Whitehot Magazine

Disclosures: Donald Martiny, or Figures Without Ground

Donald Martiny, Madeleine C (2020), 43 x 26 in, polymer and dispersed pigment on aluminum, photo courtesy of the artist.


By DONOVAN IRVEN, November 2020

The art of Donald Martiny exists somewhere between painting and sculpture. We are confronted with a singular brushstroke, huge, a seemingly spontaneous, lavish eruption of color and texture on the wall. It is the mark distilled from painting, the formerly minute detail writ large, what we usually discover as a hidden and obscured part of the whole is made to be the whole itself, the entire work a gesture on the wall. 

Such dramatic works are fit for public art – Martiny is currently preparing to install a large work on the exterior of a building in Raleigh, North Carolina and is well known for his permanent displays in the lobby of One World Trade Center in New York City. But they also lend themselves to powerful aesthetic experiences in more intimate galleries, as will be evident in upcoming solo shows in February 2021 at Madison Gallery in Solana Beach, California and in March 2021 at the Scala del Bovoli in Venice, Italy.

How did Martiny come to these oversized gestural works? Normally, the canvas frames the work, or else is itself framed, and the plane delineated by the canvas’ edge creates the ground from which a figure will arise. Sometimes the figures are strictly representational of human forms, of flora and fauna, and other times we are treated to compositions suggestive of moods, abstract expressions of a concept or emotion and so on. Whatever the content, whatever level of literalness present within the edges of the canvas, there is something that stands out from the ground of the canvas. The canvas itself sinks into the background and by becoming this background makes it possible for whatever appears to the viewer to appear.

But there is no canvas to form the ground of Martiny’s work. The wall on which the work is mounted becomes the ground, the room itself, the gallery or museum is the ground. 

In the mid-1970s, Martiny was working at Doubleday Books on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street. It was not glamorous work, but it put the aspiring artist in touch with the New York art scene, an easy walk to the galleries, and, more importantly, a clientele base populated by some of the most significant New York artists of the time – David Hockney, Seymour Lipton, Philip Pearlstein, to name a few.

It was a conversation with Ellsworth Kelly that set the gears to turning in Martiny’s mind. At the time, Kelly had been looking for a hard-to-find book on Romantic painter William Turner. Hoping for an avenue to more substantial conversations with the artist, Martiny set off on a mission to find the rare book for Kelly. Martiny recalls that The Other Side of Midnight was at the top of the best seller list while his search was on. Having found the expensive volume on Turner at another bookstore, Martiny offered about 30 copies of the bestseller in exchange for the little-known art book. The gambit paid off and a series of conversations followed on delivery of the rare book to Kelly.  

The subject of these conversations between Martiny and Kelly were how to make form and figure independent of the ground. Here was the first germ of the idea for Martiny’s body of work.

In the 1960s, Kelly had begun experimenting with shaped canvases. “Yellow Piece,” in 1966, was Kelly’s first attempt to break the figure from the ground of the canvas, making the canvas itself into the composition with the wall behind it becoming the ground of the image. More experimentation followed, with the addition of triangular canvases in 1968’s “Green White.” 

Kelly had just completed the Chatham Series, presented at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery in 1972 and was beginning to compose the Gray series when the conversations with Martiny began in Doubleday Books.

While Kelly’s work focused on the canvas as figure, Martiny developed the basic idea into a dynamic vision of the gesture itself. Kelly’s work remains static. The canvas is fixed, and the aesthetic centers the proportions of the canvases, the relation between the colors, the depth created by the curves, and so on. With his emphasis on the brushstroke, Martiny introduces time into his work. The painting becomes an aspect of the act of painting itself, frozen in time, suggesting temporality by the layers created in the stroke, by the thrust of the paint as it reveals the direction of the hand that made it. 


Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Piece, (1966), 75 x 75 in, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, photo courtesy of MoMA.


