In their lives

How two military officers, an educator, an artist, an architect, a homemaker, a retired police officer, a businesswoman and a 104-year-old woman touched so many others

  PHOTO GALLERY: Spiegelberg's artwork.
Pictured here, Spiegelberg in 2007.

A talented student was in the midst of transforming his art -- and himself

MATTHEW T. SPIEGELBERG
1983-2009

In the fall of 2007, a 23-year-old named Matthew Spiegelberg arrived at the MFA program at Hunter College in New York City. Even as graduate students go, Spiegelberg was unusually driven. He had begun to paint in earnest while at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, where, if he was in some ways an archetypal outsider -- the skinny kid, prone to melancholy, who painted his fingernails black and sank into the hood of his sweat shirt -- he was also a determined autodidact with a wicked sense of humor whose backpack was filled with unassigned novels. As an undergrad at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he abandoned his realist style and began painting splashy abstracts, and after he graduated, as he wrote in an application essay for graduate school, he "built a body of work that feels like my own."

"I am at a point," Spiegelberg wrote, "to test and refine my discoveries." To live and work as an artist in New York was the best way he knew to do this, and he became immersed in it. Spiegelberg's fellow students took immediate notice of his paintings, says professor Joel Carreiro, and of Spiegelberg himself, who often waited until the end of class to speak but whose observations were pithy and shrewd. When Spiegelberg was killed on April 18 after falling between the cars of a departing subway train in New York, the work he left behind described a remarkable view of the world, as well as the toll such a vision exacted. It was the vision of someone that a few people had known intimately and many had known only distantly: electric but controlled, complex but articulate, hard-won and unfinished.

The bulk of Spiegelberg's work at Hunter was in the form he had begun in college: a pastiche of imagery appropriated from computer screens -- Google-Earth-type aerial shots, background patterns on desktops and scribbles from early graphics programs -- painted in oil and acrylic on very thin oversized panels, in colors so bright that they vibrate.

The arrangement of these forms, together with their painstaking re-creation by hand (visible in one unfinished painting are the hundreds of penciled hatch marks used to map out a line's pixelated edge), makes them intensely, unexpectedly, expressive. "He paints so emotionally imagery that you would expect was made by a machine," Carreiro says. At the heart of Spiegelberg's work, Carreiro says, was the gulf between two modes of expression: the long history of painting and what Carreiro calls "contemporary visual culture," the digital images that swamp our everyday lives. "I think he was trying to find a way to make those two things meet, and find a way to actually get to sincere, earnest expression."

"He wanted to hate everything, but he wanted to love it, too," says Kristin Trethewey, whom Spiegelberg began dating early in 2009. In a sense, those were two sides of the same coin, which he struggled, in his life as in his work, to reconcile. He was direct, often painfully so, with little patience for the ordinary grist of human interactions, and painting became a way to communicate as much as anything else. The more he painted, the more time he spent alone, and the more time he spent alone, the more he painted. For a while, he lived in his studio at Hunter, which has no showers or proper living quarters. He became "very interior, unreachable, in a way," says friend and fellow student Alix Winsby. "It was heartbreaking."

And then, in December 2008, things began to change. Spiegelberg moved into a loft in Brooklyn. He had always played and recorded music, but now he began composing and recording extensively. And he met Trethewey, a video artist whose art -- live, often improvised collaborations using cameras, lights and music -- was the antithesis of Spiegelberg's solitary explorations in the studio.

Trethewey never saw Spiegelberg's paintings. "For all I knew," she says, "he was done with it." When she met him, all he wanted to do was collaborate. Compared with his painting, the work that Spiegelberg created in the last four months of his life seems of an entirely different nature: unruly and ephemeral and evolving. As his relationship with Trethewey deepened, they planned a performance around what she called "the mythology of romance in the city," with video vignettes and music, and an interactive piece, "this funny sort of sculpture, with branches and mirrors and fake flowers on it, that would light up and make noise when it was touched." He and Trethewey spent long hours "almost in complete silence" gluing mirrors on the pieces.

And still, there was something in this new work that was vividly, recognizably his. When they were still getting to know each other, he and Trethewey, along with a friend, carried on an ongoing jam session of sorts. Spiegelberg played guitar, the friend played an instrument he had built, and Trethewey filmed video of the scene, fed it through her computer and projected it back around the room, "sort of sharding reflections around." Often the result was a chaotic, if pleasing, jumble. But now and then, their efforts cohered. At their best moments, Trethewey says, everything in the room was "activated," the ordinary scene broken apart and remade as an amplified version of itself, created of noise and light, alive and vanishing.

Lauren Wilcox is a freelance writer living in Jersey City, N.J. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

PHOTO: Courtesy Spiegelberg family

© 2010 The Washington Post Company