Deep Humanity: The Drawings of Martin Beck
Updated: Sep 4, 2019
I want my work to reflect the study of the nude form as something that uplifts our experience of being human. This is not prescriptive art and does not have the power to change the world. But it might help spark a quiet revolution in one’s own experience.
- Martin Beck
As an art critic, I have seen many exhibits that present technologically based conceptual artworks, leaving the viewer detached and uninvolved. The art world seems to have embraced the very alienation and conformity that it once had the courage and self-awareness and to challenge. Discovering the figure drawings of Martin Beck at the ARC gallery last April came as a welcome surprise. His images of nude figures expressed the exact opposite of postmodernist indifference: consummate skill, bold sincerity, emotional intensity. I came away feeling the richness of his observations and the organic energy in his technique that penetrated the presence of his subjects. Here was something radical and rare to find: the necessary witnessing of the individual as a unique human presence. Martin Beck’s searching eye awakens and animates our human instinct, so long suppressed by our technological environment, to take pleasure and again find interest in the human figure.
DT: Can you talk about your materials and technique? How do you start an image? What materials do you use and how do you build it up?
MB:I use pastel, acrylic, watercolor and gouache, gum arabic medium, graphite powder, and spray paint. Among my drawing tools are a random orbit sander, finishing sander, atomizers, and a garden hose. I often start with a drawing - one that I've already done. Usually, I tone the paper with watercolor or gouache, sometimes acrylic. I use spray paint. I'll take it and sand it. I build up these layers of accidental color and mark making. Or I have a simple toned piece of paper - I’ll do a drawing on it, I'll stick it on the wall and add more pigment to it by adding pastel dust, smearing colors around, and then do another drawing on top of that. Eventually, I have a result from the session that has enough going for it that I can complete it. I usually have multiple layers of drawing with some part of the figures revealed and others that are obscured as a palimpsest.
DT: I can feel the sincerity of your intention in the lines, planes, and color modulations flowing of one medium into the next. Your thought processes draw me in and engage me. I feel the condensation of hours of looking at the model in all those elements. It's wonderful and rare.
MB: That's all part of the journey. For me, that process feels very much like life, like being alive. Previously, I had been doing large-scale figurative work - that got tiresome after a while with the scale and over complexity. I wanted a more straightforward, more immediate way of working with the figure. Working from the figure was more life affirming in a lot of ways.
DT: When you where a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh were there particular teachers that influenced you in figure drawing? What did you feel about the education experience you got?
MB: I studied at SUNY Buffalo (1982 - 1986) with Harvey Breverman, a printmaker who makes incredible figurative work. I learned a lot from him. At CMU (1990 - 1992)there weren’t many professors there that influenced me – many were too busy pushing me to abandon the figure. I learned a bit from Herb Olds. Pat Bellan-Gillen had some interesting things to say about materials, surface, and color. Elaine King was my strongest influence there, mostly concerning art criticism and issues in contemporary art. Graduate seminars were awful. They were pushing collaboration, performance, and installation.In many ways, I was self-taught, going to look at art in museums, and just doing a lot of drawing. I think it is all about sensitizing yourself to see and being able to let your hand draw what your eyes see. So once you learn some basic techniques, it is up to the student to work at it.
DT: What artists and art traditions do you admire?
MB: Artists like Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Renaissance artists interest me. I always loved the Flemish primitives because of the magic realism in their work. Degas has been a significant influence on me in his drawing and his multi media approach using monoprint, pastels, sculpture, and oil paintings. He was such a technician and a tinkerer. The author of the book Dega’s Method– Line Clausen Pendersen - called it radical craftsmanship. I like Käthe Kollwitz quite a bit. She has a real immediacy in her drawing and a political sensibility that is very powerful. By contrast, without that human quality and passion in the political artwork made today, the political message gets diluted. It's the difference between making a statement and living the statement.
DT: The artist witnessing through one's self?
MB: Yes, she was a witness to her time, and her passion came through in her work because she was not trying to invent strategies to communicate. She was communicating directly. She had the skill from her years of drawing to be able to do that effectively.
DT: The skill became a way for her to express and witness her feelings about the sufferings of the poor and their struggles in society. That is why her work has such great authenticity.
