An artist and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area, who was known for his contributions to art exchanges between the United States and China, will be remembered as a pioneer. His legacy is expected to continue inspiring collaboration between the two countries.
Fred Martin (1927-2022) was a painting professor at the San Francisco Art Institute for more than 50 years and an important figure in American modernist abstract painting.
While serving as dean of academic affairs, Martin initiated the first art exchange programs between the US and China in the 1980s. During his career, he contributed to the training of art talent in China as well as the research and development of Chinese contemporary art.
In memory of his contributions, an exhibition titled Lifetime of Devotion: The Art of Fred Martin was held at the Silicon Valley Asian Art Center in Santa Clara, California. The exhibition ran through to March 8 and featured about 30 paintings by the artist.
“The artistic connection between East and West was an important part of Fred’s life. There was a deep connection, a mutual recognition between Fred and the entire culture of China,” says Michael Grady, a former colleague of Martin’s and a professor of studio arts at Appalachian State University.
“His use of nature-based abstraction and handwritten text and his preference for artworks made of paint on paper was recognized by Chinese artists and scholars as they share a common source of inspiration from both classical and contemporary Chinese art,” says Grady, who virtually attended the memorial and opening ceremony of the exhibition on Feb 25.
“Martin had a strong interest in Confucian culture from a young age, and his works showed elements of Chinese culture, such as the use of ink,” Ren Ming, former assistant to the president of the San Francisco Art Institute and director of the International MFA program at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, told China Daily.
Martin began chaperoning faculty, staff and students from the art institute on trips to China as early as 1986, making the school one of the first Western art institutes to have exchange programs with China since the country’s reform and opening-up started in 1978.
In subsequent years, Martin and his colleagues and students visited China to study Chinese culture and art, and they also gave lectures and held exhibitions. In return, the art institute has received and helped educate many famous Chinese artists over the past three decades.
“Many Chinese artists have come to San Francisco for further studies thanks to Fred’s efforts. Some students, including me, lived in Fred’s home when we first arrived in the US. He was like a father for us,” says Ren, who arrived in San Francisco as an MFA student in 1987.
From 1988 to 2017, Martin held several solo exhibitions at universities and museums in Shanghai, Jinan, Hangzhou, Shenyang and other cities across China.
At the age of 90, Martin donated 36 manuscripts and pieces of art to the China Academy of Art, the fruit of a nearly 70-year artistic career.
“Fred seemed to be accepted by the Chinese art community in a way that foreigners seldom achieve or even understand. Being a literati artist is a highly revered status in Chinese culture,” says Grady.
“It was wonderful collaboration and communication between the art community of China and the US,” says Frederica Martin, Fred Martin’s daughter, recalling the days when her father launched the first exchange program.
“Over the years, I remember father talking about how China had changed so much since he first started going there. During his last visit, he got to tour five different art academies in China, and he was so impressed with the investment China was making in art education,” she told the audience at the ceremony.
She says that as a scientist she understands how crucial educational investment and international collaboration is.
“Maintaining these collaborations, such as between the art and scientific communities of China and the US, is very important, even during times when our governments aren’t getting along well,” she says. “I hope these collaborations continue because they produce wonderful art and scientific breakthroughs.”