The artist Martha Posner builds dresses from fencing, beeswax and vintage silks. She paints transformative watercolours and sculpts transforming garments in a body of work that is raw, emotional and powerfully womanly. Her latest series features coat linings and silk slips covered with a hand-written infinity net of “Me Too”s. “I came at that work like a wild woman.”
Interview JOHN WILLIAM
Artwork MARTHA POSNER
Beauty Papers: You live outside New York right?
Martha Posner: We live in the outskirts, in rural Pennsylvania. We’re about 80 miles West of New York and we live on a farm that dates back to the 1700s, which for the United States is quite an old property.
BP: How did you end up there?
MP: Well Larry [Fink: Martha’s husband] came here in 1974 with his first wife. Larry stayed, Joan did not. And I moved from Ohio to Pennsylvania, to a little town called Easton because I had some artist residencies there. I was going through a divorce with my first husband and it was closer to New York than Ohio. I met Larry at a local event in Easton and that was I guess in 1991. Then I fell in love with Larry of course, and the property, and that’s how I came here.
BP: Is it where you work?
MP: We both have our studios here.
BP: How is it working side by side?
MP: Well we don’t really work side by side. It’s a relatively large property and Larry’s studio is a photography studio and it’s independent from mine which is a painting and sculpture studio. The studios are attached, on different sides of the old barn. It’s big enough for two people. Two egos. Two artists!
BP: Tell me about when you first started making work.
MP: I was always an artist. I was one of those children who always knew that they were going to be an artist. I announced it quite young. I was always drawing or making things. Also, I was highly dyslexic as a child but nobody knew what it was then, as I am an older broad. Teachers at school just thought I was stupid, but I was always invited to make posters and work on sets for the school play. That was where I excelled and I think it was the way I communicated. I was very late in speaking as a child, but I was always visual. Like many parents, mine were happy to have an artistic child until it became impractical, and so when I got older my parents wanted me to go to a secretary school. But of course I couldn’t spell and I couldn’t read. They sent me to typing classes which were a disaster because I was dyslexic and nothing made sense to me. But I did get into an art school, and you know I was not terribly happy there. I was an artist who did not need someone to encourage me to work, I always worked. The public school I went to growing up had a really exceptional art program so many of the skills that they were teaching the first and the second year at art school, I already knew. I just really wanted to have uninterrupted time to work and so I dropped out after my second year.
"I feel that all objects need to be consecrated to give them their power, their magic. To me art is magic. I’m not ironic in my art, I’m not minimal and I’m not conceptual."
BP: Do you believe that art is something that can be taught or do you think it has to come from within?
MP: I think the skills to be an artist can be taught. I think being an artist is different from knowing how to draw beautifully. Being an artist is a form of language. I developed a programme for preschool through sixth-grade teachers called ‘Art is a Way of Learning’ where we would teach children and teachers how to draw. Particularly teachers of very young children. Here they make a Thanksgiving turkey by tracing their hand and putting little feathers on it, or snowmen with three cotton balls. So I wanted to give teachers and children the skills to learn how to be able to draw, and I see it as no different from teaching children how to write, how to make letters, how to make sounds.
BP: You said you didn’t need art school to encourage you to work. Where was that drive coming from?
MP: I couldn’t tell you what pushed me to work. When you’re younger you have a sense of being invincible and almost divinely inspired, and everything is a maddening rush, trying to get out of you. At least that was how it was for me and the people that I was close to when I was younger – artists, musicians, dancers, poets. Things flowed at a maddening pace. I wasn’t a good editor of my own work then, but I’m an excellent editor of my work now. A lot of artists are not. You know the thing that I always find interesting is, I was never the best in my class I was really just in the middle, partly because I thought a lot of what we had to do was bullshit. But I’m one of the very few in my class who actually followed the path of being an artist.
BP: You mentioned you’ve got better at editing your work. How did you learn to do that?
MP: Well, for me, particularly when I have an exhibition and if a curator edits the exhibition, they can’t over curate the work. My work takes up a lot of psychic space so I am often pulling work out of the exhibition. I mean most artists want as much work on display as possible. But for me, the litmus test for anything I do is – what communicates in the best possible way – what I want to say, or show or invoke. Sometimes that means less work, sometimes that means painting out one of my most favourite sections of a painting because it’s not talking about what I really want to talk about. I will give you an example. I have a watercolour that I made many, many years ago. And it was a nice enough watercolour but it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, so I took the drawing and I ran it under the faucet because I thought that would make it better, it would change it in a way, to make it a bit more ethereal. I knew that there was a possibility that the whole thing would be ruined but there was a stronger possibility it would be a much better drawing.
BP: When did you start to work with garments?
MP: It was in the 1990s when I started with the garments. And I have continued them in various incarnations.
BP: What is it about the garments for you? Tell me a bit about your personal mythology around them.
MP: Well I started working figuratively first of all. I don’t know exactly why I started with the garments. But they were about absence and presence at the same time. People have written about how alive they seem even though they are empty. To be honest, I’m not terribly thoughtful when I’m working, I work in a fever and I work until something is done. So the reflection comes much, much later. My inner-reflection now when I look back on my work from the ’90s on, it’s clearly a feminist perspective and a female perspective. The other thing that I am very moved by is ceremonial objects. The idea that an object is more than its materials. Mexican masks, Greek Icons, African Fetish work and the idea that something needs to be consecrated. I feel that all objects need to be consecrated to give them their power, their magic. When I was younger I spent a lot of time travelling to rural areas: Mexico with shamans, healers and mask makers. I am just totally fascinated by this world because to me art is magic. I’m not ironic in my art, I’m not minimal and I’m not conceptual. My work is highly visual.
