Fall 2000, Volume 37, No. 1

The Mystery of 47
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Portrait of the Artist Enrique Martínez Celaya
Unbroken Poetry
In Unbroken Poetry: The Work of Enrique Martínez Celaya, Anne Trueblood Brodzky offers an impressively thorough and nuanced portrayal of the life and career of a remarkable young artist who happens to be a member of the Pomona College faculty. By means of excerpts from conversations, presented alongside her insightful essay, the author allows the artist's voice a prominence rarely found in conventional monographic studies. Lavishly illustrated with pages from the artist's sketchbooks--themselves works of great beauty--as well as reproductions of recent paintings, sculptures, and photographs, the book is, like Martínez Celaya's art, multilayered and evocative. The fact that it includes a discussion between the artist and Amnon Yariv, a prominent physicist in the field of quantum electronics and optical communication, suggests that neither the book nor its subject follows conventional models.
Enrique Martínez Celaya and his work confound an astonishing number of stereotypes about artists and art: That visual artists and scientists travel different, and mutually exclusive, paths. That they prefer not to talk about their work and, when they do, are not renowned for articulateness. That art combining aesthetic seductiveness with conceptual depth is rare. That art favored by the cognoscenti is unlikely also to be accessible to, let alone revered by, those outside that sacred circle. That it is nearly impossible to devote oneself with equal attention and effectiveness to teaching and to a professional career. And that one doesn't get a biography until late in life.
In fact, Martínez Celaya, who joined the Pomona faculty in 1994 and was tenured last year, is a highly trained and published physicist, who not only speaks willingly and eloquently about his art but also has produced several articles on philosophy and three books of poetry. Exhibitions and critical reviews attest to the appeal of his work to a broad spectrum of viewers. His reputation as a rigorous and skillful teacher is as strong as the respect in which he is held by the notoriously fickle
art world.
Martínez Celaya's double life in science and art began quite early. Born in Palos, Cuba, in 1964, six years after the Cuban Revolution, he was drawing by the age of eight. In 1972, he and his mother and younger brother followed his father to Madrid, only to move again, three years later, to Puerto Rico. There, the 11-year-old Martínez Celaya was apprenticed to Puerto Rican painter Bernardo Mayol. By 13 he had won eight science competitions and published an article on laser research and two essays on Nietzsche and religion. Entering Cornell in 1982, he graduated magna cum laude in physics four years later. In 1986, he entered the Ph.D. program in quantum electronics at Berkeley, where he also worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory, published several physics papers and patented four laser inventions.
At the same time, he was spending his summers painting in Long Island. Reaching a crossroads in 1988, he transferred to Berkeley's graduate art program and took a studio in Oakland. His first book of poetry was published in 1989, the second in 1991. In a remarkable compression of the traditional sequence of steps by which most artists develop, Martínez Celaya was given his first solo painting exhibition the same year he entered the MFA program at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1992). And in 1994, he was awarded his degree (with highest honors), studied at the prestigious Skowhegan School in Maine and was hired by Pomona College as assistant professor of art.
The breathless (and breathtaking) trajectory of Martínez Celaya's life and career has, if anything accelerated since he joined Pomona's Art Department. His gallery exhibition record, which now extends internationally, would be the envy of an artist twice his age, and his first solo museum show is in the planning stages. Organized by The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, this will travel widely, including to the Orange County Museum of Art, where it will occupy the entire building. Meanwhile, he continues to write and publish poetry, while producing new works at a prodigious rate. In the classroom, Martínez Celaya is a demanding teacher, communicating to students the passion he brings to his own work and expecting from them a high level of effort and commitment. Like the best artist-teachers, he is both mentor and model. No student leaves his class with the illusion that life as an artist is easy.
It is always risky--some would say arrogant--to presume to explain an artist's work, particularly when the artist is articulate and the art includes a parallel body of interrelated writing and poetry that eloquently expresses, and extends, its meaning. As presented in Brodzky's book, Martínez Celaya's sketchbooks, drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs and poetry reveal certain persistent themes--loss, memory, consciousness--encapsulated in recognizable imagery that hints at layers of yet-to-be-discovered depth. The disembodied heads that appear in painted, photographed and sculpted form, are, on one level, identifiable and approachable. At the same time, they are emblematic, standing for consciousness but without recourse to narrative. Martínez Celaya calls them "armatures of memories, metaphors for moments." Similarly, the sentimental, almost too-pretty hummingbirds that recur in the paintings are used deliberately to provide access to more serious issues. At once defiantly present and evanescent, these delicate creatures suggest the human spirit, serving, as the artist puts it, to "collapse the nostalgic and the transcendental.... with a poignancy that is much closer to the way I experience life." Elsewhere, literal layers of torn and stitched canvas address the physical truth of the work of art and, at the same time, reflect emotional strata--wounds that are suffered, mended and always vulnerable to being opened again.
It is often said that all art is ultimately self-portrait. Although there is an obvious truth here, it is too simple a solution to the challenge of interpretation. Keys to Martínez Celaya's work are surely to be found in the biography of one uprooted from his homeland, an immigrant in three others, and living now the curiously unanchored life of the internationally acclaimed. But art of quality always extends the personal to the universal, extrapolating from unique experience to suggest broader truths. Art of quality is also remarkably invulnerable to interpretation, rising above the torrents of prose lavished upon it by admirers and critics alike, standing on its own merits and persistently inviting us to see it anew. By these criteria alone, the art and accomplishments of Enrique Martínez Celaya are remarkable. As to what is to come, we can only guess, and eagerly wait to see.
Marjorie Harth is director of Montgomery Gallery and professor of art history.
Artwork of Enrique Martinez Celaya