The Art of Fred Martin
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Old Age and Plain Speaking, Then and Now
Studio Notes from the night of June 6, 2008


Maria Van Oosterwick, Vanitas, mid 17C

June 6, 2008.
Montreal, night.
Why do I feel my paintings[1] this year are going nowhere?

This last few days of looking at them... I said that they are "still lifes"--a few things in a finite space--and thought to myself of the vanitas still lifes so popular in the 17th C., images of the dying of beauty conveyed by a fading flower and a bug, often with a mirror or a skull. The paintings all had a message of fading and death; the objects said it and the people knew it. Where the skull or the buggy flower were in the visual focus of the vanitas, my paintings have a brief sentence or fragment. When 17th C. people saw the vanitas painting they got the message because they  already knew what it was; when we 21st C. people see the vanitas it's only a still life and art historians must tell us what it used to be about. My 21st C. paintings tell my messages to your face. See them once and you’ve heard it always and it's over.

Is that why I think this work of mine is over?

Yet, I don’t know how to make anything else.

It goes back to when I was a student at Berkeley. It’s not painting but literature if you have words on it. Le Journal was OK because Picasso used it as a visual motif and it was a foreign language and no one knew what it meant anyway—and as for all those poems and inscriptions on Chinese paintings, who in my Berkeley Art Department milieu ever saw any of those? My professors taught and I learned that painting is sentimental if the sentiment is more powerful than the form—a Hallmark Valentine card is one example, another was a late 19th C. painting I saw once of a shadowed room with a few grungy people (obviously Bohemians or Beats) lying around and listening to someone in a shaft of light playing a violin. The painting was titled “Beethoven” and was surely kitsch…unless you had been there and remembered.

So, these works of mine now are “literature” (you can read the words in English) and “sentimental”—unless you have been or are there now.

Well, that’s it—there’s never a turning back when you’ve fallen off a cliff.

Just like it was for me in the 1950’s-60’s, except then I was full of the innocent self confidence of youth, whereas now I have sixty years of experience in the world. And as for falling off a cliff, in youth I was so full of myself I didn’t know I was falling; whereas now in old age I’m too weak to grab the few scraps of tree roots and grass that stick out on the way down. (And, yes, I’m still too full of myself to think I need them).

Same night, later...
Find my way, find my way…

How was it before? I guess these works now are for me where the late 1950's-early 1960's collages were. And then there were the 18 x 18's of the mid 1960's, so much more complex as my mind followed the paths until the symbols were clear in the Beulah Land book—the poppy and the sheaf of wheat, the sickle, the barn and the urn… and then it was on to the cannons and pyramids of the Carpenter Series and the mountain of the four rivers of Paradise. I was finding the symbols of that time of my life, and it was only after that I could perceive the aesthetic beauty of the world and make the Asia pastels.

But what of the time of life of old age? It took me almost fifteen years from the phallic frenzy in the 1961 "Cock Book" folder to the images of the Shwe Dagon. Have I that long for this now?

[1] I will not call these works of mine “collages.” People make pictures--paintings--images--out of colored stuff on paper, canvas or whatever, I make images out of colored bits of paper on paper. Sure, I use paste (soft gel) to hold my colored papers down, others use the gel to hold the pigment down. Mine are not “collage”in the sense of the “bricolage” bits of cultural wreckage fallen together; they are “paintings”--objects of fading and dying to remind, to mourn and to honor time's passing.