Chris Martin’s bigness

Chris Martin, “Staring into the Sun� (4 ? 7 ? 11),” 2003, oil on canvas, three parts, 143 x 129″ each.

When I first started writing for The Rail, in an article about the Tomma Abts show at the New Museum, I took a quote from a  Chris Martin interview out of context, suggesting that he preferred working in a small scale. “I actually LOVE working on a huge scale and have done so for years,” he wrote to me. “What I had a hard time with was ‘medium’ size paintings – 4′ – 6′ – so I actually felt compelled to paint smaller.” His show at the Corcoran, which opens on June 18th, will prove beyond any doubt Martin’s love of LARGE. The exhibition is divided in three parts: one section brings together large-scale works from the past nine years; another is a wall of small paintings hung salon-style in the Rotunda, and the third features a site-specific installation of  paintings in the museum�s central atrium in which three paintings, each 26 feet high, will be suspended from the second floor of the museum to the ground, creating monumental walls of color and pattern. 
I’m looking forward to visiting the show later this month. 
Chris Martin, “Here Comes the Sun�,” 2004-2007, oil on canvas, 143 x 129.” 

Chris Martin, “Ganges Sunrise Asi Ghat Varanasi�,” 2002, oil on canvas, 129 x 143.” All images courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Photos: Jason Mandella.

“Although abstract, Martin�s paintings are a direct response to the physical world around him. Many of his works integrate objects from his immediate environment into their surfaces, including kitchen utensils, records, photographs, and Persian carpets. The works are as much about daily life�music, travel, and language�as they are about mythology, storytelling, the endurance of symbols, and the role of painting in art history.

“Martin�s interest in bringing painting into the realm of lived experience and his own history of performance are essential elements of his work. In the 1970s and 1980s, he created collaborative paintings during Happenings with other artists and musicians. He has placed works in bus stops, on the sides of buildings, and in nightclubs, fabricating them with phosphorescent paint to respond to the lighting and conditions of the location. He has taken large-scale paintings for ‘walks’ around the block, involving his neighbors and local shopkeepers in creating the meaning and experience of his work. In more traditional gallery spaces, Martin has blurred the distinction between the art object and the viewer, placing paintings on floors, ceilings, and displayed among household objects.” (excerpt from the press package, which also included a set of children’s watercolors that I’ll be breaking open in the studio later today. #schwag)

Chris Martin, “Garden at 11 Munn St.'” 2008�2009, oil on canvas, 52 1/8 x 42 1/4″

“I grew up in a great old house in Washington DC that actually was filled with paintings and old family portraits. I particularly loved this life sized Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait my mother had inherited with an elaborate carved wooden frame. And my grandmother was a gifted landscape painter. My most vivid memory as a kid happened at Beauvoir School. We made a giant mural of dinosaurs in the refectory. Every year the third graders would repaint this wall and we did dinosaurs. I was thrilled.”

“These forms come from a long process of unconscious drawing. Then there is this desire to see it in paint�a kind of compulsive curiosity that drives me to choose colors, mix up buckets of paint, and prepare a surface. The actual performing of a painting involves giving oneself over to a series of actions and trusting in the body and what the body knows. And when I step back to look at this thing, I�m still trying to figure it out just like everybody else…. It�s funny – recently I�ve been asked to teach. When I show up the students think here comes the teacher�he knows what he�s doing. The students imagine that some day they�ll grow up to be like the teacher and then they will know what they�re doing. But I don�t know what I�m doing. And I try to communicate that to my students.

— excerpts from a 2008 conversation between Chris Martin and Craig Olson

Chris Martin, “Hemlock, 2010,” oil, gel medium, and collage on canvas, 135 x 118.”

Chris Martin: Painting Big,” Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Through Oct. 23, 2011.

Related posts: 
The New Casualists
Holland Cotter: Unadventurous painting is everywhere (at least in New York)

Jukkala doesn’t name names in New Haven


  1. If I remember right, one of his large abstract paintings was installed on the side of a building on the southside of Bedford of Williamsburg for quite a while.

  2. Quite comprehensive post, thanks.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *