Knox Martin was the first artist whose work I thought about critically and analytically. When I first came to know his paintings, in the early 1960s, the history of art was passing through an especially energized moment: Abstract Expression, which unconditionally demanded
aesthetic responsiveness, was giving way to an art which by contrast mandated a certain cool intellectual address. In 1963, I was taken to Knox's studio on the Upper Upper West Side of Manhattan by Steve Pepper, director of the highly experimental Fishbach Gallery, where Knox had a number of shows. In 1963, no one especially thought that Abstract Expressionism was over as a movement. But there was a certain amount of singular work-by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns particularly-which could not easily be situated within the great movement. Were these artists merely eccentric and marginal, or were their strange objects the first buddings of a movement that no one at that time was able to visualize? From 1957 to about 1964, the spirit of art in New York City was moving in directions for which Abstract
Expressionism had not prepared us. By 1965, the strokes, swipes, drips, and splatters of New York painting had given way to cool, laconic representations of the most ordinary of ordinary objects. And a certain heightened emotionality was replaced by the urbane wit of Pop Art. The first of Warhol's Brillo Boxes show dripping paint in ways which would have been unacceptable on their commercial art counterparts-the packing cases for Brillo pads. But nobody was
responding to the drips, as they had learned to do with Pollock. They were responding instead to the artistic takeover of the uninflected emblems of mass consumption-labels, logos, tabloid photos, syndicated comics, celebrity pictures, American flags, S&H Green Stamps, money. It was a transformation in artistic culture in which intellectual rewards replaced, or at least supplemented, visual ones, and the whole philosophical face of art was beginning to disclose itself in a particularly vivid way.
Rightly or wrongly, I saw Knox Martin's paintings as embodying this transformative moment. In them, I thought, the tension between the two rival philosophies of art could be felt. The paintings which prompted my interested enthusiasm did so because they at once referred to the vernacular culture which Pop was making its own, and at the same time to the physicality of paint (a central premise of New York painting). I differed from Pepper, in whose view Knox Martin's canvases were exercises in pure abstraction. Here, rather, is the way I saw them: they appeared at first glance to be collages, made of large, irregular, overlapping swatches of patterned cloth. Some of the swatches were striped, some appeared to be decorated with
circles. It must be conceded that stripes and circles belong to the vocabulary of one kind of abstract art, while the irregular shapes, which felt as though they had been torn from bolts of material, belonged to another. So one might properly claim that Martin was synthesizing an expressionist abstraction with a geometrical one. For me, however, Knox's stripes and circles evoked the life of the circus: the striped tents, the loudly patterned costume of clowns. And Martin's colors-pistachio, raspberry, banana-were festive and impudent. That is why I felt that the paintings referred to vernacular reality, as much so as Campbell Soup cans or Coca Cola bottles. The circus was a recurring theme in modernist art, and I thought it appropriate for late modernist painting to reduce the circus to patterned rags expressive of its raucous gaiety.
The collage is like the sort of trompe l'oeil painting that shows a five-dollar bill pasted to a surface: both thematize the flatness of pictorial space, which critics like Clement Greenberg stipulated as the essence of the painterly medium. They come as close as possible
to treating pictorial space as identical with the space of a painting's surface-as though what is in the painting can be seen as on the surface of the painting. So Knox's paintings seemed illusional and non-illusional at once: illusional in that they seemed to present
actual swatches, physically pasted over one another, and non-illusional in that they appeared to have overcome pictorial illusion entirely. It is easy to see how some could view them as purely abstract and others as somehow referential.
One was alerted to the paintings' internal dialogues when one tried to resolve the way the eye struggled with elements of the patterns themselves. Template (1963), for example, is in effect a template for interpretation. Suppose one saw it as a collage, made up of gaudy
patches. If it really were such a collage, the patterns would have been printed on or woven into the material. That reading would hold up until one noticed the accidents-a single dribble of red courses down from one green circle, like a tear and the white arc at the top
leaves smears of itself on the magenta shape below. The evidence that it is painting and not collage is unavoidable. And when one recognized that in the end they were not collages but painted illusions of collages, that the oddly shaped planes were areas of paint rather than swatches of brashly figured cloth or paper, one began to appreciate the way Knox's paintings were animated by certain internal conversations on the meanings of space, surface, painting,
pigment, reference, reality, and illusion.
