Chris Martin on Breaking the Rules of Painting in the 1980s
Of all the celestial bodies in our Milky Way,
Martin recalled the series of paintings he began in 2007 featuring images of the late pop star superimposed with talismanic signs from various cultures. Her induction, by overdose, into the dreaded 27 Club in 2011 left Martin with a twinge of superstitious resignation: “Obviously my paintings didn’t protect her,” he sighed.
Winehouse’s tragic death led Martin to fixate on the number 27. Horoscope readers (including the artist) recognize a moment astrologers call the “Saturn return”—when the planet, during its orbit around the sun, comes back to meet one’s natal Saturn, a process that traditionally starts at, yes, age 27. The Saturn return is, for many, considered a moment of reckoning—or in this case, a neat syllogism for the fated, cyclical tide of youthful promise cut short.
Martin’s current show of old work, “The Eighties,” at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles through April 27th, prompted the prolific—and, today, commercially and critically successful—artist to reflect on his own Halcyon days in Brooklyn during that decade. Then in his twenties and early thirties, he was scrapping around the same neighborhood, still figuring himself out.
Preparing for the show—which presents rarely (if ever) exhibited works Martin created years before his first art-world accolades—had its emotional pitfalls. “I guess I’m a middle-aged artist now,” he bemoaned. “The difficult part of looking at the ’80s and the old work is that it’s old, apparently, which must mean that I am old.”
Martin is 65 now. Yet in personality and verve, he’s a young man, an exceptionally unfenced person who continues to thrive and find inspiration in the stimulating artist communities in Brooklyn and the vivacity of younger peers in the area, some of whom work in his studio as assistants.
“Excavating” these long-lost experiments from the crowded storage racks in his studio prompted Martin to confront the difficult-to-pin-down ethos of what makes a “Chris Martin painting.” This was a particularly complicated task, considering the breadth of his largely
Contemplating these older works, some of which are characteristically monumental in size, others uncharacteristically tiny, clarified an arc of his career, and conjured for Martin the obsessions and interests that consumed him then (street art, prophetic dreams, performance) and those that have carried on through the years (spiritualism, the Catskills, music).
It was in the 1980s, however, that many—if not the most essential—aspects of his current approach were born. Forced to contend with the rigid, dominant modes of art at the time (namely
Many painters of Martin’s generation “made the same painting over and over again,” he said. “The feeling was that if you believed in painting a circle, that you would paint circles, because you knew what you believed in. If you made good paintings of circles, how could you paint a duck? If you believed in circles, you wouldn’t believe in ducks.” After some trial and error, the inquisitive-minded young Martin, of course, pursued his own route entirely.
In his early years, Martin explained, he was heavily invested in a kind of “masterpiece syndrome.” He wanted to make great works of art, but “the thing about wanting to make a masterpiece is that you’re very conscious of wanting to put everything into one painting,” he said. He certainly tried—several works from the late 1970s and early ’80s are caked in inches of paint.
Yet he also dabbled in painting as
During the early part of the 1980s, it was his discovery of German conceptual artists—especially the abject humor and wild reference points of
Gradually, Martin’s high-minded separation between “art” and “not-art” started thinning. He took in the explosion of street art and came to admire
Martin began to see everything around him as fair game for his art. His studio floor was covered with newspapers he used to sop up paint, and aluminum foil he used to cover buckets. “It was covered with all this junk,” he recalled, “and I started thinking, well, ‘Why does this go in the trash and it doesn’t go on a painting?’”
In the later part of the decade, Martin made several oil and acrylic paintings on tin foil. “The actual act of spreading oil paint on this smooth metal surface was thrilling and different,” he remembered fondly. “I could wipe it off. It was really fun and also a little bit scary, but very exciting.” To hear Martin discuss the excitement of trying out a new material, a new technique, even 40 years later, is to listen to someone who still believes in play.
When he first began to approach his works with this kind of openness, Martin explained, it allowed him to accept “things that don’t make any sense.” Perhaps he was looking for orange paint but couldn’t find it; he simply used red instead. He began to allow what others might have considered mistakes to be a vital part of his art. If unwanted paint accidentally dripped on his canvas, the work was not ruined—it was just different. “You give yourself over to the process,” he said. “Then if you can suspend the judgment and say, ‘I don’t know what I just did,’ you can go somewhere new.”
It was precisely his location in the outer reaches of Brooklyn, away from the commercial art world, that enabled Martin to take this experimental approach. The 1980s Brooklyn scene seems to have been the perfect playground for the artist. “I had a lot of people in and out of the studio, and I went to their studios, and we went to weird clubs, and we hung up paintings on the street,” he remembered. “There’s a certain freedom when your audience is your peers,” he added.
One peer whose influence on Martin is perhaps still underrecognized is the painter
The fraternal nature of this nascent artist community fueled Martin’s creative ambition in a neighborhood that was not too long ago considered peripheral to the mainstream New York art world. It was also this early group of “settlers” in the historically working-class Polish, Italian, and Hispanic area of Williamsburg that helped transform the area into the vital—and deeply gentrified—art hub that it is today. “I remember when Kasia’s, the local restaurant on Bedford Avenue, got a salad,” Martin said. There were so many artists requesting a salad on the menu, that when the restaurant finally added one, “it was called the ‘art salad,’ just lettuce and tomatoes, probably,” he laughed.
Yet some of his exploits back then resonate with the DIY approach and unconventional exhibitions that still characterize the neighborhood. In one very 21st-century anecdote, Martin recalled curating an exhibition in a local pizza shop, with works by friends like
By the late 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Martin developed an interest in
During his art therapy sessions, Martin discovered the myriad joys of glitter—a material that enlivens many of his most recent paintings. He loves “everything that everybody likes about” glitter, especially that “it’s a great mess.” (His studio is a beautiful, splintering color field of lost glitter shards—in the paintings; in rugs on the floor—on every surface.) Being an art therapist also led Martin to recognize that everyone, artists and non-artists alike, faces the same fear when approaching a work. “They don’t want to embarrass themselves by making a bad painting,” he realized. Ultimately, he said, “one finds courage by acknowledging exactly all those fears.”
Martin always enters his studio without preconception, and with a mission to enjoy himself. If he finds himself not having fun in the studio, feeling bored, or struggling with a physical task, he steps back and asks himself: “Okay, Chris, what is going to be more fun? What’s going to be more exciting? What gives me joy to do?” Doing this, he explained, is an important way to gauge “whether you can be paying attention and be really there, really alive.”
This process of self-discovery has never left Martin, and is perhaps the key ingredient to his success—commercially, but more importantly, as an artist continually engaged with and committed to pushing his work forward. Asked what advice he’d offer to the younger, 1980s version of Chris Martin, he replied: “I guess if I went back to my old self, I’d just give myself a hug and say, ‘Relax, kid, it’s gonna be alright.’”
Julia Wolkoff is an Editor at Artsy.
TEFAF New York Spring
Modern and Contemporary Art & Design
Sponsored by TEFAF New York