Knox Martin at Janos Gat: A review of Caprichos by Edward Leffingwell
Knox Martin named his new series of generously scaled, unframed drawings "Caprichos" for the moralizing, didactic, fever-dream etchings of Goya that first attracted him as a child, 67 years ago. But there is substantial whimsy to Martin's recent phantasmagoria of animal and human forms. Ranging from roughly 2 to 7 feet on a side, they are confident, loosely drawn in pen and ink, crayon and watercolor on thin sheets of paper, and horizontally oriented; they are conceived as densely populated landscapes of the mind. Shown simply pinned to the gallery walls, the drawings are exhilarating in their freely drawn complex line, moments of vivid color and relation of form to the layering of space. They easily suggest the hallucinatory, storytelling landscapes of Mexican bark-paper drawings.
As a point of reference, Martin included his Concert in the Park (1955), a large oil on canvas, roughly 7 by 12 feet, that is allegorical and thoroughly painterly. This astonishing painting depicts a driver at the wheel of a black Cadillac convertible, who has taken an unexpected turn into an irrational world of lust and vanity. A whirling troupe of musicians emerges to populate this nocturne: a flying monster with harmonica and a truncated figure with an accordion, a long-nosed grotesque with slide trombone and a piper with a flute. They surround a recumbent Leda attended by a goat and swan. In a lower corner, a young girl out of Goya gazes with astonishment not as she witnesses this frenzied scene but as she looks into a mirror that reflects back to her the image of a skull.
Of the thousands of drawings Martin has made since that time, these "Caprichos," all dated 2003, advance furthest beyond the representational, but they remain charged with lust, like Concert in the Park 50 years or so ago. Amusing grotesques disport on the relatively open, glittering gold field of Pleaser. An aroused male nude at the edge of the lower left quadrant bows his back in orgasm in the general direction of creatures that resemble an alligator and a bird. A horse dressed in a hide of blue flowers cavorts across the drawing's field, something humorous released from the Picasso menagerie. The title figure of Conejo (Rabbit) escapes a monstrous, many-limbed gorillalike figure that utters a puff of steam at its elusive prey. Elsewhere, a central, wide-eyed being imagines figures at play, women's busts and breasts, birds, ridiculous rodents and fish. In all, Martin takes pleasure in his images and process, in the authority of his draftsmanship and the incisive nature of his wit, and with the simplest of mediums he invests these teeming bestiaries with the life of dreams.
Martin has an extensive exhibition history beginning with Stable Gallery in 1953, and he has exhibited at Janos Gat since 1997, when the gallery showed early work dating from 1953 to 1970. This new work comes as a surprise to those who have long associated Martin with resolutely geometric, brightly colored abstractions, familiar to millions of New Yorkers through the vast, intersecting geometries of massive public wall paintings, including Venus (1971) on a wall at 19th Street and the West Side Highway.
(Art In America, October 2003)