The Art of Fred Martin
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About my work, 1957-59
Harrison Street, from painting on the pages of old books to collage...
Click here for about my work, 1955-57
Click here for about my work, 1957-58
 

By Way of Introduction, More about the words…
Almost from the beginning of my student years at Berkeley and at the California School of Fine Arts, I had heard the names of things I painted that no one else recognized, and heard also the music of the sentences that told somehow the stories of the paintings as the paintings developed (always the stories of how I lived or should my life).  And almost from the beginning also, these stories and names were not from the common cultural stew around me—not the things that everyone knew.  Not the high falutin’ (T.S. Eliot or whomever) of the University crowd, nor the low falutin’—is there such a thing?—of the newspapers and movies and radio and then television we all read and heard and saw.  The reason for the difference, as I have explained before, was that early on I had been infected by Romanticism and had read all that old stuff instead of the new stuff I was supposed to read, that I had somehow wandered into Taoist and Buddhist and Hindu philosophy instead of the logical positivism that was the fashion of those days in Berkeley, and that rather than Cezanne and Picasso and the School of Paris and then New York which was taught us as the School of Now, I had absorbed the spiritualism of Kandinsky and the transcendentalism of the early 19th Century Germans.

So, because my paintings were about something—they were not just “interesting shapes”—I found that I had to tell people what they were about.  It took several years after I graduated from Berkeley for this to become clear enough to me for it to drive me over the barrier  that “If you have to write on the painting, it proves that the painting has failed to communicate… It’s not art, it’s (maybe) literature.”

It has been a long time now and still I am often not sure, but then sometime I think it was in 1957 it became clear that representations—pictures—of things recognizable or not were not enough.  Their names, their stories, their sounds in my head (and all the other sounds too, the music, the poems and novels and phrases from every and anywhere) were as important to me as their pictures and so must be there with them in their pictures. Just as the drip and smear had become “real art” when Cubism, Surrealism, and the “Non-Objective Painting” of Kandinsky and Mondrian had hit the facts of life of World War II and the Holocaust and drove artists beyond any conventional form of representation, so for the me who was the heir of all of that, the word—my words—could also become a part of real (though perhaps not important) art.

…I was walking around in the woods in Redwood Park.  It was a weekday afternoon, and the picnic tables were empty.  I had been there a couple of days earlier also, had seen the late afternoon through the trees, come home and painted the sunsets I imagined… fairly smooth and smeary dull greenish oil impasto with bits of red and orange between a few of the curving twisting strokes on little bits of mat board cut out from mats at the Oakland Art Museum…  Now it was afternoon again, and I had brought with me a couple of my German book pages, with the thought of painting some watercolor things here on the spot at a picnic table in the woods… these common little woods a mile or two from my house, woods I had been drawing even when I was a Berkeley student.  I began to paint not the trees themselves, nor even the colors and smears of paint that I had used a few days before as representations of them in the studio, began to paint symbols on the page and also to see that I could write on it… that I could use the page of the book—the picture plane, that tedious cliché of every modernist critique—could use the picture plane as the plane of mind.  I didn’t think in those terms then, I only knew (and began to do it) that this piece of paper before me could reflect to the extent of the range of its materials and  the paints and the skills in my hand, could reflect all the things flowing in my mind… reflect them in their flow.  I still have that little bit of old German paper, saved more by accident that for any important (or even sentimental) reason.  It is not much to look at, but for whatever I may have made since that might be more to look at, it is the seed.  That little old page with a symbol of a couple of trees and the sun, and a picnic table on an afternoon in an empty regional park, and the things I had made a few days before—all that told me that my art must be more than just a picture of something, there must be in my art all that can be fitted in... of soul.

And so I began in the next few days to write and write on my paintings, and sometimes to make paintings out of almost nothing else but writings (and all the luminous mysterious stuff of ink and paint and paper—the material embodiment without which the soul is only a passing dream).

*

Because I could not make an important work of art—I had a wife, children, a job and a house—I fell back on the unimportant: the small, the immediate (I had only an hour or two each night in which to work) and the sentimental… which I would raise to transcendent value by means of the images I knew that somehow no one else seemed to, and the words, the names of those images so long forgotten or else not yet discovered. 

