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About Henry Martin

Curator Emanuele Guidi’s final exhibition at ar/ge kunst pays homage to a little known yet pivotal African American art critic settled in South Tyrol.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Mar 11, 2023

In late September (2022), my mother-in-law showed one of the obituary pages of Dolomiten, the local German-language newspaper in South Tyrol, drawing my attention to the face of someone who was clearly black. While it is extremely rare to see the faces of people of colour in this newspaper, either alive or deceased, this didn’t constitute the significant detail that had aroused her curiosity. Had I ever heard of Henry Martin, she wondered. Like me, he was also an art critic who had moved to South Tyrol from somewhere else. He had been living in Völser Aicha when he passed away. I hadn't an inkling about him, I confessed, and lamented the fact that someone with whom I could possibly have shared a kinship was no more. It felt strange that this was the only mention of him in the newspaper. Why no obituary? Surely, he must have contributed to the South Tyrolean cultural landscape. We began to speculate about his life, deducing, from his name, that he was possibly African American. I didn’t pursue the matter since I don’t have a newspaper subscription, but I knew my mother-in-law would have alerted me if there had been anything more about him.

In late October or early November, a press release from ar/ge kunst, a collectively run contemporary art space in Bozen, announced a show that would be dedicated to Henry Martin. The exhibition, titled Correspondences: About Henry Martin, would also be the director, Emanuele Guidi’s swansong, since his term was ending. He was succeeded by Zasha Colah and Francesca Verga. Although I had intermittently communicated with Guidi over the last two years as either editor or proofreader for select ar/ge kunst publications and press releases, I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet him in person before. As chance would have it, our first encounter would take place the morning after this show opened to the public. I arrived with my child and husband. Guidi got in some minutes later, luggage in tow. His train to Berlin, where he is based, would leave in about 45 minutes, but he was keen to meet and talk me through the show, the consequence of his ongoing research. It felt somehow fitting and ceremonious; him on the verge of departure from South Tyrol, me, cementing my relationship with the region since I first arrived in 2018, settling here after I met and eventually married a local, like Martin. Over the course of Guidi’s animated and engrossing walkthrough, I would learn that my trajectory is not so different from Martin’s.

Installation view of the exhibition: Correspondences: About Henry Martin | Luca Guadagnini | ar/ge kunst | STIRworld
Installation view of the exhibition: Correspondences: About Henry Martin Image: Luca Guadagnini; Courtesy of ar/ge kunst

For instance, like me, his foray into art criticism was also grounded in chance and circumstance, spawned from an English literature degree. "Chaucer is the reason I learned Italian," he said in an interview with John Held, Jr for SFAQ in 2015. Born in Philadelphia in 1942, Martin went to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, from 1959 to 1963. He elected, intuitively, to study Chaucer with the scholar William S. Wilson, aka Bill Wilson. Besides studying the work of the first ‘English’ author who wrote at a time when the language was considered lower-class or proletariat, through Wilson, Martin came into close contact with Ray Johnson, considered the first ‘mail artist’, and the subject of Wilson’s scholarship. Through their budding friendship, Martin began to get more entangled with the world of art. In fact, Johnson and his wife, Ann, encouraged Martin to go to graduate school in New York. However, after securing his master’s degree in 1964, he decided to renounce academia because it made him 'unhappy.' He chose not to pursue a Ph.D and, instead, got a job teaching junior high school.

Henry Martin had a long-term friendship with Ray Johnson, originator of the Mail Art Movement | Henry Martin’s playful text on Fluxus | Rosalyn D’Mello| STIRworld
Henry Martin had a long-term friendship with Ray Johnson, originator of the Mail Art Movement Image: Courtesy of STIR

“And then Italy happened,“ he says in the interview. A fellow classmate from his Chaucer class at Bowdoin had written to him saying he had been teaching at Bocconi University in Milan but no longer wanted the job, perhaps he might be interested in teaching Chaucer and Beowolf. His mentor, Bill, prodded him to accept. 'Go, go, go to Italy. Romantics always do,' he wrote, while also encouraging him to begin writing about art. In fact, one of the first artists he wrote about was Bill Wilson’s mother, May Wilson, and reading this bit of trivia in the interview served as a point of connection. I had, in fact, researched May Wilson’s career because of her pioneering experiments in the art movement, Mail Art, which had been nurtured by her correspondence with Johnson.

Exhibition view, Correspondences: About Henry Martin | Luca Guadagnini | ar/ge kunst | STIRworld
Exhibition view, Correspondences: About Henry Martin Image: Luca Guadagnini; Courtesy of ar/ge kunst

Martin arrived in Italy in 1965 and moved to Aicha di Fiè in South Tyrol in 1971, where he continued to live after marrying the artist Berty Skuber, while also residing in cities like Venice, Rome, New York, Nice and Philadelphia and "inhabiting a geography consisting of his personal and professional relationships with many artists and critics of his time." The ar/ge kunst press release noted that he became, through the relationships he maintained, a privileged interlocutor of many US and Italian artists for over 50 years, many of them who would become among the most relevant figures from the Fluxus, Mail Art, Arte Povera and Conceptual Art movements.

Henry Martin’s playful text on Fluxus | Rosalyn D’Mello| STIRworld
Henry Martin’s playful text on Fluxus Image: Courtesy of STIR

Curated by Guidi and designed by Martino Gamper, Correspondences: About Henry Martin pays tender tribute to the complexity of Martin’s critical practice, positioning him as someone who not only wore many hats, as translator, editor, interlocutor, artist, critic, and author, but who enjoyed nourishing relationships with different aspects of the art world while anchoring himself in his rural refuge. He told Lea Vergine, whom he called a friend, during her interview with him for Vogue Italia in 1988, that outside of the metropolis, his thoughts have the opportunity and the time to shape. This was only one of the many aspects of his trajectory that resonated with my own. Guidi, during his walkthrough, said something beautiful about how Martin’s life was a testimony to what it means to practice in a kind of stillness, outside the limelight, to be part of art history and yet not be fixated about one’s place within it. Martin’s career reads like the opposite of the superstar curator or critic, even though he did significant work on various artists from Marcel Duchamp to Gianfranco Baruchello, Alighiero Boetti, George Brecht and Arturo Scharwz, among many others. Guidi ended his walkthrough by taking me back to one of the first bits of texts one is in fact meant to encounter at the beginning; a wonderful poem by Martin about Fluxus, written in 1992 and dedicated to its key players. It demonstrates his multilingual agility and his playful spirit as an art critic, validating, perhaps, his early decision not to pursue academia.

Close-up shot of installation from the exhibition | Luca Guadagnini | ar/ge kunst | STIRworld
Close-up shot of installation from the exhibition Image: Luca Guadagnini; Courtesy of ar/ge kunst

The exhibition evocatively maps how Martin’s personal life intersected with pivotal moments within contemporary art history without attempting, in any way, to over-exaggerate or pedestalise. It is quietly communicative, insightful, and well researched, a respectful form of homage to someone who seemed to possess an unequivocal understanding of the worth of his critical body of work without an excessive need for external legitimation. There doesn’t seem to be any trace of bitterness or resentment, for instance, in his response to John Held, Jr., when he says, 'I really wanted to do this, because as I said at the beginning, I couldn’t find an interview with you in English.' 'Well, there aren’t any,' Martin responds. 'Nobody bothers with me.'

Installation view of the exhibition | Luca Guadagnini | ar/ge kunst | STIRworld
Installation view of the exhibition Image: Luca Guadagnini; Courtesy of ar/ge kunst

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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