Truth Awakens as Fiction: The Art of Martin Kline
by Carter Ratcliff
Martin Kline’s Leda, 2001, is a curvilinear pattern in a square frame. The painting’s energies flow from the center in graceful, nested arcs of built-up paint. Moving at first with sensuous deliberation, these ridges slim down as they go, as if they were accelerating. By the time the paint reaches the peripheries it displays a feathered delicacy. That Leda is not only feathery but white is fitting, in a roundabout way, for we always recall the mythological character named Leda in the company of the swan who turned out to be Zeus in disguise. Holding on to the image of a bird, we might see wings in the pattern that circles the midpoint of the painting. When that image gets away, we could see the pattern as floral or even sexual. Leda, after all, was the object of Zeus’s violent love. Metaphors stir up possible meanings. What is certain is the presence of paint.
Kline works in encaustic, which is pigmented wax. Liquefied by heat, it goes on in layers that can never quite hide one another. The crucial contrast is with oil paint, which allows one hue to render another hue completely invisible. “I always disliked that about oil painting,” says Kline. “I want to show everything.” Moving a loaded brush over a wood panel, he encourages the paint to accrue in ways that are impossible to describe in any detail but thoroughly intelligible to the eye. You see where minute irregularities in the first brushstrokes caught more than their share of paint from subsequent brushstrokes and, layer by layer, acquired discrete shapes. A painting is the outcome of this additive process.
Determined to hide nothing, Kline makes paintings that show us how they were made. Each is a revelation of its own history. Clearly, Leda was painted with a gesture that followed, time and again, a certain curve. You can’t see the painting without seeing that. Moreover, it is self-evident that Kline loaded his brush with just the right amount of paint to effect the transition from thick ridges near the center to thin layering at the edges. Adjusting the load for Blue Heart, 2000, he made this contrast between center and periphery even greater than it is in Leda. Square frames surround but do not inflect the curvilinear patterns of Blue Heart and Leda. Relations between curves and right angles are not so stand-offish in Lucy in the Sky, 2001. Here, a central pattern of rounded ridges mixes with the colors, if not the squared-away forms, of the underlying grid. The ridges of Mirage, 1999, and Light in August, 2001, run along straight lines, and there are further variationsthe dense tangle of Real McCoy, 1998, for instance, and the grid of Fruitcake, 1997, which is overwhelmed and in places obscured by the colors its compartments cannot entirely contain.
Though the strangeness and subtlety of the forms in Kline’s paintings can be startling, there is no mystery in his process. Again, encaustic is forthright, in contrast to oil paint, which Kline sees as duplicitous. His use of the encaustic medium meets a standard at once aesthetic and ethical: a successful painting or sculpture presents, first of all, the truth about its constituent materials, and then the truth about the process by which those materials acquired the forms we see. Moreover, the work avoids the pitfalls of trying to tell truths about anything but itself. Originally promulgated by the Minimalistsin particular, Robert Morris, Donald Judd, and the early Frank Stellathis evidentiary ideal has been extraordinarily powerful.
Minimalism’s idea about the truth of art stands opposed to the commonsense assumption that artists intend to make some comment, presumably true, about something other than their works. In his Lectures on Aesthetics, delivered in the 1820s, Hegel converted common sense into the grandly metaphysical claim that, liberated from mundane uses, art becomes “a mode of revealing to consciousness and bringing to utterance the Divine Nature, the deepest interests of humanity, and the most comprehensive truths of the mind.” Variations on Hegel tend to miniaturize him by focusing on one sort of truth: emotional, cognitive, political, or whatever. Minimalism, some have said, narrows the focus to the work itselfor, in one of Morris’s manifestoes, to the gallery space where the work appears. But this account overlooks a crucial difference between Minimalism and all the art that preceded it.
That earlier art referred to the world, obviously or subtly. Even the “pure” art of the color-field painters brings to mind, however obliquely, qualities of light and immensities of space. No such referential paths connect a Minimalist object to the world beyond the studio and the gallerynot, anyway, if we take the object on its own terms. We are to see the object, the whole object, and nothing but the object, and this exclusionary focus became even more intense as the object dissolved into the heaps and scatterings and drifts of process art by Barry Le Va, the post-Minimalist Robert Morris, and many others. This is where Martin Kline comes in, for I am arguing that his concern for self-evident truth shows in his painterly processes, which produce results not only compellingthere is no end to following the intricacies of his formsbut self-explanatory. One has to say more, however, talk of truth can never be adequate to art. Artworks are also fictions, and Kline’s fictions are especially rich.
Though his fictions originate in truths with the flavor of Minimalist and process art, I ought to note that he cannot be considered a fan of Minimalism. He recently said that it has “elements I connect withthe reduction of forms, simplicity, and economy.” Nonetheless, he is “not wildly crazy” about Minimalist art even at its best because it “lacks even a suggestion of representation.” Kline feels a much closer connection to the less reductive art of “Brancusi, Pollock, Mondrian, Kelly, and even late Matisse.” Yet his works owe their hyper-palpable presence to an idea of truth that simply wasn’t available to artists until Minimalism put it on the map of aesthetic possibility.
Reinventing this possibility for himself, Kline arrives at forms that have the power in themselves to absorb the attention: the sensuous flanges of Leda, for example, or of Light in August. These paintings make the plain truths of sheer pigment seem sufficient. Yet Leda also generates allusions to wings and myth, and Light in August suggests everything from layered clouds to a river bottom scored by currents of water. l’Atlelier, 2003, suggests that Kline is aware of his originality, for this unique bronze casting of a traditional palette bears, along with his initials, several samples of his characteristic forms. This is a sculpture that functions, in part, as a slightly ironic calling card.
