Art dealer Hollis Taggart announced that celebrated artist Knox Martin died on May 15, at the age of 99. Martin’s career spanned nearly seven decades and he continued to create new abstract paintings into 2022. Some of his most recent works were included in the 2022 solo exhibition, Knox Martin: Garden of Time at the gallery. Martin is survived by his children, Olivia and Jon Martin. Hollis Taggart will oversee the artist’s estate in collaboration with his family.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Martin engaged with the conceptual and aesthetic underpinnings of a wide range of artistic movements, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. His use of bright swaths of color, precise architectural lines, and organic forms that reference the female body resulted in energetic and vibrant compositions and captured a visual vocabulary that was entirely his own. “Knox was a towering figure in the New York art world for many decades, and he touched the lives of many artists and collectors over the years. He was active until the very end, even sketching florals on paper until his final breaths. We will miss Knox; and we celebrate a long and illustrious career and a life well lived,” said Hollis Taggart.
After serving in WWII, Martin enrolled in the Art Students League of New York, where he studied from 1946 to 1950, alongside Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Al Held, and later became an instructor. Despite the popularity of Abstract Expressionism, Martin’s early work of the 1950s challenged the stylistic drippings and splatters of his contemporaries. At this time, he began a singular exploration of figures and objects that would become a fundamental part of his oeuvre. His vision earned him his first solo exhibition at the influential Charles Egan Gallery in 1954, and established him as a recognized member of New York’s inner art and social circles of the time. A mentor and contemporary to many well-recognized artists, Rauschenberg once said of Martin, “You are my mentor. For years I have always asked, what would Knox think of my paintings?”
Influenced by the work of Cezanne, Goya, Matisse, Picasso, and de Kooning, Martin’s early paintings were textural explorations, rendered predominantly in black and white and through the use of bold brushstrokes and geometric lines—as seen in Susanna and the Elders (1953). In an early review, The New York Times categorized this work as containing a “particular intensity, both visceral and sensational.” In the 1960s and 1970s, Martin began a thematic and aesthetic evolution, best exemplified through his newfound use of color and a growing interest in the female form, which he juxtaposed with geometric patterns and other organic shapes. As seen in Razberri Breasts (c. 1970), Woman with Folded Hands (1973), Reclining Woman (1975), and Carmen Seated (1975), the female form is captured within circular, triangular, disked, and squared configurations of geometry. Clasped hands, crossed arms, bent knees, and faces appear within all four corners of the canvases, creating a sensation of the body being locked in a moment of stillness within the surface plane.
These paintings were exhibited in the 1972 Whitney Annual at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in the Bonino, Ingber, Jack and I. Jankovsky galleries in New York between 1970 and 1978. With shades of blues, pinks, blacks, yellows, reds, greens, and whites, in combination with dots, flecks, arcs, ripples, and stripes, Martin was simultaneously able to create a sense of rhythm and stillness that exuded both playfulness and quietude. Art critic Arthur Danto said of Martin’s paintings, “[they] were animated by certain internal conversations on the meaning of space, surface, painting, pigment, reference, reality and illusion.” It was also at this time that Martin began to receive public art commissions. This included several large-scale mural projects in New York City, including Venus (original: 1970; remastered: 1998), which can still be partially glimpsed at the corner of 19th Street and 11th Avenue. Experienced in grand scale, Martin’s use of lines, curves, and colors becomes all the more distinctive and complex.
In 2019, Hollis Taggart presented the exhibition, Knox Martin: Radical Structures, which featured in particular Martin’s paintings from the 1960s and 1970s and served to reintroduce Martin’s distinct work to new contemporary audiences. The presentation also included several new works, such as U (2019), which captured Martin’s return to his early explorations of black and white. The gallery’s 2022 exhibition included a watercolor of a cluster of tomatoes from 2021 that highlighted Martin’s ongoing interest in bold, bright colors and abstract forms.
Born in Barranquilla, Colombia in 1923, Martin moved to New York City in 1927. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions across the US and abroad, including in France, England, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, and Germany. His work has also been included in significant group presentations, such as Some Paintings to Consider (Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California, 1964), Concrete Expressionism (New York University, New York, 1965), Large Scale American Paintings (Jewish Museum, New York, 1967), the Whitney Annual (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1967 and 1972), Synthetic Realism (Gremillion & Co. Fine Art Inc., Houston, 1986), Knox Martin: A Painting Exhibition Spanning a Number of Years (Lighthouse Museum, Tequesta, Florida, 1999), Pan American Modernism: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America and the United States (Lowe Art Museum, Miami, 2013), The Masters: Art Student League Teachers and their Students (The Art Students League of New York, 2018), and most recently Knox Martin: Living Legend (Arlington Museum of Art, Arlington, TX, 2020).
Martin’s work is held in over 40 museums and private collections worldwide. He has received prestigious grants and awards, including most recently the Benjamin West Clinedinst Memorial Award and the French Legion of Honor. Martin has also led a distinguished career in teaching art, including his years at Yale Graduate School of the Arts, New York University, University of Minnesota, and The Art Students League of New York.