Contemporary Art in the South:
Eugene Martin at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum
For the past couple of months, I have been drawn further into what I would call a parallel universe. This breach with my former reality didn’t begin with the discovery of a wormhole or some other form of extraordinary space/time anomaly: It began with an introduction to Ms. Suzanne Fredericq, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor of biology and widow of artist Eugene Martin. An acquaintanceship blossomed into a friendship, and my wife and I were invited to Ms. Suzanne’s home, which she shared with Martin until his death on January 1, 2005. We weren’t prepared for what we would encounter there.
Practically all the walls of every room in the home were covered in Martin’s work. In his studio and in some of the other rooms, stacks and stacks of paintings and drawings occupied a considerable amount of floor space. It seemed like very little of the home was given over to furniture, but in retrospect, all the necessities for creature comfort were there. They just became lost in this sea of work that was alive, tumbling like an acrobat off the walls and marching in unison across the floors. The tub in the guest bathroom had even been turned into a makeshift grotto for Martin’s work. It’s probably my favorite part of the Fredericq-Martin home. I felt transported to a place that felt familiar yet quite enigmatic and alien—a place located “through the looking glass,” to borrow from Lewis Carroll.
“Self Portrait,” (1967). Courtesy of the estate of Eugene James Martin.
The Fredericq-Martin home is iconoclastic, much like Eugene Martin: He was very much a self-made man. His life began in Washington, D.C., in 1938 with much hardship, including the death of his mother when he was four years old. Martin’s father was an itinerant jazz musician. After his mother’s death, Martin and his brother entered the foster-care system. After several attempts at running away, Martin was placed in a reform school at the age of six. He eventually made his way to a family of farmers in Clarksburg, Maryland, where his talents in visual art and music began to develop.
When he matured, Martin chose the path of visual arts because it better suited his temperament as a self-confessed “loner,” and he attended the Corcoran School of Art. After leaving the school in 1963, Martin spent the next twenty-five years living in group houses, with friends, and was occasionally homeless. He never abandoned his art, though, and continued drawing in public places. When he couldn’t afford paper he drew on napkins. Occasionally, when he was offered lodging and studio space with friends, he was able to create more complex mixed-media works and oil paintings. During this period, he exhibited his work in group shows and the Munich Museum of Modern Art acquired several of his pieces.
“A Great Concept,” (1987). Courtesy of the estate of Eugene James Martin.
In 1982, Martin met Suzanne Fredericq, a native of Belgium. In 1988, they married and moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There, Martin showed his work in two solo exhibitions at Duke University and the Horace Williams House, as well as in several group exhibitions at Fridholm Fine Arts in Asheville. He also exhibited his work at the Michel Rooryck Gallery in Ghent, Belgium, during this period. In 1996, the couple moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, where Martin began his most fruitful period of artistic output. Despite suffering a brain hemorrhage and a stroke in 2001, he continued making art until his passing.
Martin’s body of work is a study in contradiction. His pieces take cues from Modernist masters like Picasso, Matisse, Miro, and Hofmann, yet play by their own idiosyncratic rules, and play is the operative word. Circles and other sensuous, curvilinear forms clamor for the viewer’s attention against architectonic squares and rectangles in a riot of form. Gestural abstraction goes head to head with geometric abstraction across Martin’s canvases, and the results somehow mutate into liminal spaces or figures that look like biomorphic machines or animals, shot through a rainbow factory. Some of his figures wear top hats and bow ties (Martin was always an immaculate and snappy dresser, despite the hardships of much of his early life). The cathartic rhythms of jazz and rock & roll are echoed in his freeform forays into a shambolic world that is within and without our own—a world that is intensely bright, fun, and cheerful, yet slightly disconcerting in its brashness and blatant disregard for hierarchy and “good taste.”
“Mean and Green,” (2000). Courtesy of the estate of Eugene James Martin.
“Slippery,” (1987). Courtesy of the estate of Eugene James Martin.
One can find evidence of a more refined aesthetic in Martin’s ink and marker drawings, which retain Martin’s playfulness with form while showing off his mastery of space and immaculate and precise draftsmanship. To view Martin’s drawings is to come face to face with an almost preternatural control of matter. One could put Martin’s ink and marker drawings in black and rich browns right beside the finest drawings of DaVinci, and a deep conversation between the two bodies of work would undoubtedly ensue. Artistic integrity and expressive freedom were two things Martin held dear.
Another hallmark of Martin’s body of work is his use of collage. Typically, artists create collages by appropriating artworks, graphics, type, and materials from other creative professionals. Martin was far from typical: In many instances, Martin’s paintings and drawings contain pieces or photographs of his own previous work. He never appropriated another individual’s work, which is astounding considering that the bulk of his output was created during the ascendance of appropriation art in America from Warhol, Prince, Koons, and the rest of their ilk.
“The Fall of Icarus,” (1998). Courtesy of the estate of Eugene James Martin.
“Untitled,” (1996). Courtesy of the estate of Eugene James Martin.
All of this points to the fact that Martin was a maverick. I find a lot of humor in imagining him at a fictitious train station in the 1960s. In my fantasy, he’s on the platform, watching all these artists getting on trains heading to destinations like Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and Pop Art. As they depart, he waves goodbye to them and says, “I’ll see you in the future when everyone will be bored with the likes of you!” The future has arrived, and many young artists today are reinvestigating Modernism in earnest and taking it in directions that Martin has already covered. This could be why Martin’s oeuvre seems so fresh. It also could be that his work is so exuberant and eternally youthful yet wise. Martin knew what he was doing; he was following his own muse into the hallowed sanctum of creation.
“Untitled,” (1969). Courtesy of the estate of Eugene James Martin.
The same could be said of “the Mad Potter of Biloxi,” George Ohr. He created one of the most eccentric and Modern bodies of pottery ever made, before there was even a word for the movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He marched to the beat of his own drum of abstract form, unconventional color, and chance operations. Ohr and Martin may have been separated by time and place, but their affinities are numerous, and one can view both of their bodies of work currently at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi. A Great Concept: The Art of Eugene Martin, a tightly curated mini-retrospective of thirty-eight paintings, drawings, and collages, has been installed beside Ohr’s pottery in the museum’s Gallery of African American Art. It’s a startling but welcome juxtaposition: Ohr’s work sings of the magic that can happen when human hands touch earth while Martin’s work soars like a helium balloon into quantum space. Together, their respective exhibitions have a deep and mystical conversation about what it means to be free from the constraints of time, place, and expectation.
Installation shot of The Art of Eugene Martin: A Great Concept, Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, Biloxi, Mississippi, courtesy of the estate of Eugene James Martin and the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art.
A Great Concept: The Art of Eugene Martin is on view in the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino Gallery of African American Art at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi, until December 1, 2012.