The Art of Fred Martin
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What is art for?
(Links have been added to current versions
of the 1970's-80'sSFAI Art History lectures when available,
and to the relevant web pages about my work.)


What art is for is as various as the people who make art. When I taught the art history survey at SFAI, I summed art’s purposes up into five categories—with the comment that every artist is usually concerned with several. The first of the categories was self-expression, and I used Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch as my primary examples—noting that, of course, every artist is self-expressive because the very nature of making includes the self that makes (as Van Gogh put it, “Like every work of art, a self-portrait”).

The second category was decoration (or, less invidiously, “life enhancement”), and Matisse and Sonia Delaunay were my models—noting when speaking of them, that Sonia Delaunay’s high fashion design is as high an art as any other that you might name.

My third category was art as information, and I showed Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and Vesalius’s anatomical woodcuts.

The fourth and fifth categories had to do directly with the artist’s relation to society, that some artists used their art with the purpose of transforming society, that others used their art to transform the person because society was immutable. I used Kathe Kollwitz, George Grosz and John Heartfield as examples of artists who wanted to transform their society, and the Hindu and Buddhist Tantric artists as examples of those who wanted to transform the person.

So, what is art for? Looks like it’s been for everything. Ever since I graduated from Berkeley in 1949, I have wondered—and often desperately—what is art for?; that is to say, why am I doing this? In school you don’t think about these things because everybody is doing them. But after you get out and no one is doing them, you do begin to wonder.  This “What is Art For?” show, and the need to make a statement now that comes not from teaching art history but from the need to grapple with my own half century old question, has made me think back over my own work. Well, what was it for?


In the mid 1950s, I think my images of despair and ruin in the city were the reflections of my struggle with my sexuality. In the streets and gutters, the basements, tool sheds and vacant lots where I had learned of sex from the time of being a very small child, I had been taught that the intensity of its power was directly related to the depth of its degradation. Thus, I came to believe in my soul that the very power of life itself came from the fact of its utter damnation. I think now that the reason the ruinous Western Addition of pre-redevelopment San Francisco was so overwhelming (in fact, “numinous”) to me was that it exactly represented in the outer world the condition of my inner world.

In the late 1950s, the Western Addition landscapes in oil on panels became collages in watercolor on paper because I found that a collage language could better express the flow of my visual/verbal experience.

It seems to me now in hindsight that I left off painting the external wasteland of the Western Addition as the unconscious image of my inner self and began a new visual/verbal language in order to reach a new goal—the "soteriological fragment” (soteriology is the branch of theology that deals with salvation).  Each night when I came home from work, I would make six to ten small painting/drawing/collages, following the image wherever it led, but also pushing it toward the longed for image of my personal salvation.

In the first half of the 1960s, my collages, drawings, etchings and paintings became more complex. The development of imagery which had been spread across six or ten pieces over one or more nights was consciously compounded into a single piece usually over several nights, and took on the task of creating the image of the homestead: the family portrayed as the lives of Joey America and Venus Genetrix in their land of “The Little House in the Greenwood Grove” and “The Harvest Barn.”

Looking back, I see now—and knew then—that all my work in the world during those years was to make a place for my family, and all my work in art at that time reflected that same goal: making the picture of the Western Homestead as the symbol of the house and life for my family. I guess, then, that this art was a reflective one like the Western Addition landscapes—the representation of an external world (in this case an imaginary one) which unconsciously to the artist portrays the world of the inner self.  However, and unlike the Western Addition paintings, these collages did not mirror despair but reflected the actions I took to conquer despair.

And so with the self secure in a homestead of its own, in March and April of 1971 my first wife and I took a trip around the world. By the fall of that year my art was full tilt on images of the wonders of aesthetic travel: Baalbek, Shiraz, Isfahan, Peshawar, Lahore, Agra, Jaipur, Kashmir, Rangoon, the Borobudur, etc. I have never gone back to the Western Addition except once or twice as “emotion recollected in tranquility” (and anyway, the old Western Addition’s all torn down); nor have I returned to the work of the homestead (it’s all built now except for perpetual maintenance).  Thus, with its home secure, the self could begin the journeys I made in my late 1970’s A Travel Book and From an Antique Land.

I resigned from my job as Director of the College at SFAI in 1975. (That was the job they now call Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs plus the job that is now Vice President and Director of Student Services.) At about that time, I began one day to try to fix a very complicated painting which had gone wrong, and wandered into “Dynamic Symmetry,” the Golden Section, and many of the other old and mystical systems for the discovery of the apriori harmony of the universe. Pretty soon and for a year or two after, I was painting planets and solar systems and pathways of transcendent light. Then in the later 1970’s I began to explore the Tarot as an archetypal system in place of the personal signs and symbols I had developed in the late 1950’s—signs and symbols which had become empty habits.  Looking at that 1975-1979 work now in relation to my place in the world then, I would say that its function had been to try to compensate for my loss of a place (my job) in the temporal world by the establishment of a place in the eternal one.  Because my daily world had fallen to pieces, it seems I felt I had better try to evoke a transcendent one.

With my first wife’s illness beginning in August of 1982 and her death in November of 1983 (and my becoming Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs at the Art Institute in January of that year), the focus of my work turned to despair and incoherence, crashing among such opposites as the little books On Beauty and Dirt in the Gutter, the first being what my senses told me was my actual experience, the second being what I knew I was. The whole thing ended with a group of portfolios made in at the end of December 1991 and early January 1992. I called them dust, ashes and  the flower which knows the secreteach a collection of the ashes of the past lit by a distant light of hope.

With the beginning of my relationship with my second wife in March of 1992 and marriage to her the following December, and with the enormous rushing back of the energies of life that came with it, I once more began to engage all the images and the themes, all the visual languages and methods of image making that I have ever used, all working since early 1993 with a much higher physical/tactile flexibility and strength than I could ever imagine before 1992.

This brings me to now and my sense in early January of this year (1999) that what has developed over these last seven years may have now become too often an easy and empty habit. I realize that I had begun to think of my work as “Just another mucking around in the paint as if it were a Rorschach blot to find another clump of genitalia.” So, using “forced choice” to sort this year’s work into the categories of “sex,” “death,” and “other,” there have been 31 sex pictures, 10 death pictures and 20 other kinds of imagery (mostly landscape). That’s a lot of genitalia. But the deaths are new, and some of the sex pictures also have death in them.

Thus it might be that as the work of the 1950s—60s can be seen as a part of the preparation for mature life, this work now and for the next decade and as long as there may be to come may be a part of the preparation for age and death.

I saw a show of Morris Graves at the Legion of Honor sometime in the late 1940’s. I remember that he said in the catalog, “I paint to record the beings of the inner eye.” Looking back, I see that I have done what Graves did. Art has been for me to mirror on the outside the concerns of the inside so that as I do it, I learn what they are and afterwards remember.