The Noble Gesture

I received this photo last night. It’s a mightily awesome photo. It shows the artist Knox Martin high atop a cherry picker and painting a new signature on his mural, Venus.

Web cam capture of Knox Martin at work

Web cam capture of Knox Martin at work, circa early 2008.

Many Manhattan commuters know Venus well. She has existed at the intersection of 19th Street and the West Side Highway since 1970 as a gigantic anti-billboard. Painted on the south side of Bayview Women’s Correctional Facility, it is a gift to the public of pure art . Here’s some background from ChelseaNow:

By 1970, Martin was teaching at Yale University, his work exhibited at the Whitney and the Guggenheim. Invited by the City Walls Project to contribute a mural, he found a site while driving into the city from the west side — practically “ran right into” the narrow, 80-foot-tall prison. He visited the facility, he said, and heard women shouting from behind bars.

“I thought, Why not have it be about the energy of these women?” Martin recalled.

In the years since 1971 — when the unveiling of “Venus” was heralded by TV coverage that included “Geraldo Rivera hanging from a rig” and a half-page in the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section — the mural has been reproduced on postcards and copied in countless art classes. But its neighborhood began to bloom, Martin said, in ways less about art than commerce.

In the ’70s, artists like Martin’s Yale art students were peeling off to the meatpacking district and Soho, he said, taking over abandoned warehouses “for cheap.” Most of Chelsea was growing increasingly expensive through the 1970s and 1980s, until by 1984 the average studio rented for more than $900. By 2000, that same studio was $1,700, and the terra nova was then West Chelsea, where artists took over stables and decaying brownstones. But soon enough, shops began to join galleries there, too — and to replace some of the artists who had started it all.

“Galleries, restaurants and boutiques,” grumbled Martin, gesturing. “That’s how a neighborhood dies.

So why is Knox re-signing this work?

Note the construction taking place below and to the right of Venus. That’s the beginning of a huge new architectural vundermess called 100 Eleventh Avenue. As of this writing, the concrete structure is completed and is now in the stage of getting glassed. Besides dwarfing the jail, it almost totally obscures the view of Venus. She’s still there, just hidden behind this new building. The only part of the work that is still easily visible from the highway is its outer edge. So when you drive by now, what you see is a faint edge of color, and a gigantic KNOX.

It’s as if the work has been stored away in a gigantic skyscraper filing cabinet, with only the edge of the file folder clearly marked for easy reference. Thirty years from now, when 100 Eleventh Avenue has to be demolished because of structural defects, Venus will be patiently brought out to be admired and enjoyed again.

There is much to be admired of this gesture. Physically speaking, it’s a remarkable feat. Have a look at the extension of that cherry picker – that thing is way up there, swaying in the wind, its bucket full of artist and paint, and creative spirit. But no problem for Knox. Not only is he unafraid of the physical danger, he his likewise unafraid of taking the decisive action to correct his artwork in the face of a changing environment. That is an attribute of a true Master. Unafraid to act when action is necessary. The need arises, the Master does.

Symbolically speaking, the gesture likewise speaks volumes. Here is an Artist who has not just witnessed, but participated in the major art movements of the 20th Century. And he is not finished! He continues to work, to teach, and to mentor those who can see. He is not about to simply allow this work to vanish, his name to vanish. His act is one of defiance. I am here. The Art is here! You can hide it behind a trendy facade of an already out-of-fashion building, but you cannot destroy the spirit of the work, or of the artist.

Take a last look at the photo, That cherry picker, fully extended into the sky — it’s as if Knox is giving us all the finger. It’s a great big “fuck you” to anyone who tries to stifle his Art. There is Knox, atop his fully erect platform, gleefully spewing white paint across Venus, declaring to all who can see, “This is my Art.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Noble Gesture

  1. Isabella

    I love the Knox. Can’t wait; the 100 Eleventh Ave building is absolutely going to be torn down in my life time and when that day comes I will laugh with glee.

  2. The poet Walt Whitman wrote in his epic poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: “we play our large or smaller
    part…” or words to that effect. Knox is a poet, the work is grand, open, expansive.

    Wall paintings are especially vulnerable to development- their provenance is neglect, a laissez faire windfall from a less crowded and festering economy. Knox is my hero, and I am happy to be
    of help. All he needs to do is ask.

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