The Art of Fred Martin
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1979-From Art Week Art and History--
Three Conversations plus Two More

The First Conversation…
A well-known artist who lives for invention, for the new, who is concerned for creativity and is at the midpoint of his career, said to me a few months ago: “I have become very frightened because, although I still tell my students to walk out into the chaos of experience and to make without preconception whatever they can of whatever is there, I am myself a professional artist with a position to maintain—and so I must show off and amaze my friends and public by the power of what I find out there in the wilderness of the unknown. The trouble is, my reputation is always at stake and my fear is that I may find nothing. That’s why I cheat. The truth is, my claim to be creating ‘trophies of the unknown’ is really a cover for surreptitious recycling of everything I’ve done before that worked before.

“If I were really to walkout into the open, unknown world — into the Sahara or the Mohave, along the waste shores of Hudson Bay or into the most lonely, strange and unknown places of all, the vast, pale suburbs of a thousand anonymous towns — if I actually walked out there and really tried to create from what was there at hand, then indeed I might have nothing to show. I might become like that artist whose work haunts me but whose name I cannot remember.. .the one who threw the I-Ching and marked the lines with cigarette butts in the gutter or with scratches in the sand before a rising tide.

“Yes, I’d follow his example if I dared. But I have too much at stake... my gallery, my family, my house and truck and boat. I’ve been a professional in a professional world for too long to be able to risk not having an astounding new model for next year, although I know in my heart that when I have that model I will have nothing.”

 

The Second Conversation…
The other day a successful art dealer told me that he finds it more and more difficult to sell contemporary work by local artists. He said that people want to buy names where they believe they may anticipate not only the graces of fashion and decoration but also the advantages of capital gains. And so work by local artists, especially those artists without previous economic track records for their work, is very hard to sell.

He went on to say that it’s even difficult to get people to come in to see work by most contemporary artists. “You put up a show,” he said, “send out releases, call people, and so on; there is a review or two and that’s it. You may sell a couple of pieces or you may not, but the excitement, the drive and the expectation of ten years ago are gone. He said that people are worried about the economy and save their money for the decline they think may come—or else they buy big names hoping an inflation of the prices of art will protect them against a decline in the rest of the economy.

He told me he thinks there are too many shows (something I’ve heard in many places recently, even from artists) and that the multiplicity of shows has produced a confusion of “edge” in the minds of the public. By “edge” he meant a sense of where the “leading edge” might be, the wave of history or style or fashion with which any knowledgeable collector wishes to be associated. The great wave has broken into a hundred cross currents, he said, and is probably even now running back down the beach to the sea; so, confused and dismayed, collectors are waiting until the situation is clear again. In the meantime, he thought that for the art dealer the only way to survive is to carry art that has already established a firm place among the many possible combinations of strong decorative value, solid reputation and excellent financial track record as shown by museum acquisitions and auction prices. And for the artist who has not already established those three factors for survival in his work, he did not say “Forget it,” but I knew that was what he meant.

 

The Third Conversation…
Quite a few years ago, a very old artist was showing me through her studio. There was the usual dusty clutter found in studios no longer so busy as before. She showed me stacks of paintings advanced for their time but tame now, brittle and cracked on canvas fragile with age. And she showed me portfolios of drawings that were brave and progressive as the paintings had been, but were dated now and yellowed like the paintings and crumbling the way old, cheap paper does. Memorabilia were pinned to the walls of the studio the way you see in studios now, although there were fewer posters (I guess they didn’t print posters much then) and more postcards, snapshots, letters, etc. The letters and cards were all dated thirty and forty years ago.

Among the scraps pinned to the wall I saw the blurb end torn from the dust jacket of a book. She saw me looking at it and said: “That book jacket was always very special to me. The title that was on it, and the picture — the way the picture was dark at the bottom and rising toward a luminous sky at the top, the way it was the silhouette of the pyramids looming so close and rising so powerfully against the sky, and the way it said across the top in bright, clear yellow letters, The Art of Far Lands. Yes, the image of that old book cover has always been a guide at the back of my mind, because I always wanted to make an art that would be permanent and shining. And because of the transient and shadowed world we live in that is so opposite to the art I wanted, I always knew the art I wanted to make would have to come from a very far land indeed.”

Among her paintings I remember only one, and of it I remember only that it seemed to be the bright, shifting windows of a city at night. She told me that she had studied with Arthur Mathews at the old Mark Hopkins, and how stern he had been and how he had congratulated her once.

When I asked why only the end flap of Far Lands was there on the wall, she said: “Oh, I saved the flap to remember the cover by, when I sent the front with the picture and title to a friend... I thought that would be the easiest way to tell him what I was trying to do. I heard from him once or twice afterwards, and I think he understood.”

A few years after she died, I found among the forgotten scraps in a museum’s dead storage a small watercolor bearing her name. It showed rounded hills with the curves repeating in an art deco fashion, all painted in a luminous, transparent yellow-orange. It was called Golden Hills.

