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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Eugene James Martin

Take Two Golf Balls And You're Looking Good, 1995, Eugene J Martin
Midnight Golfer, 1990,
Eugene Martin
Perhaps more than in any other field, but certainly no less, the art world loves to categorize artists. It usually begins the first time the artist gains gallery representation and ends somewhere around the second or third paragraph of his or her obituary. There are probably valid reasons for such categorization in other professions, but especially so in the world of art. My mentioning art galleries was no whim. They are quite adept at it for the simple reason, galleries have to promote their artists in order to sell them. When one buys a work of art, and pays the kind of prices galleries routinely charge, the buyer is paying for two things--the art itself (along with a hefty premium for the frame and gallery commission) and the personal story, background, and history of the artist. If the art work looks good, is attractive, fits nicely over the couch, then great. However, even with frame and sales commission, the cost of the piece itself can often be as little as ten percent of the selling price. The rest comes down to bragging rights--"LOOK, it's a Picasso!" The painting itself may take as little as an hour to create. Name recognition can take decades to create. And, it costs a lot more to create, as well. As good an example of this as any is the art of Eugene J. Martin.

Janus, 1995, Eugene J. Martin. "Untitled 1995" was probably already taken.
Eugene J. Martin, 1988
Eugene Martin is the kind of artist art galleries love. First of all he's dead, dying in 2005 at the age of sixty-six (hurry, the supply is limited). Second, he died leaving behind an enormous number of unsold canvases (while supplies last). Third, the heirs would like to see them sold, and are quite realistic as to their current value (prices will never be this low again). Fourth, they're lively, bright, upbeat, and upscale (a great way to start your day). Fifth, he's ethnic--African-American in this case (celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day all year long). With all that going for him, there is, however, one negative. Other than the fact that his name is not exactly a household word, his work itself is almost impossible to categorize. Galleries hate that. The name recognition, that they can deal with, given some time and money; but how do you categorize this man's work?

Martha Stewart, 1997, Eugene J. Martin (I'd recognize her anywhere).
Untitled, 2003, Eugene Martin
The artist himself called his paintings, "satirical abstracts." Not much help. You won't find a listing such as that in any glossary of art categories, and even if you did, few buyers would understand such an odd combination. It's not Abstract Expressionism really. Some of Martin's content is slightly recognizable, but it's certainly not realistic in any sense. In some cases the titles help a little. His Take Two Balls and You're Looking Good (top) from 1995 would seem aimed at selling the work to a doctor for the wall of a waiting room. That's certainly satirical, and the work is abstract, though quite neatly so. But in many cases, Martin's work is simply titled "Untitled" followed by the year of completion (as in Untitled 2003, right). And though the artist is obviously being "expressionistic," any use of the category, Expressionism would be hard to defend.

The Nutcracker, 2000, Eugene J. Martin
I Am Not a Mockingbird, 1978, E.J. Martin
The art world does have a word for this kind of art. And, though they don't call it "miscellaneous," when they label it "Uncategorized," they're pretty much saying the same thing. Eugene Martin's work is uncategorized and pretty much what you'd call uncategorizable (my spell-checker is still chuckling over that one). Myself, I'm chuckling over Martin's whimsical little pen and ink drawings (I hesitate to call them "birds" but I will anyway). They're part of what makes categorizing Martin so difficult in that they're so different than his paintings. They're light, delicate, lively all roughly the same style, all much like his I Am Not a Mockingbird (left), from 1978. But even his drawing style is so individualized as to not to be categorized. Martin's Dancing Stringbean (below, left) and Untitled Ink (below, right) are birdlike only if you stretch the definition of "bird" to the point of removing a few feathers.

Untitled Ink, 1985, E.J. Martin
Dancing Stringbean, 1987, E.J. Martin
Eugene J. Martin may well be the only artist who ever lived who can legitimately claim to have been born on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Born in 1938 amid the jumbled row houses marking the area east of the U.S. Capitol, Martin grew up in the midst of one of the most rough-and tumble-eras in the history of the city (except for the past six years, of course). First came Pearl Harbor--Washington exploded along with the war. Then there was the turbulent McCarthy era followed by the gentrification of Capitol Hill by legislators looking to avoid rush hour traffic on the brand new Eisenhower beltways with their daily stranglehold on the city. Martin's father was a jazz musician, his mother died when he was four giving birth to his younger brother, Jerry. Eugene grew up with foster parents on a farm in Maryland, then studied art at Washington's Corcoran School of Art during the civil rights era of the early 1960s. He joined no art movements, quietly spending most of his life painting in Washington where he met his wife in 1982. They moved from Capitol Hill to Chapel Hill (North Carolina) in 1990. Four years later he moved again, this time to Lafayette, Louisiana, following his wife's career as a biologist. In 2001, Martin suffered a brain hemorrhage and stroke, but after rehabilitation, recovered and continued to paint until his death in 2005. By the looks of all the unsold paintings in the background of his studio photo (below), there should be no supply shortage the art gallery to worry about (Guido Maus, beta pictoris gallery / Maus Contemporary in Birmingham, AL.)

Eugene James Martin in his studio, 2004.



  1. Not seen his stuff before - like it very much!

  2. Thank you very much for writing about Eugene J Martin and his art, Mr. Lane. Eugene is my late husband. A few factual inaccuracies: Eugene died at 66, not 67; we met in 1982 in Washington DC and then moved to Chapel Hill NC and Lafayette LA for my job, not "because he wanted to settle down"; and Eugene J. Martin never did any children book - or any book- illustration (It must have been another Eugene Martin). Thank you again for finding his art so fascinating. Sincerely, Suzanne Fredericq.

  3. Susanne--

    Thanks for your interest and corrections. I hope the editing I've done meets with your approval. If not, please let me know; accuracy is important to me, and in doing one of these numbers per day, errors do creep in from time to time.

  4. Thanks so much, Jim. And it's wonderful that you find Eugene's art so intriguing! Best, Suzanne.