On a trip to LA in 1992, Marty and I visited the Lannan Museum in Culver City; he wanted to show me a piece of his work in the museum’s collection. In effect, this would be my introduction to his early career that launched at the beginning of the ’60s in the downtown NYC art scene.
We decided to go on a weekday, late morning, unannounced. A small museum, it was attractive despite the gritty neighborhood surrounding it, and we entered a light-filled, contemporary space. A woman behind the lobby desk greeted us, and after Marty introduced us he asked her if it would be possible to show us a piece of his work from the collection. “Not a problem,” she responded. “I’ll get it and be right back.”
We waited. After a while she reappeared carrying a white box. As she approached, you could see from her face there was a problem—something was wrong. Her concerned expression and the fact that she was apologizing … took an immediate toll on our excitement and quickly dipped into disappointment and apprehension.
“I’m so sorry,” she was saying, …” I’m so very sorry. I don’t understand. How could this have happened?” That question hovered like a spaceship. She looked down at the box and appeared quite miserable, her question unanswered until she answered it herself. “I really don’t know what to say,” was all she could manage.
Inside the white box was a Plexiglas box. It housed a mad blizzard of tiny white pellets clinging to all its sides with small, unexploded Styrofoam shapes strewn about.
Hanging in the air now, misery shared like it was going out of style, along with the unanswered question and the inferred free fall of museum stewardship, “How could this have happened?”
Until Marty spoke: “Never mind,” he said. “I like it.” And he meant it. And we got the point.
marty was a matchmaker—he’d bring people and ideas together, create opportunities for interdisciplinary work that otherwise might not have happened.
friday nights were “hall of issues” meetings: neighborhood folks and political figures, including mayor koch, would get together and have lively debates. local topics, national events, and cultural concerns regarding the arts and their roles in community life were hotly discussed.
marty and others organized exhibitions and performances that brought together interdisciplinary media. i was paired with a poet. we made pieces that juxtaposed photographs of 14th street with words. they owed their success to what neither could convey alone. it was my first experience with what marty’s direction could accomplish.
marty took to photography in an instant. it mated his love of walking to aesthetically observing urban minutia. he was a body in space capturing familiarity’s often ignored beauty, the undervalued marks and surfaces one usually passes by.
marty worked for a nyc youth board program that brought local groups together with artists. he invited me to photograph teenagers in a program held at a bklyn heights church. we’d have talk sessions with kids about drugs and social problems. marty, like a big brother, won their trust. i’d take pictures and return with them. images often opened talks about personal issues that otherwise would have been left secret: criticisms, and associative responses played a lay-therapeutic role, made them more willing to see “ahead” instead of feeling hopeless. marty’s generosity of spirit helped kids feel better about themselves.
I don’t remember where I first met Marty; was it at a gallery opening of a mutual friend, at Fanelli’s, Max’s Kansas City, on the street or at a loft party? I was part of a dance company, often on tour and so traveled in and out of the ’60s art scene. Those of us who survived the ’60s hold nostalgic memories of a serious collaboration among artists and a wonderful social scene.
I guess it matters not where I met Marty but that I did is unforgettable. He was a real New York street guy who often disappeared from the downtown art world to live the straight conventional life of teaching high school kids. When the semester would be over Marty would reappear like a perennial flower and rejoin his art friends. Marty, a moving target of energy, fast-talking, mumbo jumbo, words spilling out and landing in your face, aggressive and confrontational he was always challenging you to think fast and to respond to his sometimes outrageous remarks.
At the time Marty lived on Maiden Lane and occupied three floors in a loft building. During the weekends the surrounding offices of Wall Street were closed and there was no residential living; just a smattering of artists living and working in illegal lofts. Marty and his artist friends would get together to jam and play music; a cacophony of sound that screamed out the windows and defied description. The music would bounce off the towering buildings and reverberate with an echo that seemed delayed as if hesitant to repeat itself.
No less unique were Marty’s art books, which seemed to come to the light of day from some archaeological dig or from an ancient underground cave. I don't think I have ever smelled someone’s art as I did with Marty’s books. Literally created by scribbles from magic markers; paper edges that succumbed to the burnings and flames of fire. The pervading smell of burnt wax; the pages over time wrinkled like ancient parchment. To this day his book “stands” on my library shelf; a relic from another time and place and at the same time so present, its pages spread out like a fan; a constant reminder of his presence.
But my best memories of Marty are dancing with him. The ’60s dance was not about partnered dancing. Yet, Marty and I were a throwback to the dance that came out of the Black dance clubs in Harlem; the Lindy Hop or Jitterbug. Marty and I loved to dance the Lindy. He was fast footed and moved easily, changing direction with ease and led me into fast spins; quick changes. Either at arms length or close in we held hands as he’d pull me into his inner circle and with his other arm on my waist he would push me out into the air space. A rhythmic scenario of complicated footwork, fast spins, turns; all improvised would make my cheeks burn and take my breath away. If I could I would love another dance with Marty.
Two quick stories about Marty: we met at Bill Weege’s print shop in 1974 when he drove out from NYC with Alan Shields and Paco Grande and I was a lithography printer hired to work with them. Alan recalled on the trip out that Marty was working on his altered books and putting airplane glue on the pages and lighting it with a match. Enough said. I printed for Marty.