MB: It's the authenticity part that really comes through. You can tell that this was her passion. She wasn't distant from her subject or materials. She was hands-on; there was no intermediary there. That time between the wars in Germany is significant to me partially because I have German ancestry and also because of how it reflects our own time. Artists like George Grosz, Otto Dix, and the Neue Sachlichkeit were painters trying to deal with a really horrific social environment: the aftermath of war and the challenges of technology that were changing the face of their society in catastrophic ways. They were struggling with those things in their work. I think that is something we should be doing now, except that most of the art produced today is cerebral, distant and cold. Most people can't relate to it at all.
DT: How does your art address this state of affairs in the art world and the larger society? How does the explosion of conceptual art and deskilling in art teaching diminish connection to the human condition?
MB: I often work in a drawing group, not in isolation. Working in a figure-drawing group together with other people - not alone on a computer - is an important dynamic. We connect with the model. The artists are all very committed and are there every week drawing. I find that studying a person with intensity reaffirms being alive.
DT: The art world is deeply embedded in the use of photography, mass media pop culture, and conceptualism. Many artists use these approaches to “signify” human experiences. What does drawing from life give that sets it apart from these approaches?
MB: You are working with another person. You are not working by yourself using an image or object. You have to work with the other person, and you cannot usethe other person. You have to work in collaboration with them to some degree. starting with the immediacy of figure drawing and working from life gives art liveliness that one does not often see in recent art. I think that liveliness comes from improvising. There is a difference between composing on a computer and the way a jazz musician would improvise in front of an audience - there are a lot of variables. Drawing from life, it is the same kind of thing - you have toimprovise. I think there's infinite variation in that. Something coldly composed does not have that same variety or quality.
DT: You mean the way the art witnesses the human presence? For example, how Lucian Freud spent many hours painting a single pose. You feel those many hours of witnessing imbued the work itself with the deep psychological relationship he had with his models?
MB: Lucian Freud is one of those artists who practiced radical craftsmanship, working for hours on a single pose over many months. Radical craftsmanship is about how far you can push your self to express the reality, not of making something “look real," but the experience of drawing and painting something in that environment.
DT: I feel your work stands out as a testament to a different time when art had a deeper connection with its audience. Both you and I were taught that figure drawing was valuable and that artistic intention and depth of expression mattered. Now skill and having a connective emotional reality is being lost, even censored, in art training and education. What do you think has caused this?
MB: I think that mostly it's an economic motivation. It's the fact that if you spend time learning to do something well, there is a lot of labor that goes into it. People are not willing to spend money on that kind of skill anymore. They want to see something that could be a commodity that is easily made and easily explained. A lot of conceptual art can be explained very easily. Think of any political or topical comment that becomes a piece of art composed of objects that were probably fabricated in a factory and thrown together. In some ways that's a lot easier than what I do. It's easy to be clever. I think illustrating a clever remark using installation is something that requires very little skill. In some ways, you could say it's more “democratic” because the artist does not have to spend years learning to draw. You can go ahead and be productive without having to learn to do anything.
DT: You mean “democratic” in the sense that to not learn a skill is less exclusive?
MB: Less exclusive and less expensive - it's open to anyone. But it also loses the element of study. It should be difficult to make art. It should require depth, study, commitment, and skill.
DT: Does conceptual art encourage the artist to have a depersonalized relationship with his or her own artwork and with their audience? A lot of the artists you admire use gesture, mark making, perception, and skill in creating their work: ways of embedding the artists' emotional reality.
MB: I think a good piece of art that is handmade shows the artists’ journey. They talk about Degas always struggling to find the form. If you look at his drawings and monoprints he’s used a searching or repeated a line until he finds the form. That's a journey you can take with him when you look at the art. Edwin Dickinson is a superlative draftsman: you can SEE him seeing, you can FEEL him seeing, you can FEEL him drawing. That’s true for Käthe Kollwitz too. You take part in that experience. When you take a piece of art that's been fabricated, made to order, you don't feel anything. Do you feel the factory worker making it?
DT: Is commercial fabrication a code for the arts saleability?
MB: You lose a connection to the artist’s journey. Instead, you understand the artist’s strategy. You don't feel what the artist feels. You know he is trying to communicate with you, but you don't know if what he's trying to convey is something he thinks or feels. I prefer artists who draw and paint like they mean it - as if it were a matter of life and death. For a lot of art, it does not seem to matter that it was made or that it's being looked at - as if it were made to go into a collectors’ or museums’ storage. I don't see people engaging with it. I don't see people looking at it wondering how it was made unless it is a matter of pure scale. One common feature about contemporary art is that it often takes up a lot of space. It's enormous and calls attention to itself. But I'm not sure that it warrants that kind of space and attention.