Talking with Martiny, I had suggested that the tension of his work is between the extremes of abstraction and representation. On the one hand, we are struck by an artwork that seems entirely formal. There is no traditional figure – no human nor animal form, no landscape even suggested – there is just the movement of the brush, the trail of distinct colors, the deep furrows left by each bristle. And yet, I wanted to say that this is an almost pure representation. The gesture is not so much symbolic of an emotion or concept but is presenting the gesture itself. Rather than being abstract, the work is a representation of the brush stroke. 

Martiny rejected this interpretation. While it is true that they are not entirely abstractions, the works are not representations of brushstrokes either. They are the brushstrokes themselves.

But here again lies the tension. The brushstroke is an act. It is something done in the process of creating a work of art. One mark made at a time, over time, sedimenting on the canvas, building slowly until the painting is complete and we can see whatever it is we see, whether it be landscape, portrait, or abstraction. Where is the canvas though? It has disappeared entirely. The huge brushstrokes are not on a canvas, hence their transgression of painting into the realm of sculpture. Is this what Martiny means when he insists that the work simply is the mark? 

The act of making the mark has disappeared along with the canvas. Thus, the pure presentation of the brushstroke is still not captured entirely – it cannot be. This is because the act of making the mark, the gesture itself, is something in time. The artist approaches the canvas, brush ready, loaded with paint. The hand approaches, holding the brush in a certain way, establishing a trajectory, making contact with the canvas, tracing its path, leaving the mark. In the end, however, the brush is withdrawn by the hand and the paint sets. The movement ceases, the gesture fades into its objective place in history, and the dynamic action of making the mark becomes only implicit in the still image that remains. The act itself appears only as a remainder, something not quite present, but left lingering just out of sight, a phantom to be chased down and reimagined by the viewer who follows the flow of the paint. 

It is this act of reconstitution that both shows representation to be seeping back into the work and engages audiences in the act of creation itself. 

Martiny has stated in previous interviews, and repeated to me when we spoke, that people responding to a work of art in a gallery or museum will often walk up close to the painting. In Martiny’s view, this act stems from a latent desire to become involved in the work, in the act of creation. By being close to the painting, achieving a kind of intimacy with the work, the brushstrokes begin to reveal themselves, the details of the painting that betray the traces of its creation begin to yield themselves to view. Viewed at a glance, or from a distance, all of that is absorbed into the image, the details effaced as they are synthesized by the gaze into a continuous whole. A close, intimate look breaks the continuity of the whole to expose the discontinuities that constitute its parts.

In a conversation with Noah Becker, Martiny describes the turning point in his work, which occurred just over a decade ago. He recounts the early stages of a de Kooning-style gestural study as he had just put the first, single brushstroke to the canvas. Stepping away to plan his next move, it struck Martiny that that one mark possessed a power and integrity that would be undermined by the incursion of other marks. Something primal, original stared back from the canvas and Martiny began to consider how he could develop this singularity, even to free it from the canvas so that it might speak in a univocal way, unencumbered by the bounds of the canvas supplying its ground. The question became how to let a brushstroke, even just one, determine the form of the painting.

The sedimentation of brushstrokes, rather than adding to the painting, became a strange kind of subtraction, draining power from the original, determining mark. Even the canvas itself becomes problematized in this valence, because it creates the edge of the painting in a pre-determined way. The brushstrokes are guided by the edge, which delimits the boundary of the work. Without the canvas, the brushstroke creates its own limit. It does not overflow the canvas but becomes itself the very ground of the possibility of overflow. Indeed, it shifts the ground itself. 

The room in which the artwork is confronted becomes the ground. 

The limits of the artwork are not established by the canvas, but rather by the space of their creation and the materials – the paint, the brush, the aluminum backing – that hold them together. Martiny obsesses over mixing paint. He uses an ultrasound machine to pulverize his pigments to a very fine grain so that he can attain high levels of color saturation. He has spent years studying the qualities of paint to play and experiment with their viscosity, rheology (the flow and deformation of paint, particularly due to pigment dispersion), transparency, its open time or the time during which the paint can still be worked into a previously painted space, and so on. Thus, the boundary and limit of the work has been shifted into the paints themselves rather than to the immediate space of their application. 

