Martin Beck Interviewed by Alejandro Anreus

Alejandro Anreus: Have you worked with the figure since the beginning, or have you worked abstractly at any point?

Martin Beck: I’ve always worked with the figure. There is something about the intrinsic familiarity of a figure that allows it to communicate universally. Using figures and symbols in a painting relates directly to dream imagery and archetypes. One’s response to a painting should be one of recognition, conscious or otherwise. If an artist can find imagery that resonates, then this recognition will provide the key---an entrance—to a work of art.

A.A. Your paintings often include many different figures, oddly juxtaposed environments and distorted perspectives. How do you go about constructing your pictures?

M.B. I generally begin with a single figure, a theme and an idea of the environment. After the primary figure is painted, I let the image suggest the next steps, such as adding other images and forms that define environment. What often happens is that recent experiences, current events or even the book that happens to be on my nightstand, will somehow enter the painting at any point in the process. My method is loose, so accidents happen. In some ways the paintings are more like theatrical performances: the script provides the framework and there is a director controlling the action, but sometimes the actors improvise—changing or adding a line, or speaking a line in a radically different way than before. Sometimes I change large areas of a painting right before it is completed. I never know how a painting will look when it’s finished. This is a liberating process. I like to feel that no painting is a fait accompli.

A.A. Over the years that I have known your work, I have seen it evolve from a subtle notion of the body politic to a more blunt representation, like Lazy (1997). Can you comment on this?

M.B. Lazy is more immediately accessible than earlier paintings, perhaps, but there is as much underlying subtlety. Lazy was an attempt to put only blunt, easy imagery together in the hopes that the totality would become multivalent. It was conceived as a "lazy" painting. I wanted obvious images one could easily relate to. I wanted to build a wall of such quotidian images that might have subtlety through scale. The familiar can serve to "break the ice," so one can begin a conversation with the painting. This is very important for me. If art does not engage in dialogue, it becomes merely an object or an isomorphism. I believe a painting must be interactive. Duchamp understood this quite well. He said he only made half an artwork; the viewer always completed it. So much of the contemporary art that is shown communicates at one level, with a single message that the viewer can understand very quickly and leave just as fast. It’s like Hollywood scriptwriters who must pitch a story in one sentence: high concept. Complexity and subtlety are avoided in favor of a simple art that is easy to explain or sell. I’m often reminded of the film Amadeus where Mozart’s compositions are criticized because they contain too many notes. This is the kind of mentality that seems to fuel contemporary taste in art.

A.A. I have seen your work from the start as a kind of subversive, latter 20th-century history painting, fitting into the tradition that starts with Goya and Courbet, and continues today with artists like R. B. Kitaj. How do you feel about this context?

M.B. I guess it’s true. Not the grand sweep of history, however, something more personal. To me, history painting must be at once naïve and worldly. The artist who aspires to this must believe that an individual’s perception of their time and their interpretation of this on canvas is worthwhile. The artist must also strive to be connected to, and participate in our culture, so that these perceptions can reflect the richness and diversity of our time. It’s like saying, "this is my place in the 20th Century, this is what I did, what I saw and how I felt," instead of just recording events. This in a way transforms the notion of history painting into something more like genre painting---scenes from contemporary life that tend to describe our time. In the paintings that show a bygone era, I am commenting on modern society. After all, social change seems to be more a matter of degree than kind—and history always repeats itself. The images in my work often come from photographs. I sift through photographs looking for primary evidence to piece together a personal narrative of the latter half of the 20th Century. These elements mingle with the imagined, and include observations from life.

A.A. You include yourself in many of your paintings. Is this direct self-portraiture on your part or are you just "one of the extras"?

M.B. I include myself in paintings only as a signature and not as a psychological portrayal of my life experiences or myself. This began when I needed to resolve a figure in a painting but couldn’t afford to hire a model. I used the mirror to observe light, anatomy and perspective and it became a habit and a methodology. It was also a way to make a claim of responsibility that I still use today. When I lend my likeness to a character in a painting, I invite the viewer to become familiar with a representation of my identity. I invite a dialogue with the painting.

A.A. Why have you called the exhibition White? It’s a minimal, almost scandalous title. What does it mean to you?