DT: A spectacular presentation requires space, and often uses technology and extensive fabrication. I see these as attempts to compete with mass-based spectacles. It seems like under the pressure of deskilling, commercialization, and spectacle oriented strategies, the subjective point of art making has been lost.
MB: The situation is similar to people having jobs that they are not passionate about. Just as assembling premade objects is not craft. If a cabinetmaker wants to make a beautiful cabinet, it takes years of apprenticeship. It's not like going out and buying the cheap piece of furniture from IKEA that you put together yourself. We have lost the intensity of inhabiting our work.
DT: Being invested in the physical reality of what we create should be meaningful and connected to life. Even among artistswho are skilled in drawing, not all of them show the kind of interior feeling, moodiness, and intimacy that I see in your work. Where does this come from? The German Expressionism from a century ago - the Neue Schaklickiet - looks relevant to the emotional trauma in our contemporary society. But expressionism in contemporary art is not there. I see more critical consciousness and expressive truth coming from artists making animated films or graphic novels than those that shown in contemporary art museums. I find your work of deep value because of its emotional power, subjectivity, moodiness, and intimacy. It is not merely academic. What are the emotional sources of your work?
MB: Inflammatory arthritis forced me to change from doing large multi-figure paintings and drawings to 4-hour drawing sessions, working shorter periods. It was challenging to deal with a physical limitation, yet I began to draw with everything I had for those four hour sessions. This intense activity of perceiving and drawing comes out - it's there. I don't think I'm creating it, I'm just finding it.
DT: Channeling what happens inside - it just comes out spontaneously and naturally…
MB: People are so vitally important. It seems obvious to say. Individuals are essential. When making a drawing, it's a very individual thing. In that intensity, I find those aspects of a person that are subtle, even things that a person might try to hide. When I am drawing, I can see a little bit past their skin - almost.
DT: This reminds me of Lucian Freud condensing of the psychological personality of his subject on his canvases. This gives great power and value to his work. You have this too – a live wire of inner necessity that reaches for engagement with the model. By contrast I also recognize there are artists with great skill that lack the emotional ability to connect with their subject.
MB: It's absolutely necessary to involve yourself with it to that degree. When an artist is blasé or does not have that level of investment, it comes out in their work. You mentioned highly skilled artists who draw from the figure - their work can be like academic exercises. They are not doing work as though their life depended on it. I think that's a necessary state of mind to be in when you are making art. When you are working from life you can achieve that state. If you are working through cold composition, strategies, ways of communicating tactics, it does not come out as well. It's not as strong. It is not as immediate. Passion is not there.
DT: Jane Kallir, director of the Gallerie St. Etienne in New York, has written about how the art world has essentially disappeared: it has been reduced to a matter of engagement between commercial interests, auction houses and a small group of super wealthy collectors. The art market world seems to be rigged based on the monetary strategies of major players. Do you feel this amounts to unspoken censorship in mainstream art systems?
MB: I think you're right about that. I think a lot of graphic novels and animation show a real necessity to do that work. The artists are passionate about it, they have something to say, and they're going to say it in whatever way they can. The graphic novels are a great form because there's a narrative quality and a visual quality. As to why the state of affairs in the art world has occurred, it's apparent that it's primarily an economic situation. People don't want to make an investment in spending time learning skills if there is a quicker way to do it. The calculation part of it is problematic. Irony has been popular for a long time, and sincerity has not been. That has led to art being dehumanizing. Not everything is “bullshit”: to dismiss anything authentic because it might actually be true, just because the contemporary artist does not understand authenticity.
DT: Maybe that's also because connecting with authenticity might also be connecting with vulnerability. Not being vulnerable creates a mask: that we do not need relationships. We are primates - we need relationships. One of the great crises of today is this loneliness, anomie, and alienation. Artists who thirst for relationship find a lot of richness in figurative drawing. It had a deep therapeutic connection to human needs that used to exist in the art world but not any more. Today we are in an anti-art world.
MB: Definitely. Definitely…
DT: Drawing on a computer is nothing like drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil or a piece of charcoal.
