Knox Essay

William Fried, Ph.D. FIPA

The paintings in this exhibit are a set of variations on the theme of Woman, the continuation of a tradition dating from ancient representations of the female through the work of Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and deKooning. It is a record of the confluence of Martin's two consuming passions: creation, and the image of Woman. He experiences both as transcendent, and in part, ahistorical, that is, deriving from a cosmic essence that must be understood and honored in the practice, the process of making art.

The variations employ a set of shapes representing the woman.s body. Their juxtaposition in each successive composition reveals a new and unforeseeable aspect of what Shakespeare, writing of Cleopatra, called ..."her infinite variety". Her eyes, nostrils, nipples, and lips engage the viewer from unexpected angles and positions. Yet there is nothing arbitrary about them: following the logic of the composition, they are situated and move with an inexorable precision. They punctuate the larger masses and tease us visually. We are being played with and seduced by the artist and his images so infectiously that our eyes dance to their rhythms. Nor is she naked, but appropriately adorned in precious metals — silver, gold, and platinum — the sheen and glitter of which provoke delight. These echo the chryselephantine of Attic sculpture as well as the gilded frescos of medieval and Renaissance painting.

The images also serve to advance an archetype that balances and counteracts the effects of the myriad depictions of the Crucifixion containing the motto "Ecce Homo." Martin's paintings could all be titled "Ecce Femina", behold the woman! The iconic image of a man being murdered is supplanted by Woman's fundamental creativity and fecundity, and by the artist's identification with her as his subject, muse, matrix, and model. Her creativity is the conduit to his.

The show's title, She, the subjective form of the personal pronoun, reflects a critical characteristic of the paintings, the abolition of any conventional distinction between figure and ground. This feature of the works establishes Woman as the complete subject. The common assumption is that figure is the subject, ground, the object. Indeed, we use the word subject to denote the person depicted in a portrait. In these paintings, there is no ground. "She" inhabits the entire space so that we cannot speak of "her." Parts of her body move to intercept our gaze when we try to look beyond her. We cannot look beyond her just as the artist cannot free himself of her power in his mind. These images then, are a testament of thralldom and its transformation: for Knox Martin, art is an elevated form of Eros that gives expression and form to a primordial and otherwise ineffable experience.

Previous commentary on the oeuvre of this artist1 noted his reversion to the human figure following a period in which he participated in the cutting edge development of ....a formal language divorced from the problematic miracle of quotidian reality...2 that led to complete abstraction. Even his most abstract compositions of that period, however, bore traces and echoes of the human, and especially the indelible female figure. He could not keep her out of his mind or out of his imagery.

What the artist is after is the transfiguration of the image, originally defined in such binaries as figure and ground, subject and object, primary and secondary, energy and mass, process and outcome, into a unitary vision, rendered radiant by his sacramental realization. Establishing the ineluctable relevance of every pictorial element to the whole, Martin overcomes the tyranny of subordination that typically limits the ways in which we see. He lifts from our eyes the cataracts that have prevented us from absorbing the sense of aesthetic and spiritual completeness described best by mystics and visionaries.

Nothing in Martin's compositions is accidental or decorative. A scholar of art history in every culture and age, he is acutely aware of his heritage in all its richness and in every detail of its conception and execution. His brush is informed, in its limitless movements and gestures, by a lifetime's absorption of this complex legacy and by its metamorphosis through his unique sensibility. His omnivorous curiosity has resulted in an encyclopedic knowledge of the past which he brings to bear on the unknown inchoation of his next canvas.

Martin traces in the works of the great masters whom he sees as his forebears, principles of visual organization that may be termed a poetic calculus. His own word, "geometry," is less accurate, since it fails to account for the movement deliberately initiated by the configurations of shape, line, and color in all of his paintings, each one of which is a triumph of perceptual vitality over stasis, a coercion of order in the viewer's mind, through his eye.

