THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
By Diane Thodos
[Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of an interview of Martin Beck by Diane Thodos on the occasion of an exhibition of his work at ARC Gallery in November of 2018.]
"I want my work to reflect the study of the nude form as something that uplifts our experience of being human. This is not prescriptive art and does not have the power to change the world. But it might help spark a quiet revolution in one’s own experience."
— Martin Beck
As an art critic, I have seen many exhibits that present technologically based conceptual artworks, leaving the viewer detached and uninvolved. The art world seems to have embraced the very alienation and conformity that it once had the courage and self-awareness to challenge.
Discovering the figure drawings of Martin Beck at the ARC Gallery last April came as a welcome surprise. His images of nude figures expressed the exact opposite of postmodernist indifference: consummate skill, bold sincerity, and emotional intensity. Martin Beck’s searching eye awakens and animates our human instinct, so long suppressed by our technological environment, to take pleasure and again find interest in the human figure.
Diane Thodos: Can you talk about your materials and technique? How do you start an image? What materials do you use, and how do you build it up?
Martin Beck: I use pastel, acrylic, watercolor and gouache, gum arabic medium, graphite powder, and spray paint. Among my drawing tools are a random orbit sander, a finishing sander, atomizers, and a garden hose. I often start with a drawing—one that I've already done. Usually, I tone the paper with watercolor or gouache, sometimes acrylic. I use spray paint. I'll take it and sand it. I build up these layers of accidental color and mark making. Or I have a simple toned piece of paper—I’ll do a drawing on it, I'll stick it on the wall and add more pigment to it by adding pastel dust, smearing colors around, and then do another drawing on top of that. Eventually, I have a result from the session that has enough going for it that I can complete it. I usually have multiple layers of drawing with some part of the figures revealed and others that are obscured as a palimpsest.
DT: I can feel the sincerity of your intention in the lines, planes, and color modulations flowing from one medium into the next. Your thought processes draw me in and engage me. I feel the condensation of hours of looking at the model in all those elements.
MB: That's all part of the journey. For me, that process feels very much like life, like being alive. Previously, I had been doing large-scale figurative work—that got tiresome after a while with the scale and over-complexity. I wanted a more straightforward, more immediate way of working with the figure. Working from the figure was more life-affirming in a lot of ways.
DT: When you were a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, were there particular teachers that influenced you in figure drawing? What did you feel about the educational experience you got?
MB: I studied at SUNY Buffalo (1982—1986) with Harvey Breverman, a printmaker who makes incredible figurative work. I learned a lot from him. At CMU (1990—1992), there weren’t many professors there that influenced me—many were too busy pushing me to abandon the figure. I learned a bit from Herb Olds. Pat Bellan-Gillen had some interesting things to say about materials, surface, and color. Elaine King was my strongest influence there, mostly concerning art criticism and issues in contemporary art.
Graduate seminars were awful. They were pushing collaboration, performance, and installation. In many ways, I was self-taught, going to look at art in museums and just doing a lot of drawing. I think it is all about sensitizing yourself to see and being able to let your hand draw what your eyes see. So, once you learn some basic techniques, it is up to you to work at it.
Martin Beck, Thinking Man, 2019. Mixed media on prepared paper
29 1/2 x 29 1/2”. Courtesy of the artist.
DT: What artists and art traditions do you admire?
MB: Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Renaissance artists interest me. I always loved the Flemish primitives because of the magic realism in their work. Degas has been a significant influence on me in his drawing and his multimedia approach using monoprint, pastels, sculpture, and oil paintings. He was such a technician and a tinkerer. The author of the book Degas’ Method—Line Clausen Pedersen—called it “radical craftsmanship.”
I like Käthe Kollwitz quite a bit. She has a real immediacy in her drawing and a political sensibility that is very powerful. By contrast, without that human quality and passion in the political artwork made today, the political message gets diluted. It's the difference between making a statement and living the statement.
DT: The artist witnessing through one's self?
MB: Yes, she was a witness to her time, and her passion came through in her work because she was not trying to invent strategies to communicate. She was communicating directly. She had the skill from her years of drawing to be able to do that effectively.
DT: The skill became a way for her to express and witness her feelings about the sufferings of the poor and their struggles in society. That is why her work has such great authenticity.
MB: It's the authenticity part that really comes through. You can tell that this was her passion. She wasn't distant from her subject or materials. She was hands-on; there was no intermediary there. That time between the wars in Germany is significant to me partially because I have German ancestry and also because of how it reflects our own time. Artists like George Grosz, Otto Dix, and [others in] the Neue Sachlichkeit [movement] were painters trying to deal with a really horrific social environment: the aftermath of war and the challenges of technology, all of which were changing the face of their society in catastrophic ways. They were struggling with those things in their work. I think that is something we should be doing now.…
DT: How does your art address this state of affairs in the art world and the larger society? How does the explosion of conceptual art and deskilling in art teaching diminish connection to the human condition?
