Arts

Remembering a Great Art Guy — Michael Galbreth’s Sudden Death Leaves a Huge Void in Close-Knit Texas Art World

Endlessly Talented Pioneer Always Helped Others Create

BY // 10.29.19

Everyone has a special Michael Galbreth memory, so when the co-founder and one part of the artistic duo known as The Art Guys passed away suddenly October 19 at age 63, after a heart procedure, the Texas art world, particularly in Houston, stopped.

But Galbreth was more than a nationally and internationally exhibited artist. He and collaborator Jack Massing, his partner in Art Guys schemes and dreams, were famous in the Texas art world in a way that’s not happened before or since.

Galbreth and Massing’s wildly inventive, brilliantly idiosyncratic approach to art-making rolled Dadaism and Fluxus into a tightly coiled package, sprinkled with Surrealism, and perfumed with wry, under-the-radar social commentary and a dose of the absurd.

The Art Guise work, will, we predict, be revisited by future generations as mirroring the 1990s and 2000s zeitgeist in Houston where their fame flamed brightest.

Fellow artist McKay Otto, who knew Galbreth and The Art Guys for three decades during a pivotal era in Houston’s creative whirl, tells PaperCity: “They were pranksters, and really the Feel Good Guys. Their performances were brilliant, and there was no telling what would happen!”

Despite their renown, Otto notes, “Michael would always come over to you at a party, and let you know he was glad to see you. What a gentleman.”

Statement Makers

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  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers

Both Art Guys were of the community and gave back — mentorship, board service, and most notably as perpetual hosts of gatherings at The Art Guys World Headquarters. This cavernous studio live-work complex was located in an early-20th-century mattress factory in The Heights reborn into the ultimate art lair, in an era before The Heights became a real estate developer’s dream, during a time when artists living in the then-super-affordable neighborhood was commonplace.

During those heady days, we were among those on the unique scene that, looking back, seems like a lost time both innocent and refreshingly egalitarian, at a place where elite art patrons let their hair down and rubbed shoulders with gritty art makers, gallerists, critics, and influencers — often taking in a show curated by Mike and Jack of their own work or fellow artists they admired, or an odd type of happening. In the later category, we fondly recall the husband-and-wife  knife-throwing act, which the audience was able to appreciate as more than carnival folk, but as the skilled performers they were.

Artnews Top 200 collector Lester Marks tells PaperCity, “Some of my very best times were with The Art Guys at their World Headquarters.”

“Height Like Mike: The Boots,” 2004-2005, sponsored by Lester Marks and now in the Marks Collection, features the boots worn in a year-long Art Guys performance in which Jack Massing donned platformed cowboy boots to equal the height of collaborator Michael Galbreth. (Courtesy the Marks Collection)
“Height Like Mike: The Boots,” 2004-2005, sponsored by Lester Marks and now in the Marks Collection. (Courtesy the Marks Collection)

Marks underwrote the duo’s iconic performance piece Height Like Mike, where Jack wore platform cowboy boots for an entire year on the town, 2004 into 2005, during appearances with Mike — memorialized in film and with the actual pair of boots, now in a vitrine at casa Marks. The completion of the project was commemorated by a wild party at The Art Guys World HQ, which still ranks as one of this writer’s top art events ever.

A Fated Meeting 

Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing in “Suits: The Clothes That Make the Man,” 1998-1999, at captured by Texas photographer Allison V. Smith. (Courtesy The Art Guys)
Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing in “Suits: The Clothes That Make the Man,” 1998-1999, as captured by Texas photographer Allison V. Smith. (Courtesy The Art Guys)

Galbreth and Massing had come together as grad students at the University of Houston art department — James Surls was the matchmaker to recruit both talents to Houston — and within about a decade of meeting their collaboration, which began in 1983, had produced a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, an achievement which not only excited collectors, but provided inspiration to other artists.

Weihong tells PaperCity that seeing The Art Guys’ survey show at the CAMH, “The Art Guys: Think Twice,” underscored her commitment to make her career in Houston after relocating to Houston from Beijing in the early 1990s.

Spanning four decades, Galbreth and Massing complemented each other perfectly, producing a collaboration that appeared seamless — the viewer never questioned who had contributed or made which part of the finished piece. Art historians like Lynn Herbert in the CAMH 1995 exhibition catalog The Art Guys: Think Twice wrote: “Galbreth has been called ‘the tall, lanky Art Guy,’ ‘the theoretician,’ and the one who is ‘more oriented to behavioral work.'”