M.B. Although my paintings aren’t strictly pure narrative, there is an element of storytelling to them, and I believe in the old truism about writing: Write what you know. Much of these paintings come from my experiences growing up in a white middle-class factory town. "White" communities have shaped my life---the neighborhoods where I lived, the universities where I studied, not to mention the art world itself. One doesn’t generally talk about one’s "white" identity. It’s a breach of etiquette, especially when it’s in the context of race. Big Wheel (1995) has angered some people because it shows images from the race riots in the sixties, in particular a fallen black child placed prominently in the foreground. Such images aren’t presented grandly or heroically, and they are jarring because immediately adjacent to them are happy, playing white people. I paint unpleasant things because they have shaped our society, and because humanity’s tendency towards inhumanity demands these events be remembered. Placing figures from disparate backgrounds and time periods can illuminate the character of our society. W.C. Fields is an important character for me. He is viewed as a nostalgic figure, yet he was ferocious in his lying, drinking and cheating, his sexism and racism, in his hating dogs and children, hating everything. In his films Fields usually succeeds in life despite his willful and self-destructive bumbling; he is kind of an "everyman" for the white middle-class. I don’t believe Fields meant any cultural criticism in portraying such a scoundrel, but his comic extremes were very poignant. In Lush Life (1995), Joey Buttafuoco is dressed in W. C. Fields’ outfit from "My Little Chickadee." He stands there with impunity, his arm around Amy Fisher; the familiar trimmings of an American picnic surround them. Buttafuoco has come to represent the humorless faith many white middle-class men have in their perceived impunity. Buttafuoco would have been comical had his misdeeds not been so tragic. A visitor to one of my exhibitions described the paintings as "Norman Rockwell gone bad." Rockwell excelled at distilling the white American experience, one that was folksy and familiar. I like to use this kind of familiarity, too, because I want my paintings to communicate. The glad-handing imagery of white culture winds insidiously throughout my work. In this way the paintings are subversive: they smile in a way that is a little too friendly. I hope they show what lies behind the smiles.

Fictional Theatricality in a Cyber Age
By Elaine King

"At this moment you’re trembling because of the situation and the prospect of the hunt. Where would the tremor be if I were as precise as a railway timetable?"
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear

Since its revival in the 1980s, under the banner of Neo-Expressionism, the figure has returned with a vengeance in contemporary art. Today, figuration provides artists with a symbolic vocabulary enabling them to explore a spectrum of topics, from and to the value of the body itself. In contemporary figurative painting, however, the figure is withdrawn from traditional issues of representation even though recognizable images are evident. The figure no longer functions as a conveyor of factual essences. It now functions fundamentally as an elusive surrogate, a substitute for other meanings. The art of the 1990s represents a conglomeration of information; it is not a complete manifestation, but signifies a denotation of something other than itself.

Art, especially painting, no longer refers to immediate realities that derive identity solely from the conventions of painting. Today’s artists incorporate the history of the transmitted image from everyday life and from a larger cultural history of the world. A new aesthetic is emerging which reveals an altered cultural context that has been transformed by the experiments of late Modernism, the crisis of Postmodernism, and the reconstructed codes influenced by technology—all resulting in a world of the moment. For some artists, figural references act merely as an extension of a performance, a mirror of culture, a window into another world or a proof for critical theory. The body is linked more and more closely to a character in literature, as a fiction of the mind. Many artists, however, use it as a motif to express the conditions of a collapsed social structure, conveying an air of suspicion and disenfranchisement in a world of the immediate. Moreover, a sense of fleeting transformation characterizes much Postmodern figurative work. Themes of denial, loss, cynicism and identification have replaced the linear narratives of an earlier society that lived in a unified world of prescribed culture. Aspects of this inform the complex farcical and ironic paintings of such an artist as Martin Beck.

Beck's art belongs to a genre of figuration that demonstrates a sensibility akin to European master painters, despite his acknowledgment that our postindustrial society and its social fabric are radically changing. Artists that combine elements of the fantastic in their works such as Hieronymous Bosch, Peter Bruegel the Elder and Francisco Goya, as well as those who depicted aspects of prosaic reality, such as Gustave Courbet, Eduoard Manet and Edgar Degas have significantly shaped his visual language. Like them, Beck struggles to depict the human condition of his age but within an altered framework. As a member of an "information society" he recognizes the significance that language plays in establishing perception and shaping information. Elements that resist the old framework—such as instant global media coverage, computers and digital photography—are critically important in shaping culture. Through a unique synthesis of allegory, psychological perceptiveness and idiosyncratic invention, Beck constructs manifold enigmatic puzzles depicting critiques of bourgeois and working-class cultures.

As a painter, he is a master of social and socio-political satire and lampoonery. Working with powerful, whiplash candor and employing the drama of light-dark contrasts, Beck brings forth intelligent pictures that are filled with wry commentary about our Postmodern era. His use of the recognizable image is comforting and inviting to the viewer, despite the bizarre content of the dramas portrayed.

