The Art of Fred Martin
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Notes about the role of China and Chinese art in my work…
I was in my senior year of high school when one of the teachers took me under his wing to learn high culture including Lao Dzu (we spelled it Lao Tze then and I still do). I found a 1910 “transliteration” of the Tao Teh Ching, made my own more readable rendition of the chapters that mattered to me and used it for my term paper in aesthetics when I was in graduate school.

My high school teacher also gave me a book of ten or so Chinese paintings in color where I noticed but did not think about all of the inscriptions of poems and owners’ seals on the paintings; and he gave me a copy of Chinese Art, (published 1935 in London) where I found a colored illustration of a Tang “Apple Blossom” vase. Somehow there came to me then the phrase “That this light which once so fell on it should ever so fall, even to the final dust.” That vase and phrase—and that one might write poems on the surface of a painting and that I should remember what Lao Tze said about the void—have been among the foundation stones for my art ever since.

I enrolled as a Freshman at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1945. Our second semester introductory art course involved using a Chinese brush, ink stick and stone to make what our teacher thought was Matisse but, since I had seen some Chinese calligraphy in the 1935 Chinese Art, I thought was maybe calligraphy—anyway, wiggly lines. A year later while in a highly charged emotional state, one afternoon I made wiggly lines until they made of their own accord the image of what was then my psychic crisis. In 1947 I had wandered by way of illegible calligraphy into the realm of Abstract Expressionism before the style and the term had been invented.

 Other Chinese sources from my undergraduate years at Berkeley were a course in Chinese poetry where I learned of Tao Yuanming and his Peach Blossom Spring and a poem I think called Return, and of Tu Fu and his poems of exile, nostalgia and regret. I also took that year a course in Chinese philosophy from Han to Sui taught by a professor visiting from the University of Peking, and a course in Buddhism from an old German professor who had known Sir Aurel Stein and showed dingy hand colored slides of Dun Huang.

In the year after I graduated from Berkeley, I took a course from David Park who suggested when I was stuck in a painting and did not know what to do, “Pick the part you like and paint everything else out.” I did that and found large blank spaces which soon enough I characterized as Lao Tze’s “void”. When later I saw Ma Yuan’s work, I knew I was right.

Many years passed. I climbed the ladder of career both as an artist with many exhibitions, and as an teacher, ultimately becoming Vice President for Academic Affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where unknown to all but me, the readings I had made so long before in Lao Tze and Confucius were of help in my service to a community of artists and students just as they had been a guide for centuries to the people of China.

Then, in 1986, came the opportunity to bring a group of students to study at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy) in Hangzhou, and for me to travel to Dun Huang where I had been dreaming of going ever since my undergraduate days in Berkeley almost forty years before. I joined the students in their wonderful studies of Chinese painting, calligraphy and culture at the Academy, and in the following years had the opportunity to go to Putuoshan, Tibet, Huang Shan, the Li River, the Yun Gang caves and so many other places of Taoist, Buddhist and Chinese painting lore, mystery and power in the Western mind.

As for the roles of Chinese art and philosophy, literature and landscape in my work and life now since that first touch in high school seventy years ago, all the things and experiences in the past come together as a continual shifting of West and East and past and present as in this text (in pen, not a brush) on one of my paintings from twelve years ago—

“He remembered how sometimes the Chinese scholar—a mandarin like himself of so much learning, authority and isolation—in the silence of his studio and surrounded by the tools not only of his first studies but also of his subsequent social ascent…the brush and ink, the paper and inkstone, and by curious things and bits of stone his friends of past times had given him, a water dropper shaped like one of the Taoist peaches of immortality, a fragment of jade with the lines of the mountains of the Western Paradise. Thus as for the Chinese scholar to whom sometimes the marks in a rock showed the path of life, so sometimes for him a stain, a bleed or blob of paint became his prayer and truth, his words and touch and shining dust.”

So, in old age as in youth, experience comes together to form personality—but in old age, we have accumulated so much more experience. My experience has been broad and now long thought about—a tapestry of East and West, of past and now and tomorrow. And all of it comes always together in each work of art complex or simple, for it is in the touch of the hand and its place in the image that all the artist’s life comes together to make the work that is a gift to the future.

 —Fred Martin
Oakland, February 2017