The small…  Someone asked in those days why I worked so small.  I replied with a joke I remembered:  The traveling salesman was between towns and night was falling.  He knocked on a farmer’s door asking if the farmer could put him up for the night.  The farmers said there was no room, no extra bed—except that the traveling salesman could sleep in the farmer’s daughter’s bed, and the farmer would put the sheet between them.  The traveling salesman said sure, since it was that or sleep in a barn somewhere.  Next morning, the traveling salesman went on to the next town, etc., etc.  Some years later he was back in the same district and dropped by to say hello to the farmer where he had stayed before.  There was an ugly, runty little kid running around.  The traveling salesman asked the kid, “How come you’re so small?” and the boy replied, “You would be too, if you were strained through a sheet.”  All that to explain that my work in art had to be strained through the sheet of my work of life--the very tight time constraints of family, house and job.

The immediate… Because time was short and money the same, I had to have a medium that did not require an elaborate setup.  I had no time to stretch and prepare canvas—by the time that would have been done, there would be no time left for painting.  And as for media, well, canvas is expensive and so is oil paint.  Paper is cheap and so by comparison are watercolors—especially the homemade waterbased paint (“distemper”) that I used as my primary painting medium.  It took me five minutes to get my materials ready to use, and at one time I calculated that I was making as many as a hundred paintings a month and spending less than $20 a month for supplies.

The sentimental… My subjects came directly from the depths of my emotional life—as David Park had told me back in the nighttimes of 1949, “If you aren’t painting for yourself, why bother?”  And like everyone else’s deep places (the life, death, love, guilt, hope and  despair places), my deep places looked much like theirs, and were also as I expect theirs were for them, far more powerful within me than any visual forms I could find to express them. 

I had been taught at Berkeley that when the emotion referred is more powerful than the form that refers to it, when the subject pulls at the heart strings but the visual form is limp and trite (look at any rack of commercial greeting cards)—that the work is sentimental.  I had only deep true things to say to myself about the powers in my own life, only little bits of paper and watercolor to say them with, and little bits of time to say them in.   

The signifier “love” has only four letters, but the signified love creates and destroys worlds.  I used the simple, old images with their simple, old names so that my little pictures of even so old and trite a shape as the heart, might go beyond the ordinariness of the signifier to tell the profound commitments and transcendent destinies of the signified—my heart.  And so to be true to myself, I became (still am) sentimental in the eyes of the world.

*

Somehow in the midst of the hundreds of little landscape panels of the dying city and ever more powerfully after I finally quit them, the urge came to work on paper in water based media—in the beginning it was the “texture” material you buy in bags to mix with water and smear roughly on old walls to give them a texture that will hide the holes and cracks of too many hard decades. 

I had been patching up the ruin that was our house on Harrison Street, papering it, repairing and repainting the blistered ceilings and cracked walls in the colors and images of my imaginary Venice.  The colors were warm ochres and muted Venetian reds except one ceiling I mottled like marble (now they call it “faux finish”) in a pale blue deepening to lavenders and ultramarines as the cove rolled down to meet the picture molding.  The images were sunbursts and Baroque/Rococo decorative motifs placed wherever I could fit them in.  Sure they were amateurish and clumsy, but I loved them.  There was an extreme decorator in those days—Tony Duquette—who had taken it seemed to me the imagery from Eugene Berman and made it real in people’s houses.  I wanted Berman’s imagery too, but we couldn’t afford Duquette and so I had to do it myself.

Along the way, I used a lot of “texture.”  And, although I was making the Harrison Street house into my imagined Venice—and we had the etching I still have, the title plate of Canaletto’s Vedute prominent in the Harrison Street living room—in my paintings I had gone on to the ruined city of the Western Addition in San Francisco.  And the Western Addition had enough cracks and holes quite to overwhelm my mind. 

In those years, the late 1950’s, Jean was Curator of Collections at the California Historical Society, and had to work the reception desk every Saturday.  I drove her over to San Francisco, and spent the day wandering the Western Addition, drawing and painting the reflections I saw there of what I felt was the truth of my own soul.  I made pencil drawings and oil paintings on the spot, and later from memory in the studio at night, and also in the studio made watercolors from memory.  Because my memory was so flooded with sense impressions, I tried to get the sensations into the texture of the paintings themselves… and so began to use the texture material I had been using on the walls and ceilings of Harrison Street on the surfaces of the paintings about San Francisco.  One of those is below, a failed memory drawing of light raking across the old Western Addition facades, and with old tissue paper pasted clumsily over the drawing, and with texture smeared on the tissue to make the shape of the “Great Round Window” that I imagined would be at the peak of the roof of one of those ruined mansions, and with a vaguely bird-form crested at the top of the window.

