Friday, May 13, 2011

Martin Mull, actor (MFA, Rhode Island School of Design)

Some books are so eager to become part of a collection they literally jump off the shelf and hit the reader on the head. Martin Mull's Paintings Drawings and Words fell off a high bookcase at a library sale while I was trying to pull away its neighbor -- Paul Bowles' The Spider's House. Both books, of course, wound up being worth the combined, exorbitant $1.00 price.

Mull is one of the Hollywood people for whom the glare of the spotlight is a welcome help to finding one's glasses, but not much else. Because of his relatively low show-business profile after abandoning a career as stand-up comedian and recording artist, Mull has been able to pursue a career as a painter, with years of exhibits to hi
s credit.

His television appearances -- as a late regular on
Roseanne, The Ellen (DeGeneres) Show, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, as well as recurring roles on American Dad and even (yes, really) Sabrina the Teenage Witch -- belie his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and he's been quoted as saying everything else he has done in his life has simply been to support his painting.

Paintings Drawings and Words is a large-format catalogue of Mull's work to 1995, accompanied by essays on art and work in his typically self-effacing style. Discussing originality, he has the smarts to quote Jean Cocteau ("One has to be very careful with originality or one may appear to have a brand-new haircut and a brand-new suit") and the honesty to claim "The Piano Lesson" by Henri Matisse as the single painting that has influenced his work.

"Though the gravitation was probably driven by nothing more sophisticated than 'I don't know about art, but I know what I like,' hindsight suggests that the deceptive simplicity of his work and the promise of accessibility and understanding that it afforded were a major motivation as well. I was hell-bent to learn picture-making from the best picture-maker I could find ... by virtue of his astounding visual intelligence, Matisse was the most important painter of the twentieth century."

When Mull, then a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, finally sees "The Piano Lesson" in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, he calls it a "confrontation rather than surprise encounter." After years of seeing the "postage-stamp sized reproduction" in art books, the original painting's size -- eight-and-a-half by seven feet -- made his knees go weak.

As a student, he was so impressed by its striking simplicity and color that it became "the perfect classroom" for what even Mull now claims was "an arrogant and ill-founded pursuit, doomed from the outset." Matisse's genius, he writes, was a learnable theorem that would reveal itself as a reward for diligence, determination, and patience.

"It has taken me nearly thirty years to realize that my original, mistaken premise -- that diligence, determination, and patience could ultimately deliver up a painter's genius -- was only slightly askew. The truth is that diligence, determination, and patience can deliver up a specific painting's genius --that magical and intangible quality that enables a painting to make music. Recently I have attempted to tap the feelings that attended my first viewing of "The Piano Lesson" as inspiration for paintings of a similar subject.

Although working from a preconception, even one as vaporous and esoteric as those memories ... I have made what I currently consider to be some of my better paintings. This is not to say I have accomplished what I set out to do. That is going to take a lot more diligence, determination, and patience."

In 2004, "Admissible Evidence" was Mull's seventh solo show in New York. His most recent paintings evoke a 1950s suburban childhood, darkened with what one reviewer calls
"feelings of loss, disconnection, and fear" -- exactly the emotions most children feel when they sit for an hour in front of a piano. It seems Mull has internalized the experience of "The Piano Lesson" after all, if not its genius.

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