Martin Beck manipulates a unique brand of visual rhetoric to scrutinize a materialist, lost society, using insight and wit. Beck and his brand of farce at times echo the satires of Molière and Swift. Unlike many contemporary artists who prefer to deconstruct history or to make political jabs at conventional society, he neither perpetuates academic theory nor produces political illustration. One might conclude that he is somewhat out of step with the times because of his determination to remain connected to historical and allegorical painting. I caution one not to draw such a simplistic and erroneous conclusion. Just as Marcel Duchamp was a master at playing language and intellectual games, in Beck’s art, what you see may not be what you think you see! Notwithstanding the prevailing esoteric extravaganzas enacted in his work, each composition is resolutely constructed to characterize the unbalanced social, political and psychological configuration of life at the close of the 20th Century.

Beck remains steadfast in his dialogue with other visual art traditions despite his need to express the reeling realities of this era. He functions as a type of trickster who comprehends the power of surprise and camouflage. He is an astute student of film and popular culture. His brand of black comic drama stems not from a frenzied mind, but from an artist who is an ardent observer. Beck’s respect for the old masters and Europe’s grandest traditions conjure up the philosophical aesthetic stance of Manet and his controversial works, handled with luscious, painterly fluency and rich tonal contrasts, inspired by the 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez. Beck’s painting Lazy (1997), imparts such a propensity.

Unlike Goya, Beck does not condemn humanity for its evils but acknowledges its absurdity and how it informs our fractured everyday realities. In his jewel-colored, emotive ambiguity, Beck presents emotional confusion with lucid exactitude. Although he employs the traditional medium of painting, the resulting outcome represents a fundamental break with tradition. Film, photography and electronic technology are influential in shaping his vision. Beck provides viewers with imagery that packs a powerful punch because he recognizes the spectator’s predilection for television’s sound-bite productions and exotica.

In his paintings, Beck unleashes a natural strength and power that might have elicited Nietsche's approval. At times, Beck freely mixes parody with elements of strangeness, hinting at a macabre vision. Through the employment of theatrical invention he visualizes the inherent anxiety of a floundering society. In his extraordinary range of subjects, he focuses on middle-class American social rituals, the human psyche and the frequently weird behavior of individuals at ceremonial (but lackluster) gatherings. His pageants delve into the hypocrisy of external appearance and the coexistence of aberrant social behavior of the highborn.

The biting commentaries of his potent and sagacious compositions inspire reflection long after a painting is out of sight. Everywhere in Beck’s work, quirky psychological elements pervade, revealing tormented and confused characters. The world he presents is a playing field of uncensored personal expression in which he shares his notes about contemporary American life. Acute observations of human interactions, as well as an uninhibited mind that is in search of truth and meaning inspire this art. He invents a strange world of infinite spaces, limitless vistas and conflicting characters that coexist within a single frame. Beck’s diligent focus on humanitarian social consciousness calls to mind such French independents as Daumier, Millet and Courbet who constituted the fountainhead of liberal thinking in the 19th Century. Beck also shares a consciousness with Eric Fischl, whose work recalls an art of the most traditional kind. Both artists depict American psychological states and the particular conditions of a precise moment; both utilize a technique of switching from one historical period to another in a fleeting manner that resembles electronic communication. Nonetheless, unlike Fischl, Beck does not merely focus on the dysfunctional suburban family—he implicates the viewer in narrating unresolvable conditions, mixing time references, symbols and places of diverse reference.

His proletarian characters and themes, more frequently than not, are disturbing in these phantasmagoric, realist works of art. Beck perceives today’s society through unique personal insight and attempts to locate his position as a male member of a society that is in the midst of radical social and technological mutation. As Courbet worked from a tangent to a circle relationship in order to capture on canvas essences of his era, Beck likewise creates his visual arrangements in a rather disjoined manner.

Repeatedly, as was the case with Alfred Hitchcock, Beck appears as a removed personality in his masterfully executed paintings that elude an affinity with film noir. Although subtle at times, Beck employs a mordantly witty genius for caricature in expressing his contempt for hypocrisy, bourgeois stupidity and the rampant desire for spectacle. This is most evident in Tarzan’s Hollywood Party (1996), based deliberately on John Gardener’s novel, "The Sunlight Dialogues." On the surface it appears that something significant is happening in this crowded masque. Upon closer examination, however, the arena is revealed as only a dense, frieze-like palisade depicting a crowd of absurdly gesturing and isolated people, ostensibly acting out their individual fantasies. Through his use of contrasted color and exaggerated postures, Beck appears to stress the tangible presence and shape of a superficial reality. Formally, Beck utilizes the Hitchcockian signature cameo device by presenting himself in the composition, as he and one of the apes are centrally placed in the forefront of the painting. They are laughing hysterically as if they are part of the "maddening" crowd, but actually they are separated from the assembly by an illusory wall composed of a red line. Perhaps Beck is merely producing a 1990s parody of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing." Is that not what most spectacle is about, despite its overt importance in popular culture?

