In the Studio with Michael McKenzie
BY MAJA TARATETA
Two rough-hewn stone pillars and a bright red peace sign greet visitors at the entrance of Michael McKenzie’s Katonah compound, a woodland property that houses several bygone buildings and barns he has been restoring since purchasing the place in 2008. The juxtaposition of classic and contemporary, antique and au courant, illustrates the structures where McKenzie lives, works, and brings contemporary art visions to life.
“I’m the average guy gone wild,” says McKenzie in his silkscreen studio, where multicolored paint splatters carpet the wood floor. And how. His American Image Atelier is a production facility that has churned out editions for such artists as Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Claes Oldenburg, Ed Paschke, Frank Stella, Donald Sultan, and Tom Wesselmann, among others. The workspace, like a museum exhibition unto itself, spills over with work by Warhol, Indiana, Red Grooms, and Keith Haring.
McKenzie admits that he didn’t set out to produce masterworks of contemporary art. As a young man, he studied creative writing in the 70s under the tutelage of several Pulitzer Prize winners. He took up journalism under the mentorship of Truman Capote and interviewed and photographed a range of high-profile personalities, including Tennessee Williams, Rudolf Nureyev, Lou Reed, Deborah Harry, Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan, John Belushi, and Joan Rivers. While still in school, he wrote his first book, on the television show “Saturday Night Live.” He followed that up with books on Madonna (Lucky Star) and Billy Joel (Billy Joel: Piano Man). His books have collectively sold more than one million copies.
The Manhattan native got into photography on a bet. Once he put a portfolio together, McKenzie garnered assignments from The Village Voice and SoHo News. Eventually, he photographed for Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and countless album covers. He started taking his photos to art galleries and showing them on consignment. People started buying.
“It wasn’t the worst possible life,” he says. “Anyone I wanted to meet, I met. … I was 22, and everyone wanted to know, who is this maniac?”
Everything changed, though, the day Andy Warhol came to see him in his studio.
“I had worked with Warhol for many moons,” says McKenzie. “I got to be friends—in so far as anyone could be—with Andy and most of his staff.”
McKenzie had been experimenting with oil painting on top of black and white photography. Warhol, looking around his studio, “kept ragging on my process,” says McKenzie. “I was trying to figure out how to make photography bigger and more painterly.” Warhol suggested silkscreening and acrylics.
The next day, McKenzie called everyone he knew to get screens and inks, and stayed up all night printing on anything and everything. “I’ve been doing it ever since,” he says. “And as I started getting better at it, artists started asking me to print their work.”
Silkscreening began to eat up more and more space of his Manhattan studio, leading him, eventually, to his current location in Katonah.
Today, as always, he’s working on several projects at once: Robert Indiana HOPE sculptures in glass with Lalique; several art books, including Andy Warhol and His Friends; a “Word Art” show opening at the The Baker Museum in Naples, Florida, in February, and then traveling the US and Europe. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for 30 years,” he says.
He is also putting the finishing touches on a restored barn residence for visiting artists, complete with a private gallery space. “Bedford’s version of a Tribeca penthouse,” he says.
With Campbell’s Soup-can, red shingles and decorative sliding doors, the building combines antique elements with an open, window-filled, white-walled gallery and living space. In all his renovations, he has kept the words of his friend, the late Philip Johnson, in mind: “Make sure all the buildings talk to each other with light,” McKenzie quoted Johnson as advising him.
The first resident scheduled is contemporary artist Nancy Dwyer. “We think she is more important than the status she has, and we think we can help her achieve,” says McKenzie. “My main goal is to have my own art and writing get out, but on the other hand, to show who’s who in the game.”
Most of all, he’s having fun. “I like what I do,” he says. “I’ve worked with a lot of geniuses. Hopefully some of it has sunk in.”