MB: It's really the programmer giving you only a specific set of things that you can do. It doesn't involve your body. With analog drawing, you are moving with natural dynamics and complex variables. With the computer, there are not that many variables. It's based on the programmer's code. Today we have a lot of mediated experiences. We don't directly experience anything anymore. Not having the ability to have accident or variables that are not under your control is a profound limitation.
DT: We seem to be in a Marshall McLuhan situation - that “the medium is the message.” Authentic cultural expression has been displaced by technological mediation. Good graphic novels and animated films have the imprimer of autership – subjective control of the work . This is something I have noticed much conceptually based museum art is not able to achieve.
MB: The method of conveyance is critically important: it’s the authenticity of the moment that shows how the artist has made something, and it's that authenticity that the audience hopefully understands. A person who is viewing a piece of art is involved with it, not just receiving information but witnessing and experiencing it in time. Heidegger talks about how this: not the idea of something but the experience of thing itself.It is essential to ask artists, "what was the experience of making this like?” If that thing was drawn on a computer or designed and fabricated on specs, what was it like to do that? Was it interesting, was it fun? Did it make you tired? What did you remember about that experience? Because that's what’s relevant when you make a figure drawing. What was the light like? What was the personality of the model? How was one model different from another?
DT: Do you see the possibility of artists coming together to make change, by being in groups and through their relationships?
MB: Well, it's like a lot of things in our culture. We keep pretending that individuals can make significant changes, and they can't. Is there anything that artists can do? Well, they can make their art, and they try to get it out for people to see and experience. But for things to significantly change institutions must change. Recently I was listening to a curator that had juried a show. They said it was the first time they put work in the show with artists that they did not already know. It blows my mind to think that somebody with authority to show art is exclusively selecting from a subset of artists they already know. They don't look for anything new. They don't go outside their comfort zone or go outside of what’s already been accepted.
DT: You seem to be describing a strict hierarchy of what is and is not acceptable in the art world.
MB: I think you have to have curators willing to go out and visit actual artists studios without having a recommendation from a gallery or art people. If you visit 100 artists and they are all doing figurative work but the only artists being shown are doing conceptual work, then that conceptual work is an outlier. The art magazines will devote an entire issue to some subset of artists or particular technology - and it is rarely figurative. And the work that isfigurative seems ironic, insulting to figuration, or incredibly slick and man-made looking. It seems that work is chosen because it ridicules figurative art.
DT: It's cynical. I find that deeply troubling because it means the culture has already given up on having a relationship with its own humanity. Older artists like Lucian Freud and Philip Pearlstein have been accepted into the canon of important figurative art. But the postmodernism doctrine which followed dismissed anyone who wished to be influenced by Degas or Freud. Where do you see all this going in the future?
MB: Since I don't teach and I don't have a commercial gallery all I do is make the art and send it out to see who is interested. When I first sent out the new work of nudes, I was surprised by how many places where accepting it.
DT: That is good news.
MB: These are places where you have jurors - people who are not like curators who are beholden to their boards. Independent spaces will show whatever they want. They seem to like my work. I'm in a lot more exhibitions than I thought possible. I believe that even people who work in the official art world would like to see figurative work, but they are kept from supporting it because they have to keep their boards happy. And their boards want them to show contemporary art that's already in other museums. If someone else has taken the risk to show the art then okay,butnobody wants to take the risk first. That seems to be the key to the problem; the art world is very risk averse.
DT: You are lucky that you got your education when you did. Many art departments do not even teach skills for drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture. Have you noticed that too?
MB: Yes. I’ve had some students from the University of Kentucky in my drawing group. A lot of them have said that they aren’t learning the things they want: drawing and painting skills. That’s a sad direction. You know, you don't stop drawing and painting when you're 10 years old because you want to make an installation! I think technology has a lot of useful features and there are interesting new art forms being made. But that does not mean the old art forms are dead.
DT: Limiting teaching limits the individual - it bars their full development as an artist. I think the cost of education is also a dominant form of censorship, rigging, and exclusion.
MB: If you had a system where education was relatively free and accessible, and you could educate yourself for as long as you wanted, you would have a lot more people studying drawing and painting and learning these deep techniques. Then they could choose whether or not to take these techniques and put them into areas that are not traditional. You would at least still have that option. You would have that as part of the culture. Now you're forced NOT to learn how to draw or paint so that you can quickly get a gallery, and quickly make 100 of the same things so every collector can have one.
