Arts & Culture

Martorell conducts his own sort of life class at Fogg

6 min read

Shortly after unpacking his bags and setting up his easel, Antonio Martorell is ruminating on the philosophy of art. “The materials, as such, are as important as subject matter. They become subject matter themselves — they are matter and they matter.”

More than 100 sheets of multicolored tissue and handmade paper unroll on a nearby table, and the artist begins selecting sheets for their particular textures, colors, transparencies, and memories. These sheets, collected from around the world, soon become the canvas for charcoal drawings based on the permanent collection at the Fogg Art Museum of the Harvard University Art Museums. Today, Martorell is in the Fogg’s atrium, where the light is white and diffuse, the air is humid, and the stone floors echo the creaking of wood furnishings, the clicking of heels, and voices. People are starting to congregate around the man at the easel.

Martorell is the current Wilbur Marvin Fellow with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS). Though you may not have heard his name before, the visual artist-poet-performer is a national treasure, based in Cayey, Puerto Rico — his birth home. A book of his work, titled “Martorell: La aventura de la creación,” has recently been published by La Editorial, Universidad de Puerto Rico. His works have been shown at a host of venues, including Museo de Arte de Ponce, the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, the Museo de Arte Moderno de México, the Museo del Barrio, the Whitney Museum, and the Museo de Arte Dr. Pío López Martínez (at the University of Puerto Rico), where Martorell has been a resident artist for more than 20 years. He is the recipient of two honorary doctoral degrees.

Yet this impressive résumé does not make the man seem some sort of distant luminary. On the contrary — he has a gift for drawing people in. On a recent occasion, he had stationed himself in Warburg Hall to reinterpret “Saint Jerome in His Study” (c. 1525), a memento mori by Joos van Cleve. Martorell called his fast sketches “modular” works — reflecting a process in which he captured one or a few items in the painting with his soft pastels on paper pinned to his easel. When he was sorting through the various modules he had composed, other artists walked up and started to study Martorell’s work, then the Joos van Cleve painting, and soon, as the artists started interpreting the Joos van Cleve, too, the space took on the feel of an intimate studio led by a master.

Many museum directors bemoan the brief amount of time patrons typically spend viewing a work of art, but the complaint is nothing new. More than 20 years ago, Nelson Goodman addressed the American Association of Museums with his well-known speech, “The End of the Museum?” posing questions and suggestions about why museums tend to induce experiences of foreboding. Martorell’s performative process is one brilliant antidote to such experiences. Like a sort of blithe spirit, he is one moment here, the next over there, moving through space with an inspired choreography, engaging patrons both in the museum’s collection and his own process — talking politics and aesthetic theory at once. This bearded artist lends true meaning to the word maestro — a title regularly attributed to him in Puerto Rico (and now around Harvard).

His presence spurs other artists to create, and patrons – including school groups – feel emboldened to comment on his work, ask questions about his process, and engage in a dialogue about the nature of art and, finally, the pieces they see in the galleries.

Such interactions are exactly what inspired the art museums’ Education Director Ray Williams to support the Martorell’s residency. The first professional to hold such a position at the Fogg – and part of Harvard University Art Museums’ initiative to develop stronger ties with the Cambridge and Allston communities – Williams understands that fine art often appears inaccessible to nonspecialists, who, he says, possess a “competency to make sense of works of art.” He has enlisted the expertise of Martorell to help tease out that competency as well as to build upon the already strong relationship the art museums have with the Amigos Elementary School and the Kennedy Longfellow School.

“I depend so much on circumstance and accident,” Martorell reflects and instructs at once. It is a reminder to those present that admirable works arise out of limitations and the openness to chance as much as preparation. These lessons, commented Dan Meagher, a museum attendant, demonstrate that “art is not a dead object on the wall; [it has an] inner life,” if it is worth anything at all. Meagher has been watching and listening to Martorell interact with patrons since the beginning of February.

Inspired by Martorell’s work and humanity, Meagher likewise inspires as he poses for a Martorell portrait based on Rembrandt’s “Bust of an Old Man” (1632). Such interconnections among artist, subject, object, artwork, and model are all a part of the “Martorell experience”: A reporter conversing with Martorell has appeared in DRCLAS photographs taken by Sean Reagan, and Reagan has appeared in a documentary on Martorell – now in the production phase – while photographing the artist.

The intense inner life Meagher mentions is evident in Martorell and is the reason, says the artist, that patrons take an interest in what he is doing. His performance of the process brings people to the art on both the easel and the walls. Performance, he says, is one of his strategies for engaging broad communities of people in a dialogue on the arts. He hosts a radio program with longtime collaborator Rosa Luisa Márquez called “Uno, dos, tres … probando” (“One, Two, Three … Testing”)” and makes regular appearances on a Puerto Rican television program called “En La Punta de la Lengua” (“The Tip of the Tongue”), the purpose of which, says Martorell, is to bring art into the spaces of people who are not likely to enter museums.

As a DRCLAS fellow, Martorell is not only a resource for local residents and tourists visiting the Fogg, he serves as a mentor to the Harvard student body, one of the primary groups the art museums was designed to support. “Engaging with the masters is a banquet,” he says, and it is clear that Martorell refers to masters of all types and times.

Antonio Martorell is working on his autobiography, “Dancing with Cinderella: A Life in Art,” while a DRCLAS fellow. He can be found working at the Fogg Art Museum most every day but Tuesday, during normal visiting hours until June 28.