What am I doing at 4 in the morning watching a video of artist Chris Martin's recent lecture at the Hunter College Graduate Program on the James Kalm Report? Is it the same aging hunger to mainline anarcho impulses that made a former longtime Art in America editor spend an hour trying to recreate her high school jump-roping tricks at the end of a loft party in her honor a few nights ago?
I always told myself that I didn't want to grow old ungracefully by obsessively touring the art circuit as habitually as I did when I was a kid, but Chris Martin seems to think that's OK. He assembled a jazz combo to riff with him in the dark at Hunter as he manically slided through a lifetime of pretty fine work, while his vidpal James Kalm Beetle Bailey Loren Munk taped the goings on and did some shout outs from the peanut gallery.
Martin is introduced with a quote from Jerry Saltz that Martin is an "artist's artist," for which he is quickly heckled by artist Brett de Palma from the audience as to what that means. With his majestic bald dome bobbing in the dark, Martin explicates, as the band breaks into Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. "Artist's artist" means that you broke down in the ‘90s, went without a gallery for five years and helped other artists throw the paintings that they hated into a huge bonfire in upstate New York. "The artists then did especially good drawings," Martin adds, "because they knew they were about to throw them into the fire."
At one point, Martin flashes a snap of a hot dog he bought in Amsterdam smeared in alternating blobs of mustard and ketchup: "I realized that the 4-on-3 pattern of the condiments resembled just about every painting that I had ever done." Chris tells us that it is especially hard to deliberately make a bad painting, as he often tries to do, because "thoughts of good paintings keep creeping into my head." He punctuates the talk with photos of his heroes, such as Bob Dylan, Thornton Dial and a proud huskie pooch in the mountains, rhapsodizing about obsessively filling up his 7,000-square-foot mountain shack with new work.
But the most poignant moment arrives, when Martin is asked how it felt to be included in the Saatchi Collection. His manic spasms soften and a dreamlike miasma infiltrates Martin's voice in a transcendent riff of satisfied validation, which makes you want to sprinkle a bit of it on every artist you have ever known. But Martin recovers and quickly references "what it was like down in Miami," as the nectar of middle-aged success turns routine in an instant. Still, Martin's lifelong indefatigability is bracing, as the questions of his student audience breathe a grim professionalism.
He's a wiry lifer with a critical mass of entertaining painting behind him. Merry Martin, Chris Man, and a Happy New Year!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).