As a graduate student I arrived at UW-Madison by producing Pop art-inspired images with a sense of satirical humor that was frowned upon by educators. Developing images had become difficult so Marty encouraged me to find used books that spoke to me with images that I could incorporate and alter. For me the rest was history as I’ve exhibited my altered books, printed matter, and paintings that have resulted from those inspired investigations in places such as the Center for Book Arts in NYC and several museum collections. Marty changed my life.
Marty Greenbaum emerged to me, without introduction, out of the explosion of the downtown community of artists … at the hub of the explosion, the Judson Church …
At the simple, unpretentious corner of Washington Square … from which public pronouncements of unprecedented art in all the mediums came forth and bathed the time and space we live in …
Thanks to the power of the heart of its saint, Reverend Howard Moody, an ex-Marine transplanted here from Texas, equipped by the forces above us, with the spirit of welcome … Reverend Moody welcomed me and this strange thing I suggested to him, a visual town hall, without hesitancy …
Since the “Hall of Issues” opened to a revolutionary art community, the issues people placed there, on the wall, the floor, or suspended from the ceiling, were as significant an exhibition as was any other in the Judson premises … The church activities were able to afford us one room, and enough four by eight panels to cover its walls with the appearance of a proper white gallery …
Every Sunday, the Hall was open to the public for posting … But needing the room for other programs, the panels with their postings were unstacked on Sunday night …
Every Wednesday evening, hosted by an up-and-coming Ed Koch, was talk-out night; politics, petitions, guest speakers, debates, music, poetry, experimental films … For this event, all the four by eights, containing the Sunday postings were reassembled, and the room again became the very visual town hall …
Marty and I operated this extravagant rhythm. Without Marty, the Hall of Issues would probably not have continued … Without questions, comments, or complaints. Marty was simply there. We never even met for a coffee outside the Hall … Now I am able to be stunned by the superhuman heights of love and devotion Marty gave to the Hall. At that time, so in need was I, we simply accepted what had to be done …
After two years, a few church officials, fearing the reputation the radical artists who faithfully attended the Sunday and Wednesday sessions might have on the church, threatened to shut the Hall … In 1962 I gave birth to a second child, but Marty, in quiet defiance, kept it going for … I can’t remember how many years.
How extraordinary a man was Marty. He was not one of the florid expressions of the art community, but his art was unlike anything else, as was he … Profoundly intimate and heartfelt and wonderful little books of unending secret pages of beauty … Like many of us at that intersection of creative collectivity, Marty did not seem to be seeking grand recognition for his works … We lived like artists because we had no other choice. That his books did find their way to audiences fills every part of the Marty in me with joy …
Lives are given their routes. Marty’s and mine never again overlapped. One visit to his studio, an invitation to an NYU exhibit of Hall of Issues memorabilia that he was not able to come to …
That I am deemed eligible to honor Marty with these words has opened layers of responses … Missing you, Marty, regretting that we failed to share the music we had in common, so grateful that your books have found their recognitions, missing you, Marty … Blessings, Love, Phyllis.
Richard Van Buren
I've known Marty since the ’60s. We met originally at gatherings at Park Place Gallery. It was always exciting and humorous to run into Marty. He would invariably pull something out of his pocket to show me. It could be a toy that he bought at a discount toy store in Chinatown or a piece of paper that he found in the street.
Marty's studio traveled with him. He was the only artist friend who was constantly working in the streets, park benches, and subway trains. Many artists came to NY to live and pursue their art. Marty was very much a New Yorker. He gave a lot to the city’s youth; teaching kids on the Lower East Side and wherever he could find them. Alan Shields and myself and Marty were taking a long trip in Alan’s car. Marty was sitting in the back seat of the Volkswagen working on his art while Alan and I just sat and looked out the window as we drove. All of a sudden the “bug” was full of smoke.
Marty had set his book of drawings on fire. We had to pull over to put out the fire and had a great laugh about it. One of the funniest scenes in a movie was Marty falling off a roof in the film Hallelujah the Hills. Harold Lloyd had nothing on Marty. I played music with Marty and other fellow artists for over 25 years. We improvised, had a lot of fun, and made a lot of noise. Marty traded his art with many other artists. One of my most important possessions is the book that Marty made and gave to me in exchange for a piece I gave him. Marty’s work was highly respected by his fellow New York artists. I miss him with a smile.
I appreciated Marty’s candor. He never lost the “tell it like it is” manner of the ’60s. I once told him how a woman had insulted me by saying I wasn’t a good friend to someone she and I knew. Marty told me, “Forget it. She’s just one person.” And at a party, I met a friend of his who had been a film actress. I asked her if she was continuing to work, and she answered, “All I do now are pornographic films.” Later, I asked Marty why he thought she told me so bluntly, and he said, “She wanted to answer your question in the most honest way.”
Marty’s visual work, whether mixed media collages or unique books, had a similar candid brevity. He left it the way he put it down: take it or leave it. Nothing was affected for the sake of catering to this or that audience. His work encapsulated his life’s experiences. His media was whatever he happened to find, wherever he found it: on a New York sidewalk, in a newspaper or magazine, from a trash can, from a secondhand store. What he left us reminds me of a quote from the French Art Brut artist, Jean Dubuffet: “I would not want to live in a world where only 10 percent was considered beautiful and 90 percent was thought to be ugly.”
Marty once told me I was good company. So was he. And I miss him.