In working out the relations of truth and fiction in Kline’s art, I found myself thinking about a recurrent theme in eighteenth-century painting: Truth Unveiled by Time. According to Tiepolo, Batoni, and others, Truth is a young woman and Time is the aged man who undresses her with reverence and, one supposes, no haste whatsoever. The idea seems to be that Truth, hidden by the errors and dishonesty of ordinary life, becomes visible only after who knows how many millennia have crept by. Truth will not be aged by the passage of all those years because she lives in a transcendent realm beyond the reach of ordinary time. Kline’s truths appear through time or, one might say, in the course of a long embrace of temporality. His truths are not eternal but contingent and his works fascinateliterallybecause they make the contingencies of his process so explicit. Their surfaces attract and hold the gaze the way an intricate drift of snow or a pattern of erosion sometimes does.
Not that anyone would ever take Kline’s shapes and voids for natural phenomena. Alive with intention, the surfaces of his paintings emerge from circles and various linear patterns: forms that signal, with minimum fuss, a human purpose. To begin, he establishes one of these basic formal premises. Next, he decides what sort of brushstroke to make, over and over, and how to respond to the variations that inevitably occur. I imagine him working in a hyper-concentrated trance. I am not saying that as he paints, he never, at any point, imagines that the finished painting might allude to something other than itself. But I am saying that, to give his forms their self-evidentiary power, he must suspend his imagination and concentrate on sheer process. This is what I mean by his trance. Coming out of it, he disengages from his materials and sees the metaphorical implications of his formsor, to shift the focus from artist to artwork, Truth Awakens as Fiction.
Whatever we read into his paintings, Kline remains an abstractionist. Given that abstract art has always been metaphorical, one might ask how his metaphors are different from those of Mondrian, for example. The difference is in their relation to their place of origin, the tangible work of art. Mondrian wanted us to see his precisely balanced austerities as intimations of a just and harmonious social order. To do that, we must look with metaphorical vision far beyond the canvas. To feel the force of Kline’s metaphors, we have to concentrate on his forms as sumptuously layered configurations of matter. His fictions preserve strong ties to his truths. The imaginary stays in close touch with the physical, and so the imagination awakened to Kline’s metaphors is haunted by a sense of the artist’s entrancement, his captivation by his materials, as the day-lit mind might be tinged by a dream.
Explicit or subliminal, this emphasis on the material presence of the artwork has been pervasive in the wake of Minimalism. It appears in the textures of Robert Ryman’s paintings, and we see it again whenever Ellsworth Kelly transposes one of his characteristic shapes from a high-keyed canvas to a slab of wood or metal. This latter-day physicality is aggressive in Elizabeth Murray’s more extravagant works, yet it can be just as insistent when it is unassuming, as in Richard Tuttle’s dyed cloths. Martin Kline became an artist at a time when, for many, an image is persuasive only if it has substance in some literal sense of the word. Of course, many artists still try to induce matter to deny itself. Kline looks for ways for matter to be more undeniably material. Thus Cast Painting, 1999, is an already weighty work remade in bronze. Yet it is just as floraljust as metaphoricalas Leda or Blue Heart.
Impatient with the Minimalist ban on representation, Kline endows his works with all sorts of imagistic powers. His allusions to flowers and lichen jump off the wall, and the lustrous black rows of Night Time Enigma, 2000, bring vividly to mind the fungi known as tree ears. Metaphors like these owe some of their immediacy to a life-like scale. Tree ears are often the size of the forms that Kline’s brush built up on the surface of Night Time Enigma. When the scale shifts, allusions turn elusive. At first, the accumulation of white paint on the wood block of Oath, 2001, looks like sheer matter. Sooner or later, though, it acquires the geological scale of a maze of canyons in polar landscape. Acknowledging the allover fields of Jackson Pollock and the encaustic of Jasper Johns, Jackson Johns, 1998, has the scale of art history. Like Real McCoy and Kline’s other field paintings, it evokes, as well, the sub-molecular patterns registered by cloud chambers.
Whatever their size, Kline’s works maintain their physicality, but not for its own sake. Nor, as absorbing as it is to figure out his painterly processes in all their variety, does he present process as an end in itself. Like his vividly present forms, the painterly methods that produce them can be understood as arguments by example for attending to the here and now. This is an anti-Hegelianmore generally, an anti-metaphysicalargument to the effect that meaning is not to be found elsewhere, in some transcendent region. It is to be found in the immediacies of perception and in the images and allusions, the evocations and invocations, we spin out of those immediacies. Unlike the Minimalists, who were the first to wrench art from the grip of metaphysics, Kline excludes neither the imagination nor spirituality.
Icon, 2001, is an iconic instance of Klinean specificity, in part because its surface resists categorization. The moment you say the surface is covered by a pattern of ridges, it begins to look textured. Yet the ridges are too distinct to blend and blur as one expects the elements of a texture to do. These remarks may sound like quibbles, yet they point to subtleties of form that, in turn, point far beyond the routines of definition. For if we pay attention to the experience of looking at this work and coming to terms with its precisely balanced qualities, we will not merely settle a question about pattern or texture. Leaving that question behind, we will find ourselves persuaded to have become conscious, intuitively, of what it is to endow an object with meaning. So Icon can also be seen as an altar dedicated to the hope that we can come alive to our experience, whatever that may be for any one of us. That the work, originally paint on wood, has been cast in brass suggests that this hope is permanent. It is among the virtues of Kline’s art that it sends us to the far reaches of metaphorical possibility. A complementary virtue is that it returns us to our own responsibility for making sense of what we see.
Statements by the artist are from a conversation and an email exchange with the author in August of 2005.