Click here for the "Great Round Window" pictures.

As always, one thing leads to another.  Smearing texture in the colors of Venice on the walls of Harrison Street had led to smearing texture in the colors of dust on drawings of old houses—and the drawings of old houses had to be on old paper, and the old paper had to come from old books (where else?) and the old books led to seeing in the oxidation and wear and foxing of their pages some more permanent possibility for myself and my art than any I had previously considered… “Permanent possibility”—and only a year or two before I had been desperate to think of myself as an avant garde hero.  Now, it was only eternity I wanted, and the paper of the pages of hundred year old discarded books ached with its touch.  So I began to paint on both single pages and also sometimes whole signatures torn from old books—but other times on the pages of The Art Bulletin, as “and in the evening and the noon…”  and “I dwell in the blood…”

Click here for the "Art Bulletin" pictures

One of the first on a signature from an old book was “Dear Amy, art is for eternity…” 
The full text reads:

Dear Amy:
Art is for eternity
It is not for you.
For the cry of the world
For the sob of the sky
It is not for you.

But Art is my home in Hesperus
For I am a fountain
A stream of ever jetting sperm.

It was a response to Amy—I no longer remember her last name—who was doing art criticism and reviews on KPFA.  She came from and spoke in the language of the then contemporary academic art criticism (there’ve been several new ones since) and certainly she had a good 20th Century art historical background ca. 1955.  But I was establishing myself in opposition to that.  Abstract Expressionism was already losing its expressionism at the hands of Clement Greenberg, commercial success and academics like most of the Berkeley faculty; and one thing it no longer had (if in truth it ever did) was the kind of content—the ruin of old houses and the despair of a soul that sees its image in them, and also the flight from that vision of ruin into a vision of the turning of light with the turning of the year, and the search for salvation in the old forgotten symbols of immortality… the fountains of the waters of life and the forests of Hesperus where the fruit of immortality shines in the dusk.  Anyway, with such fears eating my soul, such images thronging my mind, my tongue loaded with the language and phrasing from the late 19th Century aesthetes I was reading in The Bibelot, my hands filled with the paper from the pages of old books purchased at Holmes Used Book Store (where I had been buying books since Jr. High school), and the texture left over from the walls and ceilings of Harrison Street, I made a lot of these. 

Click here for the "Old German Book Pages" pictures

And one more thing I had in my hands—“distemper,” (ever since medieval days, that’s been the technical name for paint made from hide glue plus pigment—and also the name for a sickness of dogs).  Distemper was the cheapest paint I could use: dry pigment purchased from the paint store (this was before the “universal tinting” colors of today with their mix with everything fluid base) and hide glue (boiled down horses’ hoofs—not that quality artist’s rabbit skin glue we use now if we use any sizing at all) stirred together over a dirty electric hot plate (it often burned both the paint and the tips of the brushes). 

Earth pigments were cheapest.  I used them either in the distemper paint or mixed into the texture, and glued the whole image together with more hide glue or more distemper—ending up with a collage habit that has lasted now fifty years. I quit using both the texture and the old book pages by 1959, but kept on with the distemper until I began the Beulah Land book of etchings with Kathan Brown in 1965.  I left the texture because as time passed it tended to become powdery and rub off and left the book pages because as a regular thing they were too small (even for me).

I continued to work on the pages from the German book. And I wanted to tell the world what it was I was making and so the words were there to tell the world what the image showed and to tell the world the musical phrases going through my mind. On one I wrote around the outside a message so people would know what was there: "Grandmother’s house, the grand plan of which is at the base of the belly and crowns the aureole of the mind.”

Another one showed the map to Grandmother’s treasure and on each side jutting out, the signs of the way: a fountain and a pyramid. The fountain was a sign of maleness—that I wanted to live where the ever life giving juices would be; but I didn’t know why the pyramid was there. I can see it now, after the Carpenter Series of 1966-7, that it was my symbol of the female, but in the late 1950’s it was not at all clear.