BP: With the items that you use in these assemblages, is their origin important to you? Are they found pieces?
MP: Some are and some are not, in my ‘Orphan’ series the dresses I use are an aesthetic choice. They’re all primarily from thrift shop stores. The silk slips I used for the ‘Me Too’ pieces are from thrift shops and eBay. I wanted them to have been worn by someone at one time. They had to have some sort of energy, even if it couldn’t be perceived.
BP: Tell me about the red coats.
MP: I was thinking about the colour red, it’s such a loaded colour. I was thinking about the scarlet letter. With the coats the ‘Me Too’ is all inside, the idea that you never know what people carry with them, you don’t necessarily know what has happened with them. So here is this very bold colour and shape and it is hiding something that unfortunately is deeply ubiquitous for so many women. The ‘Me Too’ thing came at me as a surprise. I had no intention of doing it, but when all that broke open with Harvey Weinstein, so many things came flooding back to me that I had totally forgotten about, or displaced or pushed aside. You know I was a young woman in the 70s and I worked in a restaurant. It was not uncommon to be followed into the streets or into a corner somewhere by a chef, or a dishwasher or whoever. I came at that ‘Me Too’ work like a wild woman.
BP: Do you think your work has an American identity?
MP: I think the work has more of a female identity than American identity. I live in the middle of nowhere, if you saw where we live, we’re in the middle of 250 acres of woods, it’s very beautiful and bucolic here. It’s not fancy, it’s very working class we still heat our home with wood stoves and while there’s a lot of interesting and progressive people who have moved out here, it is primarily Trump country. Our house is a little over a mile down an unmarked dirt lane, so we are a little bit hidden. But many of our neighbours have semi-automatic weapons and I’m sure they’re Trump supporters and you can hear them firing off their guns.
BP: That seems like a different universe to where I’m sat in London.
MP: It’s a different universe for me, even though I’ve been here all these years.
BP: As a young woman did you identify as a feminist?
MP: As a young American woman I did not identify as a feminist at all and it was one of the reasons I was unhappy in art school. I started with a teacher who was a very staunch feminist and I wanted to make work which was about transformation and I had no interest in making political work at that moment. I still don’t think of myself as making political work, I just think that as an intelligent woman living in the world these days, you can’t escape that. But no, I was not a feminist, I probably believed in feminism, I did not want to identify one way or another, I just wanted to identify as an artist, that’s what I thought my tribe was. And when I was younger and I travelled so much, I felt like I could travel the world because I could find my tribe at all times, whether they be textile workers or potters or painters and sculptors. In these crazy, crazy times, I feel much more aligned as a feminist. I sense that being a feminist is stronger now than it ever was but it’s also intertwined with my sense of community, that’s what I want to say. It’s not only my sense of community as an artist, I’m a gardener, I have friends who are gardeners and farmers. I mean It’s like when we share seeds in the spring or share produce, whoever has the most garlic or more sunflowers or broccoli… we all share with each other. I often have dinner with friends of mine on the weekend and we make it together.
“As a young American woman I did not identify as a feminist at all and it was one of the reasons I was unhappy in art school… In these crazy, crazy times, I feel much more aligned as a feminist.”
BP: Part of your husband Larry’s work is about a world of fashion and glamour. Is that a world that you operate within or is alien to you?
MP: Well, I think style is the word I would use more than fashion and glamour. Of course, I was incredibly attracted to it when I was much younger. You know, I’m too big for any clothes because I’m a normal sized woman – a size six or whatever. I’m not a size zero. Stylists would give me shoes and handbags hoping that Larry would work with them again and I loved them, but I live on a farm, you know. It’s not like I’m going to wear my beautiful Fendi shoes to clean the chicken coop. For a number of years Larry photographed for Vanity Fair when Graydon Carter was there. I was so excited to go the Oscar party and somebody asked me “How was it?” and I said, “Well if you’ve ever wanted to feel like a big, fat nobody, this is definitely the party to go to!” And old. A big fat old nobody, who didn’t have a good cosmetic surgeon! I have an appreciation for beautiful things, if you look at my garment series, there’s a piece called ‘Kimono’ it’s an Eastwood High kimono made out of raw llama fleece. What I think I love about fashion, maybe even glamour… I love the shape. I love all the shapes you can get in fashion, the silhouettes are what I find really exciting. Beautiful prints and construction. For me, and my style, I look for unique things. I’ve become a little bit more outrageous in the things I like to wear. I don’t want to be invisible, I want to look unique, I have a courage and a desire when I dress up because that’s what it is: dressing up. That I didn’t have when I was younger. Ageing is a very interesting thing, your body isn’t as beautiful as what it was when you were younger, nor your face. But one’s confidence and one’s self-esteem and clarity of self are so much stronger. That’s very, very exciting. I was very slow to find my authentic voice as an artist, I was into my forties before I did. I always knew I was an artist, I always knew I was talented and that’s what I was supposed to do. But it took me a long time to find my real voice, my authentic voice.