Memory & Metaphor: The Art of William Martin Jean - Past into Present
Retrospective Book $25
INTRODUCTION | From Memory & Metaphor: The Art of William Martin Jean – Past into Present by Elizabeth McClelland, © 2001, OHIO ARTISTS NOW Publication, Cleveland, Ohio
Most Americans perceive Cleveland as a large, industrial city on the Great Lakes that has gradually transformed itself in recent years from a steel and automobile manufacturing center into a hub of corporate finance and medical research. Less well known are Cleveland's rich artistic traditions. Since the late nineteenth century, Cleveland has produced many artists of significant stature, although only a few have received the recognition they deserve. William Martin Jean is among the most prominent of these under appreciated artists.
Over a career spanning nearly forty years, he has created a large, varied, and remarkably consistent body of art; consistent in sophistication of design, originality of ideas, and profundity of feeling. Highly respected by his peers, Jean established his reputation as one of the region's leading artists some time ago. Yet, until now there did not exist a single publication devoted to examining the development of his art over time, nor the subtle relationship between his artistic and personal life. This much needed book by Elizabeth McClelland offers remarkable insight into Jean's art using clear, precise, articulate prose. In an especially revealing passage, McClelland identifies the difference between Jean's mathematical systems and those of the Minimalists and Constructivists. "Unlike [Josef] Albers, say, whose squares were contrived to explore the affects of color, or the Minimalists whose geometric forms stood for neutrality and anonymity, Jean uses the precise order of his grid for a highly personal mode of expression." McClelland also notes that Jean devised his own, personal grid system, not as a exercise in abstract theory, but as a repository for "the accumulation of visual and later of emotional experience." McClelland then confirms this observation by citing the artist's own statement that his mature work is rooted partly in early childhood, and partly in "a need to articulate his personal visual poetry."
Perhaps the most commendable feature of McClelland's approach is the way she goes beyond mere formal analysis to investigate the subtle, often undetected relationship between Jean's art and his personal life. She presents Jean as a complex individual, not just a painter, but a set designer, a former musician, and an occasional actor. We discover his interest in the theater, film, art, music, and literature. We come to understand the importance of Jean's travels through Mexico, Europe, North Africa, and Turkey. We also encounter Jean as a child, meet his parents, and learn of crucial formative experiences, such as his early visits to museums and experiences with drawing. Such details of Jean's personal life provide invaluable insights into his art. Many of McClelland's observations will surely surprise readers, even those – like myself – who are already familiar with the artist's elegant and sophisticated paintings.
On a personal note, I do not think anyone can read this text without being impressed by certain fundamental, unchanging aspects Jean's art, despite its continual evolution through the introduction of innovative ideas. Above all, Jean has always placed formal invention at the service of a greater end – the expression of personal emotion. Yet, he never indulges in adolescent outbursts of uncontrolled angst. Rather, his art comes closer to the spiritual sublimity of a Buddhist chant or the beauty of a perfect mathematical equation. Most significantly, even after forty years Jean's artistic production is not diminishing in either quality or quantity. On the contrary, his art is reaching new levels of sublimity and spiritual transcendence, indicating that this compelling story is far from complete.
William H. Robinson
Assistant Curator of Paintings
The Cleveland Museum of Art