Skip to main content

Fred Thomas Martin

Fred Thomas Martin

Martin was born in San Francisco in 1927. He received a master of arts degree from U.C. Berkeley in 1954, after which he worked for four years as registrar at what was then the Oakland Museum of Art, now the Oakland Museum of California. In 1958 he was hired as director of exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute. He was director of the college of the Institute from 1965 to 1975, and dean of academic affairs from 1983 to 1992. An emeritus professor, he continues to teach a painting course at the San Francisco Art Institute and a course in the Arts and Consciousness Department of John F. Kennedy University.

The man responsible for the education of numerous Bay Area art students was, at the age of 76, the subject of a major retrospective of his own work in 2003 at the Oakland Museum of California.

A prolific painter throughout his life, Martin has been an influential figure in the West Coast art scene since the 1940s. "Few individuals have exerted more influence on the post-World War II generation of young artists than Fred Martin," states exhibition curator Philip Linhares in the foreword to the exhibition catalog. His influence has been primarily indirect, through his work at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he was responsible for hiring and firing faculty, developing curriculum and teaching art history -- creating at the Institute a vibrant "art scene" that had an effect on the many young artists who studied there.

Martin's style is very personal, and over the years has changed dramatically, often in directions different from the trends of the time. In the late 1940s, as a student, he painted huge Abstract Expressionist works designed "to upstage the academic abstraction" that was the mode on the U.C. Berkeley campus, according to art critic Thomas Albright. By the late 1950s he was painting small watercolors and oils of landscapes and of San Francisco's decaying Victorian houses. In the late '50s and early '60s he created collages, which were intended to be displayed in large groups. His subject matter at that time was often fertility and regeneration, with such images as seeds, genitalia, fountains, cornucopia and chalices. His later works have included, at various points, literary or narrative imagery, chaotic abstraction, and mystical and mythological symbols.

Martin brings to his work eclectic interests and influences, from Jungian psychology to Chinese brush painting. In the words of one former student, "He's a pure believer in the importance of art as a spiritual activity." One of his most celebrated works is a romantic series of etchings in the book "Beulah Land," published in 1966 by Crown Point Press. Beulah Land is the place in Paul Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress where the good go just outside the gates of Paradise to wait for final entry to Heaven. "My book showed the way there," said Martin, "the objects and landmarks and emblems of the place."

Martin has exhibited widely in California as well as in New York, Washington state, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Canada and China. His work is included in numerous museum collections, including the China National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, the Oakland Museum of California, SFMOMA, and MOMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He has published five books, written extensively for such publications as ArtWeek and Art International, and lectured widely.

Credit:  The Oakland Museum of California