If his plan for the day holds Monday, artist Barry McGee will attend to some creative business in Santa Monica and then, at some point, steer his battered white Chevy Astro van into the parking garage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, probably for the last time. With his 4-year-old daughter, Asha, he'll look around, remember and say goodbye to pieces of their past that will soon be rubble and dust.
In the fall of 2000, McGee and his wife, Margaret Kilgallen, drove the Astro into the garage -- "the ugliest parking lot I've ever seen," McGee says. "Just design-wise, lighting-wise, it's hideous." They broke out their paints and started swabbing and dabbing scores of images onto the concrete walls. As McGee recalls it, they stayed for a week, working with little plan or premeditation, and with nobody from the museum looking over their shoulders. Just the way a couple of artists with sensibilities formed in the graffiti and street-art movements liked it.
The project was a commission from the museum, an adjunct to its sprawling "Made in California" exhibition.
"They gave us the green light and didn't tell us when to stop," McGee recalled this week over the phone. "It wasn't planned out at all. We just kept going till we had to go back home to San Francisco."
The garage is scheduled to fall to the wrecking ball on Dec. 1, and the murals will crumble with it as LACMA begins clearing away the old so it can bring in the new: a $60-million contemporary art gallery. McGee says he values the memory of that week of painting alongside his wife, who died from cancer the following June at age 33, just 19 days after giving birth to their daughter.
As for the art itself -- the sad-sack black-and-white faces he was doing at the time, the varied images Kilgallen festooned all over the place -- he's OK with its passing.
"I always thought it was a temporary thing. My stuff, in particular, I don't give a darn about. That's the nature of the beast" when it comes to murals painted on the walls of parking garages. "Margaret's work, of course, I like seeing it. But I can't imagine saving it or chaining myself to the wall or anything like that."
McGee says that he and Kilgallen -- whose paintings, sculptures and drawings were seen last summer in "Margaret Kilgallen: In the Sweet Bye & Bye," an exhibition at the Gallery at REDCAT downtown -- assumed while creating the murals that they wouldn't outlast the exhibition for which LACMA had them made.
He last checked on them about two years ago, when he was in the neighborhood to try a vegan restaurant that had been recommended.
"I was surprised how good it looked," he said, although he noticed that some of Kilgallen's work on plywood in the garage was missing, apparently pried off by art thieves. "It's no surprise. Once an artist has passed, the work goes up in value. There were some things near the Coke machine that were fairly extensive. That went first."
On his occasional visits, McGee says, he'd be pleased to see a wad of bubblegum always stuck to a "ridiculously sad" face he had painted near a walkway. "It made it that much better."
LACMA conservators have rescued one of the plywood sections that Kilgallen painted in the garage, a 7-foot-tall portrait of "a man who looks like an acrobat, with hands on hips," said Lynn Zelevansky, head of the museum's contemporary art department. The museum hopes to get McGee's OK to add the work to its permanent collection.
The artist says he enthusiastically approves: "It will be handled and treated as [I] couldn't have ever imagined. Imagine the company it will keep."
Zelevansky said that she and conservators brainstormed about ways to save more of the garage paintings, which aren't on removable layers. One idea was to gird the painted sections of concrete with wooden supports and hope that those walls would remain standing amid the wreckage. But then the museum would have to move and store the surviving tonnage. That, Zelevansky said, would take "huge amounts of money" and contradict the off-the-cuff, street-art nature of the work.
LACMA documented all the images photographically in 2000 when they were painted. Zelevansky says she doesn't have a count of how many there are. McGee and Kilgallen's work inspired a proliferation of wall art in the garage as muralists and taggers carried on after they'd finished.
LACMA's president, Melody Kanschat, said that some art cognoscenti are bearing witness while they can. "We've had quite a few people come to view the parking garage the last two months. How many institutions can say that?"