Knox Martin

Woman: Black and White Paintings
September 15 – November 13, 2010
Woodward Gallery

For nearly 60 years, Knox Martin has produced a singular visual language with roots in both the Old Masters and that great upheaval in mid-20th-century American art known as Abstract Expressionism. Now 87, he continues to paint with undiminished vigor, as the more than thirty paintings in this show—mainly from 2010—attest.

Martin came of age as an artist in the 1950s, alongside some of the leading lights of that era, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But he has at intervals in his career wrestled with the ghosts of the Western tradition, most recently in a series of unframed drawings called “Caprichos” in honor of the fever-dream etchings of Goya. The paintings in this show also hint at other influences, ranging from Titian to Matisse, but ultimately Martin’s voice remains private, euphoric, and a tad inscrutable.

His fondness for the female body is everywhere apparent, from the high-heeled shoes to the outlines of a comely derriere to the repeated circular shapes that are sometimes breasts and other times possibly a pair of looking eyes. The works invite comparison with de Kooning’s “Woman” series, but Martin has a more playful touch; his attitude is one of admiration and light-hearted lust rather than ferocious ambivalence. At points in his career—such as murals he has done for Neiman Marcus and outdoor spaces in New York—Martin edges away from allusiveness to extreme metaphor, but he always seems to come back (at least in easel-sized efforts) to a more easily seen iconography that is about an amorous and playful sexuality.
He is also comfortable with both large and small formats, miraculously adjusting the content to suit the size. The largest paintings in the show, Grapes, Lemons and Tomatoes and Woman with Red Shoes “breathe” with bold passages of white space. The smaller works are often busier, more claustrophobic, sometimes threatening to burst out of their confines, as though the chaotic bustle were too overwhelming to be contained.

It’s clear that Knox Martin is very much a painter’s painter: the viewer can sense his repeated emendations to the canvases, the numerous pentimenti that show him backtracking to paint and repaint passages until he gets the surface looking the way he wants it to. But he also brings to his work a collage sensibility: sections look as though they could be made of cut paper and pasted to the canvas. This balancing act may be part of what contributes to the liveliness of his vision, or, as the critic Arthur Danto remarked 12 years ago, “The brilliance of [his] works lies in the drama of overlapping forms, in playing a painting’s depth against its surface.”

What may be most thrilling about these paintings, however, is their freshness. Martin’s style has its roots in a movement that goes back six decades, but he nonetheless makes the viewer feel part of an ongoing tradition—one that, in the right hands, has a lot of life left to it. Knox Martin’s paintings have a vividness and timelessness that is perhaps the most compelling characteristic of all great art.

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