Since 1995, Beck’s paintings have become darker, with large contrasting black areas and increasing compositional complexity. Gone is the playful sensibility once conveyed in the earlier works. Now, images share a type of socially serious realism akin to the Die Brücke artists in Germany. Unlike Beck’s earlier compositions, his new works possess an overriding psychological subject matter and lay bare the depths of tormented, even pathological, characters. Multiple dramas are enacted concurrently within the picture plane and Beck delivers eerily disquieting messages that require analytical decoding. In these more recent works, Beck’s familiarity with photography and film is all the more evident. As Degas harnessed photography for his picture-making processes, Beck employs photographs to piece together his idiosyncratic narratives. In the painting Nation (1994), the viewer is witness to a banquet that could be a political fundraiser. It can easily be interpreted as a media event captured by CNN; however, this painting filled with disjointed elements and historical references reads more as a scene from a Fellini or Bergman film.

In the work Lazy, what presumably resembles a type of family gathering is actually a bizarre adulterant of contradiction. This agitated image is almost equally divided into two parts by a flowing red curtain. We behold interior and exterior scenes from different moments in history. In this jangle of complexity and dissonance, Beck presents absolutes about human reality in a formidable setting that is laced with symbols of death and destruction. It appears the artist is trying to make sense of certain aspects of human history, but without passing judgment. The theologian Martin Buber has addressed the topic of good and evil, and his conclusion that each is a dual aspect of life is brought to the forefront in this image, which depicts a civilization that has a fluid and unstable form. Such sacred popular icons as motherhood, Santa Claus and the United States flag coexist with symbols that conjure up associations of blood and hatred—skulls and cross-bones, alcohol and the Nazi and Confederate flags.

The most mysterious of all his paintings is Jumping Off (1997). This is a disquieting piece devoid of humor. A Gothic obscure urgency prevails in this potent work which is filled with jarring contrasts of colorful enigmatic spaces, forced distortions and bizarre juxtapositions. One cannot but ask, what is going on here? Why are bathers standing on a pier out in "the middle of nowhere," with a seaplane docked along one side and two canoes on adjacent sides? Why does the sea abruptly evolve into a brilliant country club-like green island? And, off in the distance, why do rolling hills fill the horizon line against a sunset like one that might be found in Thomas Cole's "Voyage of Life" series? Manifold scenes are present, and the subject matter is transformed into new levels of meaning by Beck’s use of incongruent relationships.

Like many artists of his generation who were raised with the omnipresence of the media and its powerful impact, Beck ardently knows that surface is everything and appearance has become the essence. Perhaps it is because of these insights that Beck deliberately constructs paintings that withhold the hidden plot and disorder. In his conglomerate environments densely filled with historical characters, friends and colleagues that are treated with "black humor," Beck never intends to be blatantly cynical about humanity—so often the case in much late 20th-century art. Unlike the existentialists who despaired about a world filled with absurdity, Beck accepts and tries to make the best of it. Beck's effusive embellishments carry complex meanings and represent a rich diversity of cultures and generations. Myth, reality, folklore and comedy successfully coalesce in these crowded visual fields of human culture. The pageants unveiled remain ambivalent—they have no beginning, middle or end. The viewer enters and is invited to only investigate and then freely interpret the theatrical performance. Beck learned long ago that crisis infiltrates all decades and he opts to be a storyteller of a world in flux. With the death of Modernism and universal systems of meaning, however, art must be unraveled carefully.

How do we untangle the visual language and content in Martin Beck’s art of changing and shifting horizons? Beck has suggested using Hannah Arendt's famous descriptive term for Nazi brutality, "the banality of evil," as a guidepost for the interpretation of these pictures. If there is evil here it is certainly banal. I have found that the following line from J. Cazotte, The Devil in Love, also works quite well as a key: "The truth is that the devil is very cunning. The truth is that he is not always as ugly as they say."

Elaine A. King, 1998
Professor, Critical Theory & History of Art,
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

Lazy, 1997

Jumping Off, 1997

Corn Dog, 1996

Tarzan's Hollywood Party, 1996

Lush Life, 1994

Nation, 1994

It's a Gift, 1993