Describing the means by which great poets come to terms with their predecessors, Harold Bloom points to the deliberate misreading of their forebears by poets struggling to assert their own originality against the power and influence of their elders. In stark contrast to Bloom's theory of artistic influence, Martin asserts that his understanding of the works of those artists from whom he has descended is a perfectly accurate exposition of their intentions; that, insofar as his own approach corresponds to theirs, it bears the standard of all that is enduring and valuable about art, into the 21st century.

Martin's integrity is absolute. Through the length and breadth of a prodigious career, his focus on first principles.the art in painting; fealty to what is seen; and the sine qua non of freedom — has become legendary. His students know him as a fanatic who will struggle to the death to uphold the singularity and agency of their work against their own tendencies to immolate themselves to achieve lesser, more accessible goals. But they also know that his fanaticism is inseparable from a species of love and generosity vouchsafed only to those rare people who are certain that their own gifts are limitless.

There can be no question but that Martin is dogmatic. Like Einstein, he is confident that the universe is lawful, that the business of the artist is to discover and apply these laws, and that when he does, the result will be inevitable, clear, and profound. He may or may not agree with Yeats, that "Man can embody truth but he cannot know it." Nevertheless it is certain that he is as near an avatar as we are likely to see. Moreover, his implicit embrace of the gnosis of truth is the cornerstone of his world view.

The artist shares with leading contemporary thinkers the belief that art is a process of discovery, not fabrication or invention. He abjures the concept of imagination in favor of rigorous attention to reality. He urges his students to, "Paint what you see," a dictum to which he adheres resolutely. Corollaries of this exhortation are, first, that the creative act requires that the mind be emptied of preconceptions which are nothing but the inert residue of the past; second, that it renounce anticipation which gives rise to fantasies that occlude perception. A mind that has been freed of memory and desire is an instrument capable of receiving percepts. It is these raw, unmanipulated materials that can be made into art. Only the uncontaminated mind is able to receive what has, until that crucial moment, been unknown. It is in this sense that art, for Knox Martin, is quintessentially an act of discovery, making the unknown known. Perhaps this calling is part of the heritage bequeathed him by his father for whom he is named, the pioneer aviator of Colombia, and an inveterate discoverer. His artistic DNA, however, derives from Titian and Cézanne, in whose works he first read the revelations on which he has based his artistic credo.

Martin commits himself to a system of devotions, akin to the spiritual exercises of religious masters, but grounded in creative praxis. He studies poetry, reads the literatures of art science and philosophy and rehearses and revises his vision in the intervals between each discrete project of work. The concrete product is nothing more than news from the teeming universe of his inner life. As though this were not enough, witness the scale in which he works! Painting these canvasses requires prodigious physical vigor. They are huge, powerful, elemental. But more extraordinarily, they can be lyrical, as rhapsodic and fresh as the songs of youthful lovers. It is as though Yeats had him in mind when he wrote,

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;3

The rest of Yeats' poem consists of yearning for a transubstantiation from his corporeal human form into that of a kind of mechanical nightingale, made "of hammered gold and gold enameling," so that he may continue to sing. Here, Martin diverges radically from Yeats, using the last period of his life to test and extend the limits of his art rather than retreat into artifice. He applies the gold and other shimmering metals to key areas of his compositions, as correlatives of his unabated ardor for his subject. Precisely because his heart is not "sick with desire," but bursting with much the same vitality as in his earlier years, he is able to continue to produce a graphic record of the latest phase of his engagement with Woman in her myriad incarnations. Recently, he published a book of his own poems, an exuberant paean to one of these embodiments, the mermaid. It should not surprise those who have followed the trajectory of his work if the next turn it takes consists of mermaid paintings.

No matter the course it takes, however, it requires no clairvoyance to predict that the images, visual pyrotechnics, bold explorations, and profundities will continue to pour forth in a profligate stream. Martin is a force for the preservation of everything that conduces to meaning in the realm of art. His legacy is far from complete.

1. See Bardow, A. "Knox Martin" Knox Martin and Joseph Stapleton exhibition catalog (New York: The Art Students League, 1994)
2, C.f. Bardow
3. Yeats, W.B. "Sailing to Byzantium"
©2012 William Freid, Ph.D. FIPA . all rights reserved, used by permission