Note: These conversations have been rewritten from the hesitant and redundant originals in order that they may be read more easily and the underlying meaning understood more clearly. In that regard, while I was writing out today the third conversation from what I could remember of an afternoon twenty five years ago, I came across the following “But for those who do not lose heart there gleams from time to time, at the bottom of a crevasse or on a vertiginous ridge, the priceless crystal, the moment of truth.” It was in the foreword to Rene Daumal’s posthumously published novel, Mount Analogue. In the story itself, that crystal was the basis of all value (as gold is for us). The people in the book called the crystal peradam and thought the word might mean ‘hard as diamond” or “father of diamond.” They also said that the crystal peradam had “some secret and profound complicity with the original nature of man.”

 *

Two More Conversations…
About a month ago I wrote a column from conversations I had with three people in the art world. The first conversationalist was a successful avant-garde artist concerned about the maintenance of his success. The second was an art dealer concerned about the survival of his gallery. The third was an old woman whose art about far lands had never had any success in this land where we live. I usually have difficulty sympathizing with avant-garde artists who are trying to maintain their yachts, although I can empathize with someone waiting at the edge of the unknown and afraid of what might appear — or that nothing will. In that regard, fear of both monsters and blankness, I can empathize very easily with artists at that point in their lives which the art dealer talked about: where the work has not established a place in the commercial market (what a monster that market can become was indicated by my avant-garde friend) and there lies before them only the silence after “Forget it...” Because of the fearsome emptiness of the silence after “Forget it…” that old woman has always been right at the top of my list of heroes — because when I met her, she must already have lived and held her head high through twenty years of such silence.

I think the dominant worries among young artists these past two decades have been which galleries will handle their work, which museums will give them early retrospectives and which colleges and universities will hire them. But that brief conversation with a very respectable art dealer who has been in the business a long time and does not plan to get out of it, would indicate that, so far as galleries are concerned, the young artist should think less about which gallery to join, but about how to survive without any gallery whatever. And so far as early retrospectives are concerned, a study of museum calendars clearly indicates that the few such shows there are, are limited to history-makers from New York City. Therefore, the young artist’s concern cannot be about which museum will confer historical and cultural value on the work, but how to continue to work without any imprimatur of quality at all. That leaves the young artist still with the hope that a college or university job will provide both economic and social support, and with a concern about which offer to accept.

Since writing that column of two weeks ago, the head of a major art educational institution spoke to me about the future of his graduates, and a faculty member of another institution, perhaps less prestigious but even more specialized and selective, also spoke to me about what may happen to his graduates. Neither conversation began with a question from me; both came from concerns uppermost in the minds of the people who spoke. And those concerns were the same: “What will happen to these students after they graduate, because there are almost no teaching jobs?” As the administrator put it, “It doesn’t matter so much what art the students make now as what they will make ten years from now — that they continue to make art at all, in the face of no support system.”

The absent support system meant, to him, the lack of new teaching jobs to assist new artists, because the continual increase in teaching positions has financed most of the art boom of the last twenty years. (The most casual estimate of college art teaching positions in the Bay Area would be that there are over 200 today, compared with 70-80 in the middle 1950s. The average salary of that 200 is now around $20,000.[1] That makes an economic base for “fine arts” in the Bay Area about $4,000,000 per year, and it makes ludicrous the notion that collectors are the important patrons of contemporary art.) Well, enrollments are steady or declining, so there will be no new teaching positions, and the existing positions are mostly occupied by people with tenure and twenty years before retirement. Therefore, young artists’ concern these last twenty years about who will hire them is now resolved — because no one will.

That leads to the faculty member’s remarks about persevering as an artist. A survey of his college’s graduates over the last twelve years indicated that 65% were still working in art (compared with the common idea that in university departments the figure is 5%). And I think he attributed his graduates’ steadfastness to the fact that his philosophy and his colleagues’ is that the artist’s life of “making it,” of galleries and museums and well-paying teaching jobs (all faculty in his college are non-tenure and part-time on principle), is not authentic, that the authentic artist’s life for now and the future is set in the same place it always was in the past: in yourself.

I did not tell him how an old woman, the town character in a small seaside town, had shown me that almost thirty years ago. Nor did I say that William Blake had said it by the example of his life, nor that David Park had told it to me when he gave up then-fashionable AE for then-unfashionable realism. Nor did I mention that the Chinese literati painters, who were poet/artist/mandarins and who called themselves gentlemen to distinguish their art from the hack stuff cranked out by regular professional artists whom they despised, said it too.

I think many artists in America have misunderstood themselves and their roles in life for twenty years now. Once at a conference fifteen years ago on The Current Moment in Art, Walter Hopps said that contemporary artists in America were like pro baseball players and that stardom was their model. A long time has passed; artists have sought that stardom, and some have found it for a time. But such stardom was illusory, for it was not grounded on artistic experience but on publicity hype. Now that art’s not so fashionable[2] and hype has turned to other fields, stardom is gone. If there were to be a conference today on the current moment in art, I think the only viable solution to the question of the current moment — which is always, “What shall I do next?”— is “Be yourself.” Then no matter what you’re doing in ten or twenty years, you’re still doing it.


[1] Note that this was written almost thirty years ago. I think the average Assistant Professor salary is now nearer $70,000.

[2] Reading this in 2007, almost thirty years after it was written, I notice that fashion has come back.