I had read a lot of late 19th century kinds of sayings, such as "What is prepared in the deeps of dying skies? Is it the pale rose of dawn or the red rose of even? Are those the fruits of Hesperus which blossom there? Doth night draw there her veil upon paradise? Is it my own true home?”

 I had been in a bookstore which carried pages of pictures torn and colored from old books, mostly late 17th and early 18th century dictionaries of fruit and flowers, and I got the idea for a kind of museum handbook of specimens such as Roman coins which would stand for a permanence, an everness in the material world.  The idea that these coins would be Roman came from Walter Pater’s description in his Marius the Epicurean of the “religion of Numa”—some ancient near forgotten deep religion of nature and the fertility of the land.

Click for "Roman Drawings".

I began to tear out the meaningful parts of pictures, and put them alone on 9 x 12 in. sheets of heavy weight newsprint to make clear to myself what they meant.  Other times I put several that had little meaning together to find new meaning in old nothing.

It was in these collages that I could talk about it, writing on them the truths, "How I came to promise you that you should be safe in the turning year and that you should be immortal... from sky to sky in an endlessness of life in love." In that picture the fountain hieroglyph was at the center, and above it was a circle of blue sky with a dab of blood and above that the radiant, shining, ever setting sun, the sun of the West, the sun of Hesperus.

I also continued to work with the idea of the old houses of the Western Addition and particularly the stained glass windows that had been popular in the 1890’s when the houses were built. I worked around and through themes of the heart and the cross that I found in the windows, the heart with arteries like stag’s horns.  They were images that meant that I would strive that my heart be as stalwart as a white stag.

Click here for the "White Stag" Pictures.

I worked in mixed media, mixed words, plaster, water colors, a kind of cheap watercolor paper that was like triple thick newsprint, and the pages of the books. I found a kind of very thin rice paper on which ink bled and I made bleeding pictures, pictures dealing with the same themes of the heart and the horns, and also other themes like the red cross and the blue fountain that I had found and picked up somewhere.

Click here for pictures on rice paper.

I pursued the theme of the wings settling into the crest of the great round window, dreamed in my work about the window and what lay in the attic behind it, about the woman of the sun with her radiant turning arms.  I came to realize that the golden wings were a bird that could fly into that great turning window of the sun.  And because I knew what the golden wings were, I also drew and colored their picture…

Click here for the Golden Wings picture.

And so I began to write and write on my paintings, and sometimes to make paintings out of almost nothing else but writings (and all the luminous mysterious stuff of ink and paint and paper—the material embodiment without which the soul is only a passing dream)—and to collage together scraps of print from books: a 1900’s Baedeker guide to London all about streets I had heard of only in novels and surely would never see… It was the music of their sounds, the aura of their names and the memory of De Quincey on Oxford Street and the young “girl of the streets” named Ann that mattered—it was all that stuff went into my suddenly streaming little collages and into my last show at the 6 Gallery.

The show would include perhaps a hundred of the small paintings, the landscapes of the Western Addition and everywhere else, some sculptures I had made when I ran out of panels to paint on—I still had some scrap lumber from fixing the Harrison Street house, and painted on it when there was nothing else—as well as the earliest of the collages whose form would come to focus all my energies for the next five-six years.

The announcement was very important.  A mimeographed postcard—no picture, how could I afford a picture?  Whereas in the paintings it would be the twist between the words and the visual that makes the art, the visual on the card would be the swirling sensations that were always in my mind and the words on the card would be my challenge to the important art of the time—

Click here to see the card.

The next show (1959?)—at the Cellar, a jazz and poetry club in a basement on Green just off Columbus—would be exclusively the collages, followed by the first SFMOMA (then it was just SFMA) show with Sam Francis, Wally Hedrick and Manuel Neri in 1959 which had I guess a few landscapes but was really, as far as I was concerned, nothing but collage messages from the ivory tower because the passage (disputed or not) was complete.

Click here to see the poster.

There was no announcement, but an artist’s statement was requested.  I struggled with it a lot, finally making a manuscript… which the wife of the museum director bought (it, with him and her, long since disappeared).  I later made a copy for myself—

Click here for my copy of  the statement.