Mystical Gathering: Eugene J. Martin at the Ohr-O’keefe Museum of Art

by Reggie Michael Rodrigue

On June 5, 2012, something magical will occur in the Gulfside town of Biloxi, MS. Two mystically inclined and fiercely iconoclastic bodies of work will meet and have a conversation inside a museum devoted to bringing the public closer to the mysterious heart of Southern art.

Inside the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, the work of George Ohr, “The Mad Potter of Biloxi,” is enshrined in the permanent collection there and acts as a lynch pin for the revolving exhibitions that take place on the campus. The museum was designed by the starchitect, Frank Gehry who is no stranger to iconoclastic and visionary gestures either. Inside Gehry’s ingenious complex, the spirit of Ohr and  his own brand of Modernism reign. The artist was a product of the 19th Century and the overarching Victorian sensibility of his time; yet, Ohr struck out in a direction all his own with his pottery, anticipating the avant garde aesthetics of Modernism that defined the art of the 20th Century. Radical in his embrace of new form, brilliant color and the aesthetics of chance, Ohr was living and working by the Modernist mantra to “make it new” well in advance of poet Ezra Pound’s dictum.

Photograph of George Ohr. Courtesy of the Estate of George Ohr

Sculptural Vessel (Marbleized Clay) by George Ohr. Courtesy of the Estate of George Ohr

Much like Ohr, artist Eugene J. Martin possessed a radically independent spirit. He was born in Washington, DC, to a life of hardship and constant upheaval in 1938. However, rather than allowing his burdens to drag him down, Martin used them to temper his soul like the finest steel and forge a personality that was at ease in the eye of the creative storm that is a true artist’s life. For instance, Martin was an African American, and he began his studies at the Corcoran School of Fine Art at the dawn of Postmodernism in the 1960’s: a time when few black artists were allowed to enter the rarefied climes of Fine Art.  He also lived in poverty through certain periods of his life, often without the means to acquire materials to feed his creativity. Yet, one can find very little evidence of any of these hardships in Martin’s art.  This is because he was a self-made man and an artistic maverick who reveled in his own sense of freedom and personal identity within his own life and the wider history of art.

Rather than rejecting Modernism, Martin took the lessons of the fading period and made them his own, internalizing the work of Picasso, Matisse and Miro and breathing new life into their original concerns under the aegis of “satirical abstraction,” a term of the artist’s own creation. In Martin’s Modernist endgame, both abstraction and figuration participate in joyfully tenuous dances or rigorously tectonic tableau. One side of his oeuvre is gorgeously shambolic, located aesthetically somewhere between the dance of a whirling dervish and the insouciant libertinism of bodies moving to jazz or rock ‘n’ roll.  The other side of his oeuvre is the playground of Euclide and Isaac Newton: a world of strict right angles, sumptuous curves and sacred geometries. The best of Martin’s work fuses these two sides, creating a sense that what is being depicted is caught between riotous motion and serene equipoise. It is in this fusion of gestural and geometric abstraction, along with figuration that alludes to human bodies, animals and machines, that Martin’s work succeeds and progresses past its antecedents. One other striking technique Martin used to reach new artistic horizons was collage and appropriation. Yet, he never used other artist’s work. He appropriated himself by cutting-up or taking photographs of his previous works and incorporating them into new structures. It is because of this mix and a renewed interest in Modernist practices that his work seems as alive, fresh and relevant today as the day Martin created it.

Eugene J. Martin at work in his home in Lafayette, LA. Courtesy of the Estate of Eugene J. Martin

Although he matured on the East Coast, Martin made his way to Lafayette, LA with his wife, biologist Suzanne Fredericq, in 1996. It was in Lafayette, that Martin continued to expand his ouevre for the better part of a decade until is death in 2005. Martin participated in a number of significant exhibitions in his lifetime, especially in Europe, but he never really received his proper dues from the artistic establishment in his own country. Martin’s slippery place in the continuum of art history is probably to blame for the neglect, as well as his fierce independence and resistance to categorization. This is about to change, however. Next month, Martin will receive a retrospective of his life’s work from the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. The exhibition is titled “The Art of Eugene Martin: A Great Concept” and will serve as somewhat of a time machine, connecting the proto-Modernism of Ohr to the Modernist denouement of Martin. It will also serve as a necessary corrective to the American establishment’s neglect of Martin’s work.

In anticipation of the exhibition, I made a pilgrimage to Martin’s home. His widow, Ms. Fredericq, was gracious enough to give me a tour of the home and the copious amount of brilliant work that Martin left behind.  It was an experience I’ll never forget.  The following pictures are a record of my visit. All photographs of the Martin home and Martin’s work were taken by the author.

“The Art of Eugene Martin: A Great Concept” will take place at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art from June 5, 2012 to Decmber 1, 2012. Louisianaesthetic will be presenting a follow-up article after visiting the exhibition in the near future.

For more information, visit the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art website here.

… and many thanks to Eugene Martin’s widow, Ms. Suzanne Fredericq


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