The compositions arise from gestures made with specially adapted brushes, sometimes constructed out of brooms and other materials. The paint is thickly and abundantly applied directly to aluminum plating without sketching or drawing. Once the paint is set, the excess aluminum is removed so that the only the shape of the brushstroke remains. The aluminum backing helps hold the work together and allows it to be mounted on a wall where it becomes the figure against the moveable ground of wherever it is installed. 

The question remains – what is the subject of these works? If we accept Martiny’s assertion that they are not representations of brushstrokes, but are the brushstrokes themselves, that only takes us so far. We risk losing the force of the mark if we allow them to be reduced to mere formalisms, an exercise in form without content. Even if the content is the gesture or the mark, the meaning of the work quickly becomes exhausted without recourse to a symbolic order in which we might glean a more human meaning not entirely dependent on the painterly practices of fine art. 

When I spoke to Martiny, the idea of the sublime kept recurring in our conversation. The sublime is close to the beautiful, but it is tinged with something like terror. It is not the terror we feel at something horrifying or grotesque. It is more the awestruck sensation of being overwhelmed by a magnitude that outstrips our ability to comprehend it. Thus, because it looms so large and beyond our scope, the sublime appears vaguely threatening, as if we are not sure what it might do next or what might happen to us as a result of our exposure to it. The sublime induces a feeling of vulnerability that heightens our own self-awareness – particularly concerning our own all too human limitation.


Donald Martiny, Hébutern (2020), 56 x 50 in, polymer and dispersed pigment on aluminum, photo courtesy of the artist.


Perhaps this becomes most apparent in the size of Martiny’s works. They are very large. They are also disorienting in the way they transgress the usual order. Brushstrokes are typically small, certainly much smaller than those presented by Martiny. Even when an artist applies their paints very thickly, there is always a level at which the brushstrokes disappear, become integrated into the larger work. This can never be the case for Martiny’s paintings. We are forced to reckon with the oversized gesture, monumental before us. 

The work therefore evokes an emotion, though not one set out beforehand. Martiny spoke to me of his desire to prepare authentic interactions for people. To allow them to hear and for the artwork to speak without necessarily determining the message. In this personal dialogue, the universal potential of art begins to rear its head, to address itself again to feeling and emotion. Here, there is certainly a kinship with abstract expressionism, but also a hint toward that primal scream we find in someone like Antonin Artaud who occasionally reduced poetry to outbursts of pure vocalization – a sonic gesture.

Again, as Plato reminds us concerning justice in his Republic, it is easier to see something writ large. Once we catch sight of it, or perhaps are caught in the sight of it, we can then use what we saw as a model to look again at the smaller things. So, if we can see justice in the city, we might then be better positioned to see it in the individual. In this way, Martiny’s paintings teach us to look again, to see the mark and the gesture anew and to return with this formal knowledge to other works where the brushstroke lies hidden beneath. 

We confront the past. The history of art, but also, if we accept the self-reflective tendencies induced by the confrontation with the sublime, our own histories. It is possible to approach the work only from the perspective of a dialogue between Martiny and the history of painting. It is perhaps this approach that leads us most assuredly to a formalistic interpretation. But if we follow the path opened by the aesthetic experience that Martiny is hoping to facilitate, the feeling of the sublime that it is possible to cultivate before the large, disorienting works, then we are presented with an opportunity for self-reflection. 

We take the path of self-reflection so that we might look forward again, to see the roads we’ve already walked leading into a future that has not yet come, into which we are still heading and that remains obscure because it is yet to be revealed. This view is enough to terrify us if we remain without hope, that most perennial of human emotions. The opportunity alone should be enough to kindle hope – not a hope in the transcendent beyond history, but rather in the very human history we live and breathe before the work of art.

And that, one hopes, is enough. WM


Filo Sofi Arts

Filo Sofi Arts Disclosures is a series of philosophical reflections on art and its place in the world. It has grown out of owner Gabrielle Aruta's progressive mission to bring art and philosophy together in thoughtful public engagement.

Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction currently serving as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @donovanirven.

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