The Midas Touch of Martin Horowitz

by Jan Ernst Adlmann

A primary goal of modernism, these last hundred years, has been the reduction of sculpture, and less frequently, of painting, to the barest bones of pure geometry. Clearly, this lofty pursuit of the ineluctable, so brilliantly embodied in the work of such disparate sculptors as Constantin Brancusi, or Larry Bell, or Donald Judd, is also what impels the sleek and golden art of Martin Horowitz.

Within the context of this movement, latterly called "Minimalism", there are, in reality, two divergent directions, one "hot" and one "cold". The "cold" Minimalist, exquisitely represented in the work of Donald Judd (a key influence, by the way, upon Martin Horowitz), seeks to refine sculptural form into the most rigorous statements possible; indeed, some artists have gone so far in these machined essays in geometry that they even insist the work be fabricated by others, so as to leave no trace of the hand and sensibility of the artist whatsoever.

The "hot" vein in Minimalism, perfectly exemplified in the work of Brancusi -  one immediately thinks of his gleaming essays on the "Bird in Flight" -  seeks constantly to arrive at something inexpressible, something "sublime", in effect. Artists like Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Florence Pierce and Larry Bell spring to mind among this century's most remarkable seekers of that elusive Grail. And it is in their wake that we should properly place the fugitive, elegant sculpture of Martin Horowitz.

The pursuit of "the Sublime" underlies much of the art of the 19th century Romantic Movement; it is even detectable in the wholly non-representational art of the Abstract Expressionists, especially in the evanescent paintings of Mark Rothko (still another avowed idol of Martin Horowitz). The painter Paul Klee articulated this essentially spiritual enterprise in a memorable dictum, which encapsulates much of the art of the past century, i.e. that "art does not render the visible, but rather, it makes visible." This is the essence of the paradoxical sculpture of Horowitz, wherein countless hours of grinding labor (the tedious yet delicate laying on of gold leaf, a refined and age-old technique) result in such seemingly effortless, weightless works of art, which make something divine, and invisible -  some "Euclidian" revelation -  wonderfully visible.

In today's museum world, it is fairly axiomatic that the mere inclusion of the word "gold" in the name of any exhibition will virtually guarantee clamoring crowds of art-lovers. It is a small wonder, then, that any exhibition of work by an artist invariably entrances great crowds of viewers. This is not to say that Horowitz's admirers are ultimately drawn in only by the intrinsic value of gold, however; on the contrary, Martin Horowitz so "gilds" Minimalism that something ordinarily supremely cool -  a sphere, a lozenge, a disc -  becomes powerfully seductive, an apparition more than an object.

In all of this, I am continually reminded of the arcana of Medieval and Renaissance alchemy, the pseudo-science wherein "white wizards" (as opposed to malevolent "black wizards") sought "the philosopher's stone", or the means to turn base materials, especially lead, into gold. Beyond avarice, the alchemists and their royal patrons were motivated by what they saw as the precisely parallel search for the perfection of mankind. Somewhere, Martin Horowitz speaks of the many "obscure amalgamations" he has produced in formulating his golden surfaces; "obscure amalgamations" were, in the end, the only product of all the alchemists' efforts -  never gold. In truth, however, the alchemists were really engaged in a very lofty quest for nothing less than the key to the secrets of mind and matter, and sometimes one senses there are perhaps such secrets locked in a quivering Horowitz sphere.

The various two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms that Martin Horowitz has seemed to favor deftly subdivide his work into discreet groups. "Paintings" of pure gold, on flat surfaces and sumptuously framed in the conventional manner, appear regularly in his shows. What these particular works do is call into question the very nature of a painting, in a number of ways.

First, we are asked whether a painting must represent something at all. Then, we are asked whether the work is flat, or a mirror, or perhaps a window into another dimension entirely. It is intriguing to recall, before these still, but trembling surfaces of pure reflected light, that an ever-present, golden background was meant as nothing less than an evocation of the cosmos itself, in the centuries-old tradition of Byzantine sacred art, primarily in the icon tradition. With Horowitz, we have that celestial universe, but one completely untenanted by saints or humans. We are contemplating not mere gold, but the very Ether.

Spheres, discs and open halo shapes are another distinct category, one where primary geometric shapes come to life as something more than their mere physicality. As the viewer moves in their orbit, these elusive objects advance and recede, flash or darken, so that they appear to be hovering, in motion. (Marvelous "flying saucers" are especially striking. They appear to be in full flight -  "revolving" faster than eye or ear can see or hear sometimes seeming to nudge the wall like dirigibles momentarily anchored in thin air.)

But, perhaps the most provocative group of new works by Martin Horowitz is his cache of bristling arms and armor, of bombs and grenades and shining shields, all transfigured by a film of gold. Aside from their very surreal impact, of objects utterly displaced by a slight manipulation of their form, these works are at the same time the subtlest of "sermons" on the Biblical admonition that man must "beat their swords into ploughshares". There is something very arresting about encountering a huge Vietnam era bomb, almost poised for flight, but trapped in gold and a restraining cage. What Horowitz effects is a "defusing" of the lethal element, so that we are at least momentarily free to recognize the sheer, aerodynamic beauty of these objects, or the richly "encrusted" surfaces of those scary hand-grenades. In the long tradition of those ancient alchemists, Horowitz, a modern "white wizard", miraculously transmutes armaments into art.

This new departure, using "ordinance" as the vehicle for art, is taking this artist further into the realm of the surreal and farther away from his minimalist beginnings. While in itself this bizarre turn might seem a dead end, it also seems very possible, even piquant, that Horowitz may have hit upon a wholly new, strange avenue to explore, traveling in realms of gold where virtually everything may fall under his Midas touch.

Jan Ernst Adlmann, author of "Contemporary Art in New Mexico" (1996), is a former art museum director and curator, art historian/teacher, contributor to art journals (Art in America, Art News, Museum News) and an art acquisition consultant based in Santa Fe.