In person, Galbreth, as this writer knew him, possessed an easy smile, demonstrating a courtly wit and warmth that always made the person he encountered feel like they were old friends, and that you both shared a place at the big banquet that was the Houston art scene.

Husband to one of the Texas art world’s most important connectors and voices, Rainey Knudson of Glasstire, Galbreth supported Knudson in her online publishing endeavor from helping name the then-nascent website to encouraging her commitment to mold it into one of the most influential in America.

Texas' most beloved art couple: Michael Galbreth and Rainey Knudson, at Fresh Arts Mirror Ball 2008. (Photo by Michelle Watson)
Texas’ most beloved art couple: Michael Galbreth and Rainey Knudson, at Fresh Arts Mirror Ball 2008. (Photo by Michelle Watson)

Galbreth also served as an inspiration to the entire Glasstire family, especially publisher Brandon Zech, who succeeded Knudson and took the helm June 1.

“Michael was a big part of all of our lives,” Zech says. “He was like a mentor to me.”

On Facebook, Knudson wrote: “Michael was a brilliant, funny, great-hearted man who saw the world in ways that most of us don’t see it. Minds like his are rare. Most of all for Tennessee and me, he was our dear and beloved dad and husband. We were lucky to have him.”

Read what Glasstire’s editor in chief Christina Rees wrote about Galbreth’s contributions to art history here.

A Personal Hero 

As I reflect on two decades as a friend of Galbreth, some of my fondest memories are:

Our first meeting in 1999, when he and Jack came down from the ladder while painting the massive Absolut Vodka billboard during the 1,000 Coats of Paint project. It was better than a sighting of Julian Schnabel.

Where we met: This writer’s first encounter with The Art Guys was at the foot of the duo’s Absolut sign in 1999. (Courtesy The Art Guys)
Where we met: This writer’s first encounter with The Art Guys was at the foot of the duo’s Absolut sign in 1999. (Courtesy The Art Guys)

Hanging out at NotSuOh and observing Galbreth locked in an all-night chess game with either proprietor Jim Pirtle or the homeless man whom Pirtle had befriended and hired as a waiter.

Also at NotSuOh, attending the opening of a show in the mop closet curated by The Art Guys.

The covers that The Art Guys created for PaperCity, which controversially covered the topic of marriage.

Bumping into Knudson and Galbreth then they were first dating, at a party at collector Chris Gongolas’ house. Obviously in love, the pair divulged plans for Knudson’s future website and its name — Glasstire.

Having The Art Guys as guests of honor during a wild Studio 54 disco birthday party I hosted at the Rice Hotel the night the duo was fêted in a downtown parade for their Suits project. The year was 1999.

Attending a Christmas cookie-making contest at The Art Guys World Headquarters that was warm, cozy and very convivial — one holiday more than a decade ago.

Getting engaged on April Fool’s Day right after a party at Art Guys World Headquarters. What was I thinking? The prospective groom and I, in an ode to Mike and Jack, sealed the deal at a Denny’s booth (but never walked down the aisle).

The Galveston Arts Center’s 25-year drawing survey for the duo, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in 2007, which drew a tremendous posse of the art guard motoring down to the island.

Attending a rare show of The Art Guys performance pieces at the University of Houston. Best work that night: a participatory crowd-sourced big kiss!

Godspeed, Michael. We’ll see you at The Art Guys World Headquarters above.

This roadside attraction by The Art Guys can be enjoyed by motorists along N. Shepherd by 22nd Street. It stands near the site of their former Heights studio, the center of the Houston art world for during the 1990s and early 2000s. (Courtesy The Art Guys)
This roadside attraction by The Art Guys can be enjoyed by motorists along N. Shepherd by W. 22nd Street. It stands near the site of their former Heights studio, the center of the Houston art world during the 1990s and early 2000s. (Courtesy The Art Guys)

A celebration of Galbreth’s life is planned for later this year, at his studio.

Scroll through the photo slideshow above this story for some iconic Art Guys’ creations. Read about an unrealized Art Guys’ project that needs to happen here. Then relive Mike and Jack’s big night at Denny’s here.

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