Remembering Mac McGinnes, SF Art Collector and Raconteur

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An older man sits at a table with hands clasped
Mac McGinnes at Amy Trachtenberg's Bernal Heights home in 2020. (Courtesy Amy Trachtenberg)

“Mac’s apartment was a universe,” said artist Léonie Guyer when I phoned her a few days after our friend Mac McGinnes’ death. The San Francisco art collector, writer and culture enthusiast died in hospice on Jan. 9, 2022.

I met Mac through the collection he built at his Turk Street home, when I borrowed his autoerotic Colter Jacobsen drawings second hand strokes 1 & 2 (2003) for the exhibition organized by my California College of the Arts curatorial practice class, Artwork for Bedrooms, in 2018.

Looking back, the prevailing characteristics of that Wattis Institute show—fragile, poetic, often smaller works on found paper, wood or other matter—persisted in Mac’s collection. His bedroom walls were orange, his bathroom lime green, his kitchen yellow, and his living room a dark turquoise. Save for the self-portrait by Alex Katz centered on one of those turquoise walls, his collection covered these colorful backdrops salon-style.

Spacious room with bay windows, lots of art and books
A view of Mac McGinnes' apartment, with the Alex Katz painting at left. (Courtesy Amy Trachtenberg)

Mac knew many of the makers, and arranged artists (via their art) in conversation with one another. A Joe Brainard collage was in his bathroom above the hand towel. A small paper littered with J.B. Murray’s illegible, mystical scrawl hung next to his bed. Chris Johanson’s scrappy, tongue-in-cheek renditions of urbanites and loud text works by Cliff Hengst lived on the main bedroom walls, with Guyer’s talismanic drawings positioned nearby as quiet observers.

His arrangements were like his dinner parties, and Jacobsen recalls the combinations of people as similarly intentional. They were, he says, “always lovely and exciting—sometimes old acquaintances and sometimes strangers ... always warm and a lot of wine.”

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Born in 1939 in small-town Florida, Mac made his way to New York and Chicago to work gallery and theater production jobs before landing in San Francisco in the 1980s. It feels redundant to go further into the facts of his 82 years, as he made a point to speak and write about his personal history in two pieces for SFMOMA’s Open Space: A 2018 interview with curator and friend Constance Lewallen and a short account of his childhood on the WWII homefront.

A young man and an older man look at each other at a restaurant table
Ajit Chauhan and Mac McGinnes. (Courtesy Amy Trachtenberg)

This isn’t to say Mac’s story isn’t remarkable. Working at Fischbach Gallery in New York the 1960s and 70s he inhabited avant garde poetry and art circles. He knew the now-lauded greats and had opinions about them, remarking how performances by Vito Acconci or Jack Smith, now considered the gods of the downtown scene, were “incorrigible” (said with an eye roll). Artist and friend Ajit Chauhan recalls Mac saying he was on the street when Trisha Brown performed Man Walking Down the Side of a Building in 1970.

A familiar face at art openings and poetry readings, and a producer for the Poets Theater, Mac loved how creative worlds intersected in San Francisco. But even as a high-culture polyglot, that wild, swampy Florida boyhood never left him. Vincent Katz, who Mac met through his parents Alex and Ada Katz, remembers Mac visiting his family when his father did a residency in West Virginia. Arriving in boots and army fatigues, Mac took Vincent to nearby stock car races. Artist Amy Trachtenberg, who met Mac working at Philippe Bonnafont Gallery in North Beach in the 1980s, says Mac became a fixture in her family’s home. He gave her sons frogs, which led to a fixation with cold-blooded creatures that has continued into their adulthood (one has a six-foot-long iguana).

An older man and a younger woman in a face mask pose for camera
Mac McGinnes and the author, Maddie Klett. (Courtesy Maddie Klett)

I met Mac in my mid-20s, and I am not the only young person with whom he built an intergenerational friendship. Sophie Appel and Cole Solinger, who run the art space Delaplane in the Mission, were close to Mac in recent years. All of us admired Mac’s come-as-you-are, no fuss presence, and his acutely observational way of moving through the world. Sophie made a point to record him speaking. In one recording, he describes encountering a band of very old and very young men playing music who “were out of tune in the most wonderful way.” Cole asked Mac about a sealed jar containing blue jay feathers, dice, and a scrap of paper with an esoteric note. He found it under a tree in Buena Vista Park in the 80s, never opened it, and considered it his most prized possession.

The jar, Cole and I concurred in a recent call, feels like a microcosm of Mac’s apartment; it is its own swirling little world. The apartment was even more of a universe these last few years, as Mac recovered from a broken femur before quarantining during the pandemic. He watched a full opera every day. He embarked on building an aquarium for the sole purpose of tending to the plants (the fish only there to complete this aquascape). He told me was rereading books he hadn’t touched in 30 years. And he wrote. In his Open Space essay, Mac talks about the early days of lockdown—when most of us were struggling with the isolation and slowdown—with such peace.

His is a San Francisco life and story that encapsulates the heartbeat of the place. Not the tired boom-and-bust story, but of the possibilities of living at land’s end: where you can let your freak flag fly, or not.

Mac lived decisively. He donated the majority of his art to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Despite his magpie impulse for collecting, during his last months in hospice he was adamant about visitors not bringing anything but themselves. “No possessions!” he said.

Mac crossed over, and now his presence is dispersed among those who knew him and throughout the streets he walked. Magic.