MB: I often work in a drawing group, not in isolation. Working in a figure-drawing group together with other people—not alone on a computer—is an important dynamic. We connect with the model. The artists are all very committed and are there every week drawing. I find that studying a person with intensity reaffirms being alive.
DT: The art world is deeply embedded in the use of photography, mass media pop culture, and conceptualism. Many artists use these approaches to “signify” human experiences. What does drawing from life give that sets it apart from these approaches?
MB: You are working with another person. You are not working by yourself using an image or object. You have to work with the other person, and you cannot use the other person. You have to work in collaboration with them to some degree. Starting with the immediacy of figure drawing and working from life gives art liveliness that one does not often see in recent art. I think that liveliness comes from improvising.
There is a difference between composing on a computer and the way a jazz musician would improvise in front of an audience—there are a lot of variables. Drawing from life, it is the same kind of thing—you have to improvise. I think there's infinite variation in that.…
Martin Beck, June 3, #2, 2018. Pastel on prepared paper 29 1/2 x 42”. Courtesy of the artist.
DT: You mean the way the art witnesses the human presence? For example, how Lucian Freud spent many hours painting a single pose. You feel those many hours of witnessing imbued the work itself with the deep psychological relationship he had with his models.
MB: Lucian Freud is one of those artists who practiced radical craftsmanship, working for hours on a single pose over many months. Radical craftsmanship is about how far you can push yourself to express the reality, not of making something “look real," but of the experience of drawing and painting something in that environment.
DT: …Both you and I were taught that figure drawing was valuable and that artistic intention and depth of expression mattered. Now skill and having a connective emotional reality is being lost, even censored, in art training and education. What do you think has caused this?
MB: I think that mostly it's an economic motivation. It's the fact that if you spend time learning to do something well, there is a lot of labor that goes into it. People are not willing to spend money on that kind of skill anymore. They want to see something that could be a commodity that is easily made and easily explained. A lot of conceptual art can be explained very easily. Think of any political or topical comment that becomes a piece of art composed of objects that were probably fabricated in a factory and thrown together. In some ways that's a lot easier than what I do. It's easy to be clever.…
DT: Does conceptual art encourage the artist to have a depersonalized relationship with his or her own artwork and with the audience? A lot of the artists you admire use gesture, mark making, perception, and skill in creating their work: ways of embedding the artists' emotional reality.
MB: I think a good piece of art that is handmade shows the artist’s journey. They talk about Degas always struggling to find the form. If you look at his drawings and monoprints he’s used a searching or repeated a line until he finds the form. That's a journey you can take with him when you look at the art. Edwin Dickinson is a superlative draftsman: you can SEE him seeing, you can FEEL him seeing, you can FEEL him drawing. That’s true for Käthe Kollwitz too. You take part in that experience. When you take a piece of art that's been fabricated, made to order, you don't feel anything. Do you feel the factory worker making it?
Martin Beck, Home Grown #4, 2018. Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 42”. Courtesy of the artist.
DT: Is commercial fabrication a code for the art’s salability?
MB: You lose a connection to the artist’s journey. Instead, you understand the artist’s strategy. You don't feel what the artist feels. You know he is trying to communicate with you, but you don't know if what he's trying to convey is something he thinks or feels. I prefer artists who draw and paint like they mean it—as if it were a matter of life and death.
For a lot of art, it does not seem to matter that it was made or that it's being looked at—as if it were made to go into a collector’s or a museum’s storage. I don't see people engaging with it. I don't see people looking at it wondering how it was made unless it is a matter of pure scale. One common feature of contemporary art is that it often takes up a lot of space. It's enormous and calls attention to itself. But I'm not sure that it warrants that kind of space and attention.
DT: A spectacular presentation requires space and often uses technology and extensive fabrication. I see these as attempts to compete with mass-based spectacles. It seems like under the pressure of deskilling, commercialization, and spectacle-oriented strategies, the subjective point of art making has been lost.
MB: The situation is similar to people having jobs that they are not passionate about. Just as assembling premade objects is not craft—if a cabinetmaker wants to make a beautiful cabinet, it takes years of apprenticeship. It's not like going out and buying the cheap piece of furniture from IKEA that you put together yourself. We have lost the intensity of inhabiting our work.
This interview is continued and is available in its entirety at dianethodos.com/blog
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, Illinois. She is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Grant in 2002 and has exhibited at the Kouros Gallery in New York City. She is represented by the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City and Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago. For more information, visit www.dianethodos.com
Martin Beck, Lasting Influence, 2018. Pastel on prepared paper, 30 3/4 x 22 1/2”, Courtesy of the artist.
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