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Martin Beck Interviewed by
Professor of Art History, William Paterson University, Wayne, NJ
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 this 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
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. 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 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 naive 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. 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. 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.
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 1 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 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, 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 humor- less 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.