DT: You mentioned before you were concerned that a lot of places would not accept the nude figure. Why do you think that is? What is the aversion to the figure that exists today?
MB: I have no idea why. Maybe there's a lot of sublimated sexuality going on. People are afraid of their bodies. They're afraid of other people's bodies.
DT: You think this has something to do with the Christian view that splits the body from the spirit? That the spirit is elevated as superior and that the body is low and base? Right now, a strong movement of Evangelical Christianity is bearing down upon our society. It is misogynistic, homophobic, and authoritarian, with a deep-seated fear of the power of sexuality. This underlies the pornographic view of the body - a negative one - where the body becomes a soulless object for sexual use and abuse. This is how the figure is treated in the art world: cynical, degraded, or dehumanized.
MB: Cynicism is one of the things that bothers me most about the art world. You can dismiss certain things as bullshit, but you cannot dismiss a person. You can't laugh at everyone and think that they are unimportant. It’s a BIG problem that's part of our divisiveness as a society. You're right about religious oppression, it has always been a problem. Religion presents an afterlife. If there's going to be a better afterlife, then why take care of people when they're alive? Then you have no reason to treat people any better than you do. People need to be taken seriously. Their concerns and their vulnerabilities need to be taken seriously. Body image is problematic for many people. To be able to look at anyone and find beauty in them is essential. Our judgments of ugly and beautiful, judgments about people's worth, are skewed and based on a criteria that are not very authentic. Society makes them for us. I love Alice Neel's work lot because her portraits are so penetrating. She has an idiosyncratic drawing and painting style. It is not quite naturalistic or realistic, but she is exposing people's inner selves with a lot of empathy. I think they're wonderful.
DT: I met her once. She owned her own voice with such power and humor and tragedy. She painted what she lived with total conviction. There is no separation of self and work.
MB: And there is no irony. There is no archness there. She was absolutely serious. She does not condescend to her subjects; she's not being ironic about them. She takes them seriously as real people. The ironic distancing in contemporary art is destructive. That is the main thing that I find problematic. It is the distance we have from each other, the alienation we have from our jobs, the alienation that we have from our institutions, the alienation that we have from so many structures in our lives. Our experiences are always mediated by machines: the car you are driving, the computer that you're getting your information from, your hand held device. I have fallen prey to it as well. In my life there is always a screen somewhere nearby.
DT: On the other hand, you were lucky that you were able to learn the art skills you needed to express and find your own language.
MB: I get a good dose of antidote from technology when I'm working in the studio with models and other artists.
DT: What do you think about the use of identity politics being so common in the art world today?
MB: It seems like artists today needs to have a compelling story as a selling point for galleries. Our identity politics contribute to the problem of deskilling in that it seems that the artist’s story is more important than the art. There was a New York Times article a few months ago that lamented the loss of connoisseurship because the only new criteria are whether a piece was “important”, that is, dealing with an important social issue. Diversity is essential of course, but there are artists with no compelling story that make compelling art. Yet, marginalized people might not have access to education and the opportunity to develop skills. That is a luxury in our society. If education and opportunity were more available, that might not be the case. Ageism is another issue. The scooping up of young artists out of grad school before they’ve had time to mature is very problematic.
DT: What do you think about the phenomenon of artist as celebrity?
MB: It's vile and ridiculous, that an artist should be a celebrity. Artists are and should be considered serious, hard-working people who developed their skills and have a message that is relevant to their society - a sincere message. I find the worship of Andy Warhol - his commodification and his celebritizing, his melding of pop and his arch cynicism - very destructive.
DT: Very, very destructive. Duchamp and Warhol still remain major role models for most artists today. They embody the idea of what the successful artist is. There is a constant struggle between the fake persona that the art world demands, and who one really is inside. As we have said so often, when money is king there are no other values before it. That makes it very hard for an artist who is invested in their authentic self and real relationships. The demands of becoming a celebrity are self-defeating because you lose connection with what is authentic to yourself.
MB: I'd like somehow to let people reconnect to their humanity and be authentic. Our lives are serious and it's the only one we have. Sometimes I notice people who go into contemporary art museums, and they seem to think that the art there is all one big laugh at them, that there is some joke going on that they don't get, and they are the butt of it. And I think in some ways that's true.