personal loss and collective loss. The whole of the art community of Houston does and will continue to feel his absence. On the other hand his presence will persist. There’s little doubt of that.
Of the many memories running through our minds, there is one from the distant past, sometime in the 1980s, that stands out. It involved a small group of friends in a unique event totally of Michael’s making. We’ve come to refer to it as the Day of the Three Kings. This was the sort of event that, in its contrasts and poignancy, remains entirely vivid, unforgettable. We will continue to think of it as a unique and beautiful gift from Michael.

Heidi MacDonald October 27, 2019 - 18:27

I’m heartbroken to hear this tragic news. Though he’s so suddenly gone, you brought Michael to life in this beautiful tribute.

When I was becoming an artist in Houston, I was entranced by the Art Guys art and way of living–which seemed like the same thing to my eyes. Their sense of the absurd influences my work to this day. The first piece that made me “get” performance art was when they drove through the Art Car Parade dragging a suitcase that was so worn down, it looked like it had been drug a hundred miles on its way there. They made art out of a party they threw (the best I’ve ever been to), by using smoke machines to fill up the entire space with such a dense fog that when you entered it you were suddenly in an altered state–alone with invisible voices all around–until you were shocked by seeing the face of someone else only inches away.

Their work felt like an open invitation to ponder, rather than a concrete statement. I didn’t know them as individuals, but as an enigmatic duo who generously lavished Houston and the world with their art. I salute you Michael, and thank you Jack for inspiring me by keeping me a little off-kilter whenever I encountered your art. I aspire to do the same. Treat yourselves gently in this most difficult time. I’m so sorry for your loss.


Leave a Comment

Funding generously provided by: