Buddha, and Clyfford Still Comments by Chris MartinJames
Martin is known for his massive abstract paintings with their stark transcendental
compositions. During a recent studio visit we spoke about his latest tour
of Burma, painting, and Clyfford Still's concept of scale.
JK: Did being in Burma make you think your paintings were too small?
CM: In Burma a lot of the Buddha statues are really large, and they also
do this thing which has influenced me for many years where they put a
really giant statue in a very small space which does this fascinating
kind of scale thing.
JK: Aren't a lot of the statues carved into things, too?
CM: Most of them are made of brick. They actually make a big brick
thing and then plaster it. Then they build a brick temple around it,
the big brick temple. Some of them are cast, some of them are carved
marble. The really huge ones are made like a building. There are a
lot of things
about Burmese temple design, Buddha sculpture and painting that just
particularly resonated with me. It had a big impact on me when I first
and then it really hit me again this time. I was trying to finish
this one (painting) before you came so you could get a little better
but you can get an idea of it; it's coming along. This painting is
called February Sunrise Asi Ghat Varanasi.
JK: Well you've got all my favorite colors in it.
CM: Yeah, it's like a "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue."
Since this summer, since September, August really, I've been working black
and white and unable to finish four really large paintings…they
just went on and on. I'm just slowly pushing along. It's been a rough
time. I think it's been a rough time for a number of people since September
to finish anything. I think that there's just a sense that at the bottom
a lot of what I'm doing, my whole enterprise here is kind of absurd, to
make all these big paintings, and then you know, why not go for it. If
no one can deal with a twelve-foot painting, well, if my art's desire
is to make a twenty-foot painting I might as well make a twenty-foot painting
and make it be what I want it to be. Most of my paintings were all taller
than this. They were 129" tall, and then about five years ago Bill
Maynes offered me a show. I realized all the paintings were too big for
the gallery. So then I started working smaller. Now they're only 118" tall.
JK: There was a nice article in Art in America in December. Carter Ratcliff
was writing about the Clyfford Still show at the National Gallery, or
maybe the Hirshhorn I'm not sure.
CM: It was the Hirshhorn. It was a great show. I went down and saw it.
It was a fascinating show.
JK: I didn't get to see it, but a lot of the article was about his ideas
CM: Well, Still is one of my big influences and teachers. One thing is
I particularly blame him for making large paintings, because when I was
a little kid, I remember going to the Whitney and they have that big brown
painting, and I remember looking at that brown painting and really loving
it. I think I was about twelve or thirteen, and I was a little kid, it
seemed like that painting was as big as a wall. Now I look at that painting
and it's 8 1/2 or 9 feet tall, it doesn't seem like that big a painting,
whereas in my memory that painting filled my entire field of vision, in
a way that was just a memory of an experience. But, more specifically,
Still is a continuing influence in the way he uses scale, because he uses
these very tiny patches of color in relationship to big fields.
JK: Right, those little flames.
CM: Those little things, which really make the scale something very different.
There are a lot of Stella paintings that are twice as big as Clifford
Still's but they have no sense of inner scale, and they look like postage
stamps. They are kind of scale-less. They look great in a magazine and
in reproduction but when you see them you have no desire to walk up to
them, or to get back from them because they're just kind of scale-less.
They're a graphed sort of colored in form, whereas the Stills are all
about actual relationships within his field. You might have one tiny bit
of orange, a thumbnail in relationship to seven feet of gray.
JK: And maybe some little diddle thing on the edge.
CM: On the very edge, out of your peripheral vision. He's constantly stretching
you to make it really seem huge. And he's very specific about what he's