While an aesthetic sensitivity or capacity may be sufficient in order to enjoy the works of Knox Martin, it is virtually impossible to appreciate their importance without considering the unique position that they hold in contemporary art. Their uniqueness lies in their having maintained the validity of art's traditional language to express modernism's conservative of humanist impulse.
Western art became a language in the early renaissance when the various iconographic and decorative systems of Europe were organized into that characteristic architectonic structure which they have preserved against all challenges down to the present. The new
painting, along with development of polyphonic music and Ars Nuova's recuperation of classical poetry all provided humanist philosophy with the tools required to express an anthropocentric experience of reality. They provided it as well with a dynamic vehicle powerful enough to absorb all the subsequent dislocations of scientific and geographic discovery.
More recently "Modernism" demonstrated how the industrial age's accelerated bombardment of new data could be dealt with by art's structuring capacity rather than its ephemeral stylistic or iconographic digressions. This even enabled European art to digest alien cultural forms: first the Oriental, and then by way of the appropriate Spanish bridge, the African. As the plethora of recent publications examining "Modernism" indicate its lessons have been learned and we are all modern now. As Ingres once observed, "We are all sons of Homer."
The linguistic process of holophrasis, the absorption of an increasing range of meanings by a single term, had by the 1960's resulted in an art language of non-representational forms which could apparently express only abstract relations. Serious painters were employing a formal language divorced from the problematic miracle of quotidian reality and were creating models rather than metaphors. It was at this point that Martin re-introduced the figure into his painting.
He was well established as a major abstractionist and had already executed the large outdoor wall paintings which recovered western art's origins by linking up the flat field space and opaque surface of acrylics with the public frescoes which had preceded oil
paintings and private easel painting. A linkage incidentally indicating a way out of the impasse of painting as privileged private commodity.
As a brilliant draftsman he had never fully dropped figuration from his drawings but the aesthetic ideology of the time had precluded the relatively private figuration of the drawings from entering into the public domain of his paintings. There were a group of West Coast abstractionists who had returned to the figure in the late 50's as have subsequent born-again expressionists and realists but as none of these artists are capable of producing an adequate painting with or without figures their work, albeit marketable, is artistically inconsequential.
The only serious artist (i.e. one who can be taken seriously) who programmatically returned to figuration, Alfred Leslie, did so about the same time as Martin and for the same reasons, "I felt that too much that had belonged to painting was being left out."
The differing results of these two artists' parallel development is quite telling. Leslie's honest work had always been of a unique but secondary stature and when he returned to figuration it was to a type of pre-war German or English realism which left out all the
major innovations of modernism. Martin by contrast returned to this century's high water mark of synthetic cubism to evolve a style which enables his art to address all the past as well as subsequent masters on terms of equality. Subsequent living masters now meaning DeKooning.
There is one further consideration to be noted before an accurate assessment of the artist's stature is complete. It would be pointless to bemoan the current lack of judgemental criteria and illiteracy in the visual arts as these are general to all the arts. Even the exacerbation of this situation by the burgeoning education industry is novel only in scale. Certifying innocents who can neither comprehend nor execute a work of art as being Masters of Fine Art is after all, a bit of academic inanity that goes back at least to the founding of the academy and Vasari. No, the difficulty lies elsewhere and is more serious.
Man: western humanist man, the repository and individual representative of a society's culture, is in the process of disappearing. Sources as diverse as Arthur Clark and Foucault have noted this. Having barely survived the reduction to a single faceted creature of the totalitarian state and the mass market he is now in the process of dispersed fragmentation as an artifact of the electronic age. The meaning and value of an art which was created in a synergistic relation to western man cannot survive without him. It appears therefore that Martin is not only a modern master whose work ably carries and furthers the entire tradition of western art, but that he may very well turn out to be the last.