She was the type of woman who always seemed elderly but this could have been due to the long years on heavy-duty psychotropic drugs, her constant chain smoking, and the number of years spent institutionalized in the State Hospital system prior to living in a group home. She is described as a women who rarely spoke, who didn’t have much to say. This silence is reflected in the stoic quality of her art and in the empty spaces that become central in her work. Some of her artworks, usually in chalk or oil pastel, evoke a feeling that could be described as epic, but also as lonely and alienating. In “Bus Stop” we see a woman who looks a bit fearful planted alone on a chair, save for her book and her purse to guard her. “Little Man” invites the same response; a bespectacled and bewildered man is engulfed by the space around him. Even when two or more figures are represented they rarely have any dialogue between them and remain flat and unaffected, an icy “Mother and Child” being a prime example.
She usually prefers to leave her work unembellished without patterns or ornamentation, exceptions being when she has copied images from books; this has resulted in some oddly compelling and downright bizarre narrative works. When she does use pattern it is with zen preciseness, such as in “Man with Clasped Hands”. Some of her works also have a photographic feel, heads are chopped off at odd angles – it is not surprising to learn that Martha like to look through the donated “History of Photography” books that still reside at the Short Center.
Her most successful drawings condense her subject matter to the bare bones. Martha triumphs in her large works of single figure portraits that become valiant in their economy. Some of these heroic works are reminiscent of Alex Katz, and indeed Martha must have had access to the aging pile of Art Forums at the Short Center, for several of her works are directly inspired from his. Martha’s “Swimmer 2” and “Bathing Beauties” are also well-known works of Katz’s’ (with different titles). They have the same ‘fashionable’ emotional detachment (unintentionally humorous) that comes from either being a chic New Yorker or being somebody who was prescribed hard core medication for many years. With Martha’s confident use of line and color these works stand on their own, and they are more than mere copies of an original. Other notable works include “Nude at a Pool” in which the eye is drawn to the odd shadow reflected in the pool as much as it is enticed by the peculiar anatomy of the woman who casts it. A charming pencil drawing called “In The Studio” looks like Martha on an imaginative romp at life-drawing; it has a striking authenticity. “Woman at a Window” shows a figure at the very bottom of the paper as if hiding from or being pushed down by the world, passively gazing out behind a wrought iron enclosure – it could almost be a self-portrait of the artist.
THANKS TO KIM MCCANN, MATT RHOADES, PAT WOOD, CAROL HERRMANN and KATHY POWELL for providing background information.