Not long after the studio visit, I was asked to organize a panel on contemporary painting for a Festival of the Arts at Columbia University. 1 invited Knox Martin as one of three
participants. The other two were Steve Pepper-the most brilliant talker on the subject of painting I have ever listened to-and Ad Reinhardt, a graduate of Columbia. All that I
remember of substance from the occasion was Knox Martin delivering a surprising speech, of nearly religious intensity, on the continuity of great painting in a tradition going back to Velasquez and Titian. Remember, these were times of great upheaval in the concept of art.
Both artists, in curiously different ways, were priests of sorts. Reinhardt was a reductionist, seeking to distill the essence of painting as painting, foregoing anything that was accidental. Knox, by contrast, was called to the service of a painterly tradition which
flowed like a current through the history of art. I vividly recall his claim that in each generation, a few are called to take up the cause of painting. He of course supposed he was one of those (the other one he mentioned was Peter Golfinopoulos, whom I wish I could see
through Knox's eyes.) After that panel, I saw Knox Martin infrequently, and rarely saw what he was doing. So when I was invited to write an essay for the catalog of his recent work, was eager to reconnect with the artist whose work so stimulated me thirty-five years ago, and found myself in a studio with a view over the Hudson near the George Washington Bridge. The great distance between the downtown art scenes in Soho and Chelsea and Knox Martin's uptown studio is a metaphor for this highly independent artist's relationship to the current artworld. This metaphor is present as well in the relationship of his work to contemporary artistic production. He has adhered to the same credo he enunciated at the Columbia panel so many years ago. His discourse is about painting and those few masters whom he sees as collaborators in painting's nurture and evolution. Real painting, in his view, was very infrequently found, even when painting itself defined art, as it did in his generation in New York. So it scarcely matters that painting has become marginal in the contemporary scene, in as much as the kind of painting he believed in was always marginal, even when there were only painters, as in the 1950s. Knox's vision has been unwavering in this respect, and the five paintings here on view exemplify the qualities with which he was obsessed in 1963.
Each of the paintings carries, as an emblem of his earlier work, a fragment or two which could have been incorporated in the first paintings of his I saw, which created the illusion of collage. In the upper left corner of Flora, a grey-and-white striped patch seems to sit on the surface, like a scrap of awning. In Crow with Still Life, an array of pinkish dots belongs to a surface which is unspecified, since behind them there are some overlapping planes to which the array cannot belong. So it belongs on the surface of the painting rather than to the surfaces shown in pictorial space. Woman with Still Life has two (or three) yellow stripes in the upper left corner, which could have come from a dishtowel. But they are overlapped by what seems like a torn drawing, so the effect is collage-like. Those yellow stripes reappear in Dancer, but this time they are not overlapped by a shape which implies a physical occlusion, as in a collage: they are painted over by a white lozenge. This drives the stripes-which, due to the principle of flatness, one would think belong to the surface-into the painting's depth. It brings that which would seem to belong to pictorial space forward, onto the surface, reversing the usual relationship between surface and depth. Finally, in Woman with Camera, an irregular white patch, more or less straight along its bottom edge, seems pasted in the upper left comer (an area that seems to play an important role in Knox's view of composition). The white shape feels like a drawing pasted on the surface, but that interpretation wars with the observation that the two eyes of what is evidently the woman's head seem to belong to the same image, but not to the same area of the
surface. The paper-like form, moreover, is brushed with a beautiful blue curve which does not belong to the woman the way an eye and parallel red lips appear to do, and so must be read as being in front of the drawing, which it presses back into the painting's depth, claiming the surface for its own.
The brilliance of these works lies in the drama of overlapping forms, in playing a painting's depth against its surface. The images carry forward the playfulness of the earlier canvases-a crow with the humped anatomy of a camel appears with what one can take as a still life, since the title instructs us to see it that way. But that leaves the problem of accounting for the crescent moon, which seems impossibly to cut in front of a mountain rather than being cut by it, violating one of the principles of "good continuity" Gestalt theories of perception have identified. Flora has-or perhaps is-a pair of breasts, of dots in circles which hold kinship with the scribbled graffiti of a woman.
It is not my task here to furnish a final analysis of Knox Martin's new paintings, but to demonstrate one way of beginning such an analysis. The same parameters must be worked as those required by the earlier paintings. But the images have gotten richer and the philosophy of painting deeper, and the experience of constituting the works through close visual reading is as rewarding as contemporary art provides. The process of seeking to rationalize forms with one another, as well as with surface, space, image, color and pattern, is what I mean by adventures in pictorial reason.
-Arthur C. Danto