“Brushstrokes are human, personal, and intimate.”
Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
Donald Martiny currently lives and works in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was born in Schenectady, NY, in 1953 and studied at the School of the Visual Arts, The Art Students League in New York, New York University and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Martiny’s work is in private collections in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and the US. He is represented by a number of galleries in Europe, the US and Australia. In 2015 Martiny received the Sam & Adele Golden Foundation for the Arts Residency Grant and in 2014 he received an Honorable Mention in the Dave Bown Projects – 9th Semiannual Competition, curated by Steven Matijcio.
EJ: In 2015 you were commissioned for an installation at the new One World Trade Center. Can you tell us how exactly that came about?
DM: Thank you, Emily, for the opportunity to talk about my work. I am a fan of The Woven Tale Press.
The process took about two years. I was contacted directly by Douglas Durst of the Durst Organization in 2013. He saw my work online and invited me to meet with him and other members of the Durst Organization to discuss the possibility of placing my work in a building they were developing at the time, a building in midtown Manhattan.
I made a number of concept sketches and soon we all agreed on a way forward. But a year or so later that building became unavailable. To my surprise Douglas said, “Don’t worry, we have other buildings.” He invited me back to New York and to my utter amazement showed me the site at 1WTC.
EJ: How did moving your studio to One World Trade Center affect your artwork?
DM: We decided to move my studio into the building because the planned paintings were going to be too large to fit through any of the doors in the Trade Center. It was a practical decision but there were many benefits. While on site (I worked at all hours) I was able to respond directly to the changing light, the movement, and space where the works would ultimately hang. One challenge that I had was that, until then, I have always painted alone. In fact, I don’t believe anyone had ever seen me paint. The work requires intense concentration and focus. The fact that the lobby of One World Trade Center has something like 25,000 visitors a day took a bit of getting used to. But everyone was polite, helpful, and delightful and the overall the experience was exceedingly positive.
EJ: Could you talk a little about your interest in the painter’s gesture, this impactful exaggeration of the actual brushstroke? What was your impetus to begin exploring it in your work?
DM: First let me make clear that these works are actual brushstrokes. Many people mistake them for sculptures or molds. They are not forms that have been painted, they are pure paint through and through that I make with large brushes or directly with my hands. Brushstrokes are human, personal, and intimate. When I look at a painting by Ingres or Frederick Leighton the artist isn’t obviously present. When I look at Rembrandt I feel him there, I can connect with him. I want to be present in my work.
Additionally, I want to make paintings where the gestures are not compromised by the shape of the canvas. Rectangular shaped canvases have a historical reference to a portal (like a door or window) that the viewer looks through to experience the painting. I want my paintings to exist in the same space as the viewer, to relate directly to the viewer and for the works to influence the space around them. I decided to let the gesture (figure) determine the form of the painting rather than the shape of the canvas (ground).
When visiting art museums, I notice that I often respond to paintings by viewing them from a certain distance to take in the entire work, then step up close to inspect the brushwork. On closer inspection I find myself analyzing and experiencing (albeit vicariously) the process of making the painting. The brushwork offers a lot of information: was the artist left or right handed? Did they paint from the wrist or shoulder? Did they paint fast or slow? What size brush did they choose, etc. I get a more intimate and immediate connection with the artist and the work. I want to offer the viewer the opportunity to feel that kind of connection to me and to the work, to feel a close, intimate and strong connection with the painting.
Carter Ratcliff wrote a wonderful text for the recently published book about my work titled Donald Martiny: Monumental Gestures. In his text Carter refers to a French collector and writer who lived in the eighteenth century by the name of Comte de Callus who said, “…we turn to finished paintings for wisdom and truth and to drawings for the poetry of a passion intimately felt and directly expressed.” I equate brushwork or mark-making with many of the qualities of drawing, a “passion directly expressed.”
EJ: How do you actually implement these larger-than-life brushstroke effects? Can you tell us a little about your actual paints that you evidently mix yourself?
DM: Once I had the idea of making paintings without the use of a ground or canvas, I needed to formulate a paint that would be strong enough to stand on its own. I experimented for years trying to find a viable solution. The paint is a polymer mix heavily loaded with pigment.
I make the paintings on the floor moving all around them, sometimes using my hands for brushes. I want to be as intimately connected to the work as possible. Once the work is dry I trace the form of the work onto a piece of aluminum and cut the aluminum slightly smaller than the painting. I then mount the painting onto the aluminum. Each of the paintings at One World Trade Center used about 80 gallons of paint.
EJ: Your work is an extremely physical—not only in the demands of executing such large-scale works by hand, but in the actual formulation of your own medium. Why is it important that your work is such an embodied process?
DM: They are essentially capturing my physicality at a specific point in time. From my head to my hand… my hand to the painting… from the painting to the viewer.
EJ: How has the making of all of your own materials influenced your relationship with your work?
DM: It is a very enjoyable part of the process for me. I like solving those technical problems. That said, it is a never-ending process of pushing and evolving the materials and the processes. I have just started making some of my own pigment as well.
EJ: What do you see as the future of your current investigation into gesture?
DM: Oh, I have only scratched the surface. There are so many areas to explore. I am also investigating new mediums: sculpture and photography among them.
EJ: What are some of the greatest changes in your work in the past few years?
DM: As my materials evolve I find I can push what I can do with paint farther. I feel I can do just about anything I want with the paint now. My work has evolved from monochrome to polychrome, and the forms have gotten more loose and free, in some respects blurring the lines between drawing and painting.
EJ: What is one of the greatest challenges you might be facing in your work right now?
DM: My biggest challenge is trying to spend more of my time painting and less time doing administrative tasks. Except for a part-time assistant who helps build shipping crates, I do everything myself. I work seven days a week and about 10 hours a day. I am lucky if I spend four or five days paintings. Another issue I must face is that I have outgrown my current studio.
EJ: What are you working on right now in your studio?
DM: I have a very aggressive exhibition schedule for the fall of 2016 and into the summer of 2017. I am currently preparing for an exhibition at Galerie Klaus Braun in Stuttgart, a solo exhibition at the Alden B Dow Museum of Art in Midland, Michigan, a group show at the Falmouth Art Gallery in Cornwall, UK, and I believe I have eight other exhibitions on my calendar that happen within the next six months or so.
I always have ongoing experimental works that point in new directions. They point the way for the next few years.
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