Dynamic Sublimity: Donald Martiny’s Brushstrokes

Initially, in Turner, Delacroix, and the Barbizon School, the brush stroke was made more noticeable, and this appearance was to increase under impressionist.  The imitative or descriptive function of painting was increasingly diminished by the growing prominence of the physical substance of which a painting is made, the paint…Finally the whole brush stroke leaps forth dramatically in the work of van Gogh.
The brush stroke now becomes for the first time a distinct, separate unit of artistic expression.
James Mann, Beyond Post-Modernism:  Manifesto of Vandalism(1)

We call that sublime which is absolutely great.  Beauty is connected with the form of the object, having boundaries, while the sublime is to be found in a formless object, represented by a pointlessness.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement

      Donald Martiny’s paintings look straightforward–dramatically expressive gestural works, some small and invitingly intimate, most grand and intimidatingly large, all blatantly colorful, sometimes with a singular color in a sweeping shape, at other times with contrasting colors and intersecting shapes, dialectically interacting however at odds, subliminally reconciled however ostensibly irreconcilable–but that is deceptive, for they are as much abstract sculptures as abstract paintings, sometimes suspended in space, sometimes stranded on a wall, as though they were fragments of some grand mural.  If, as Hans Hofmann wrote, “the mystery of plastic creation is based upon the dualism of the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional,”(3) then the mystery of Donald Martiny’s plastic creations is that they are two-dimensional and three-dimensional–paintings and sculptures–at once, and as such paradoxically monistic rather than dualistic.  For Martiny painting and sculpture–traditionally separated however often a sculpture may be given a skin of paint, and painterly texture may give a painting sculptural resonance–are implicitly the same.  Martiny’s works are subjectively expressive–convey feeling, often intense, as the abruptness of the gestures suggest (they have a meteoric presence, as though articulated on the spur of the visual moment)–even as they show a mastery of the material medium of paint that makes them exemplary modernist works.

     But what makes them truly mysterious–paradoxical–is their compacted sublimity.  To allude to the Kant epigraph, Martiny’s brushstrokes are formless objects given precise form, and as such beautiful as well as sublime, implicitly boundless and uncontainable yet explicitly bounded and self-contained.  His brushstrokes have an emblematic charisma, all the more so when they boldly seem to emerge from the canvas-like white wall on which they are displayed, their color-saturated fullness finessing its vacuous flatness.  Seemingly suspended in its open space, they acquire a sculptural presence, a three-dimensional resonance.  As though frozen in flight, they appear in its luminous absence like devilish angels, alive with impulsive power.  Surely Weyto, 2014, Ifo, 2016, and Elmolo, 2017 have a wing-like presence, at least to my hyperactive imagination–are the two feather-like forms in Zhang Zhang, 2016 the wings of some fallen Icarus?  More pointedly and art historically, virtually all of Martiny’s brushstrokes, including such relatively static ones as those in Abipo, Esume, and Kpato, all 2017, have kinetic power that links them with the Neo-Plasticism of Naum Gabo.
     “Who has not admired in the Victory of Samothrace,” Gabo wrote in 1937, “the so-called dynamic rhythms, the imaginary forward movement incorporated in this sculpture?  The expression of motion is the main purpose of the composition of the lines and masses of this work.”(4)  Are Martiny’s brushstrokes not linear masses?  To label them Neo-Expressionist is to miss the fact that they are “kinetic constructions in space,” to use Gabo’s phrase–to sell their heritage short, a heritage Martiny acknowledges by way of his admiration for the work of the Polish constructive sculptor Katarzyna Kobro, whose Space Composition 4, 1929 is “absolutely remarkable in the way (it) uniquely organizes space.”  Clearly she rather than Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning is Martiny’s inspiration–his muse.  Conveniently labeled abstract expressionist, seen in art historical perspective Martiny’s brushstrokes read as neo-plastic constructions.  More pointedly, they epitomize the neo-plastic ambition of conveying “the sensation of real kinetic rhythms passing in space,” as Gabo put it, as he compared it with “the arts of Music and Choreography.”(5)  Martiny’s neo-plastic constructions seem to dance in space like frozen music, the perfect art, as Walter Pater famously argued, for in it form and content are inseparable and indistinguishable.  Martiny’s brushstrokes can be read as resounding musical notes as well as grand physical gestures, reminding us that from the start abstract painting aspired to the condition of music, as Kandinsky implied when he wrote that “the affinity between painting and music is evident.”(6)

    According to Gabo, in a statement that amounts to the credo of pure art, “Every single shape made ‘absolute’ acquires a life of its own, speaks its own language, and represents one single emotional impact attached only to itself.  Shapes act, shapes influence our psyches, shapes are events and Beings…The emotional force of an absolute shape is immediate, irresistible, and universal.”(7)  This suggests that every shape is spontaneously created, and as such has a life of its own.  Uniquely itself, it becomes emblematic of the self as such.  More pointedly, each and every one of Martiny’s brushstrokes reads as “the spontaneous gesture of the True Self in action,” to use the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s famous distinction between the True and False Self.(8)  “Only the True Self can be creative,” for it is “closely linked with…the Primary Process,” and as such is “not reactive to external stimuli, but primary.”  Martiny’s brushstrokes epitomize primary creativity, all the more so because they are not reactive to external stimuli–woman in de Kooning’s case, as Woman I, 1950 makes clear; nature in Pollock’s case, as Autumn Rhythm, 1950 makes clear–but convey the “kinetic rhythms” of “creative impulses,” to use Gabo’s words, or, psychoanalytically speaking, they bespeak the “motor intentionality” of primary process.

     Noteworthily, Martiny uses the words of extinct languages of so-called primitive people to title his brushstrokes.  He spent some time with 200 indigenous people in Bolivia’s Modidi rainforest–the last of their tribe.  He doesn’t want to use numbers to name his brushstrokes, for they are too cold and distant, nor terms that give them a narrative meaning.  In contrast, the primitive words of primitive people are heart-felt, that is, convey the feeling of primary aliveness–“energy and life in its most elemental form,” as Emil Nolde put it–that primitive people are thought to have by so-called civilized people, alienated from “primeval vitality” and with that primary creativity (and emotional reality) epitomized by the primitive words (and art) of primitive people.  These (artful) words flash with the libidinous intensity and terse directness of primary process, as Martiny’s brushstrokes do.  Fascination with primitive or native cultures, epitomizing primary creativity–native or inborn creativity–to Western eyes, has been a staple of art since Gauguin.  But where for him it meant the repudiation of Western society and values, Martiny’s mural–named Unami, the extinct language of the Lanape, an Indian tribe that once inhabited large parts of the states of New York and New Jersey–in the ultra-modern World Trade Center One building in New York City, suggest, however ironically, that it can be the saving grace of Western society, and has value in itself, as Martiny’s brushstrokes do.

(1)James Mann, Beyond Post-Modernism:  Manifesto of Vandalism (Santa Fe:  Bell Tower Editions, 2015), 53
(2)Hannah Ginsborg, “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005, 2013
(3)”Hans Hofmann, excerpts from his teaching,” Theories of Modern Art, ed. Herschel B. Chippy (Berkeley and London:  University of California Press, 1971), 540
(4)Ibid., 334-335
(5)Ibid., 335
(6)Ibid., 347
(7)Ibid., 336
(8)D. W. Winnicott, “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York:  International Universities Press, 1965), 146

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