Absence of narrative

For two painters with Rochester ties, the story is in the eye of the beholder

John Greene (left) and Robert Marx (right)

Mark Gillespie

By this point in history, we've gotten our heads well around art that doesn’t look like anything. Abstract expressionism has divided the natural world of people, landscapes, still lives, and historical scenes from its raw underlying geometry or chaotic lack thereof. But what if the painting remains abstracted but tantalizes us with something familiar—perhaps a face, a texture, or a landscape viewed from above as if through the window of an airplane?

Both Robert Ernst Marx and John Greene, painters with ties to Rochester, give the viewer an alluring thread of figurative identity without supplying a story. The two will be featured together in a show called Re-emerging Artists at the Main Street Arts Gallery in Clifton Springs through May 12.

Marx is ninety-two, a long-retired professor who has served at Syracuse, Binghamton, and Brockport, among others. For thirty years, he was a solitary presence in his Neighborhood of the Arts studio. These days, he keeps to his daily schedule in his Cobb’s Hill home. Today, he’s working on a painting that features what appears to be a white figure with massive flyaway hair like David Lynch’s Eraserhead regarded by a person in a medieval plague doctor’s beaked mask.

When these resemblances are pointed out to him, Marx takes another look and says, “Yes. I can sort of see that.”

Marx is uninterested in telling a story or making any sort of statement. He eschews meaning of any kind, focusing instead on process and technique. Marx has done sculpture in the past and started a printing shop. These experiences have shown him how to think differently about technique. “I can carve paint. I can stamp paint,” he says. Marx feels his paintings are never finished. He’s been known to receive works from a show, sand down the canvas, and begin again.

None of his paintings depict any particular person, but they all have the same gaunt skeletal structure, with dark, empty eye sockets like the shaky long exposures of a daguerreotype photo. There is no background other than a field of brown or gray. The figures are often adorned by a matrix of perfect two-dimensional circles like an apron of chainmail. Where was this painting done? Who is it about? Why did Marx choose to paint this and not that? Those questions are up to you to answer.

Marx’s paintings are deliberately not beautiful, purposefully degraded, but they are mesmerizing nevertheless. Human figures seen through an inhuman filter, they invite eye contact even as they deprive the viewer of empathetic traits.

John Greene first became enthralled with Marx’s works in the 1950s. Greene was freshly out of the army perusing the Manhattan galleries where Marx was just getting his start. He bought several of Marx’s paintings. Fifty years later, he’s on the board of the Memorial Art Gallery and sees a Marx painting that had been damaged. “My God,” he remembers, “I know Robert’s work. I collected it.”

Greene was surprised to find out that Marx lived in Rochester, arranged an introduction, and has been in touch for the past few years. The Clifton Springs show is the first time the two artists have had the chance to display works together.

Greene, whose studio is in the Hudson Valley near Poughkeepsie, also defies interpretation but trends more toward the abstract. His color fields seem to depict various materials corroding, eroding, or otherwise disintegrating, revealing layers underneath. He’s fascinated by mistakes. An accidental dribble of paint can become a repeating element. 

Greene is also fascinated by how the frame around a painting can invite viewers to move from one world to the next. His portal series interrupt the color field with an inner geometrical shape showing contrasting color and texture. His dimensional works dispose of the frame altogether. They’re painted on salvaged fence posts—cubes and rectangular boxes bearing texture and form that must be seen from all five sides. 

Unlike Marx, Greene does not limit himself to any particular material. He works in beeswax—the preferred medium of ancient Egypt—but also employs feathers; discarded screws, nails, and paperclips; even his own empty tubes of paint. His works are durable and touchable. It’s not unusual for Greene to bring back the luster of a wax painting by buffing it up with an old t-shirt.

Though Greene does do landscapes, aerial landscapes, and other figurative work, it will be his abstract paintings on display in Clifton Springs. He does not title any of his work, frustrating dealers, but opening up more opportunities to connect with collectors. A tree or a river might look just like one a potential buyer remembers from their childhood. A title—another layer of interpretation—would just get in the way.

The Clifton Springs show will bring two artists together who have become friends later in life. They share a respect for pure expression and a playful disregard for narrative. Greene’s love of color and mixed media complements Marx’s restraint.  

Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors. 

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