Martin Kline’s Double Vision

Martin Kline at work on
The Cleveland Mural
November, 2003
(photo by Abigail Bobrow)

onsider, as Descartes did over three centuries ago, a piece of wax. It has a definite shape, its texture is smooth, and it feels hard and cold. But as soon as it nears a flame it alters radically; from solid it has turned to liquid, from cold and firm, to warm and soft. The wax has metamorphosed into something unrecognizable. It can no longer be held in our hands, trumping all our preconceptions about its nature. Left with this viscous and amorphous substance, Descartes rebels, announcing with a vengeance that a little piece of wax has driven him to rethink the history of philosophy. Stop trusting your senses, he tells us, and sharpen your mind. Then you will not be betrayed by a puny little piece of matter. Cast away the wax as material object and turn it into an abstraction, something that can exist within the confines of your mind alone.

Thus what I thought I had seen with my eyes, I actually grasped solely with the faculty of judgment, which is in my mind. (Meditations)

Martin Kline has joyously rejected Descartes’ lesson. Wax, in large part because of its unpredictability, has been one of his preferred modus operandi. It drips, catches onto itself, resists the artist’s will, ultimately reminding him that the medium, as well as the artist’s control and intentions, dictate how a work of art is made. Kline embraces exactly what Descartes shunned, the co-mingling of anarchy and order that lies at the heart of matter. But in no way do these anti-Cartesian instincts make his works arbitrary or undisciplined. What is so striking about Kline is that he responds with equal brilliance and rigor to the unyielding nature of his chosen mediums, melting and hardening wax, liquefying and solidifying bronze, and most recently, the unmanageable oilstick. Kline thrives on adversity. It urges him to find a solution, a way of turning the random into the formal, while never giving up the exquisite uniqueness of his material.

This installation is both a departure from and the felicitous continuation of Kline’s previous work. Even more than in the past he exceeds the boundaries of the canvas in these works by salvaging the excess of the oilstick crayon he draws with, creating an auxiliary work in its own right. Kline’s new work in oilstick on canvas is less formal than his earlier graphite grid drawings on paper. In his recent mural made at the Cleveland Museum of Art, a lacework suggestion of vaults, wells, orbs and keyholes, the grid distorted, twisted and turned in on itself, populates the surface of the canvas. Kline works on an expanse of linen canvas stapled to the wall, primed with lead white or gesso but leaving an unprimed margin at its edge, laying bare all the raw materials of his exercise. Initially, Kline found the medium of oilstick difficult to control. Oilstick resists precision because it often has a skin and its softness makes it difficult to produce a sharp line. Kline describes this as “drawing with a blunt object.” Accumulations also build up at the end of the stick. But, typically, he found bounty in adversity. Each time the end of the oilstick broke off, or needed cleaning or sharpening, Kline wiped the excess on to a sheet of paper or canvas lying flat at his side. So the surplus, the waste of the oilstick, precisely what had produced the initial frustration, akin to Descartes’ rage at the nomadic wax, became another source of inspiration. The “mother-drawing” generates an offspring with its oilstick surplus, a “child-drawing,” a grid of hieroglyphic-like signs. Each drawing preserves a singular and distinct quality.

These twin works are the culmination of what Kline has been doing all along, letting the material itself dictate the nature of the work. Kline’s work discloses how something is made and how it follows its own rules before surrendering to his ordering principle.

What makes these drawings so significant within Kline’s corpus is that they reveal his singularly protozoan philosophy. The world is about transformation. Cells multiply, spread, change, separate, and regroup. Nothing stops the perpetual motion that sustains and dissolves our universe. Never has the inevitability of motion been so central to Kline’s production as in these new works. The eye cannot settle on any corner of the canvas. Labels cannot describe this universe in motion. Its magic lies in our inability to specifically identify and isolate forms and movement. Dark and luminous, these gestural shapes suggest an organized world while articulating an inherent disorder.

Such contradictory motion is at the heart of Kline’s work. Just when we think we can make his world familiar, it turns into something else; the “M” that appears fleetingly as the artist’s signature, is but an accidental trace, another reminder that we have not the ability to translate these signs into any familiar language. Kline, in another un-Cartesian move, has no intention to defeat nature’s haphazard quality. In fact, even more insistently than in the past, he actively yields to the fortuitous. But where previously he let paint or wax splatter out from the frame, dripping away from our sight and touch, falling somewhere in the studio, here he gives the splattering a second chance. The painting’s overflow becomes the basis for a new work. From what might have been rubbish arises something precious, almost unbearably so. As in so many of Kline’s works, it is this precariousness that delights and unsettles. How easy it would be to pick at the delicate outgrowths, to tempt fate once again. As with Kline’s fragile wax paintings, viewers might have to stick their hands in their pockets for fear of doing their own discrete recycling.

These twin-drawings produce in the viewer a double impulse, the irresistible desire to touch, to consume, and the awed need to stand back, to take in from afar the monumental quality of the work, with all its contradictions and mysteries. Each fulfils a different promise, one pushing you away so you can see better, and the other reminding you that art is as evanescent as the medium that has brought it to life in the first place.

Marina Van Zuylen