Truth-Maps: A Conversation with Enrique Martínez Celaya

Banner image: The Well, 2014. Bronze. 152 x 65 x 59 in.


ENRIQUE MARTÍNEZ CELAYA, an internationally celebrated artist, author, professor, scientist, and publisher, is a contemporary Renaissance man. When poet David St. John first introduced me to his work, I was immediately seduced by the artist’s hallucinatory dialogue between disciplines. The first person to be appointed Provost Professor of Humanities and Arts at the University of Southern California, Martínez Celaya has produced globally recognized art that can be found in major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, as well as in locations customarily outside the art world, such as New York’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the historic Dorotheenstadt Cemetery in Berlin. 

A 2012 YouTube video, The Hunt’s Will, takes us inside the artist’s studio as Martínez Celaya describes his painting process the way a researcher might their scientific project: “Paintings are all about distance, are objects of distance.” This human superconductor, this poet-painter-activist unveils an Einsteinian proposition that inspiration = movement = object = time, connecting mind, body, and heart in an integral process of discovery.


ELENA KARINA BYRNE: Because you are an artist, a poet, and a physicist, I wonder which occupation came first and what led you to explore the other disciplines?

ENRIQUE MARTÍNEZ CELAYA: As an interest, art came first. I started drawing and painting when I lived in Cuba and Spain, and I was an apprentice for a painter in my early teens in Puerto Rico. Then came literature and poetry when I was 15 years old or so and, about the same time, physics. My first academic degrees were in physics, and my first professional job, in my mid-20s, was also as a physicist. This multiplicity of interests was confusing to me when I was young, but now I am grateful for the way things turned out.

People like to know where one belongs or with which tradition or profession one identifies, and once they know this, they bring forth their assumptions and expectations. Since the Enlightenment, specialization has accelerated our identification with intellectual traditions while professions have narrowed, which has brought about spectacular discoveries, especially in science, as well as impoverishment of our intellectual awareness and imagination. While academia has tried to encourage multidisciplinary efforts, most of these, in my opinion, are window dressing. The bulk of academic work is made with a very narrow audience in mind, and this is particularly true of science and philosophy.

My intellectual and artistic identity is more fluid. I prefer to be a moving target, especially to myself. There is so much to explore, so many haunting questions, so much to do. Each day offers something new, not only outside oneself but also in who one is.

Martínez Celaya in his Culver City studio working on “The Returning Tale,” 2018. Oil and wax on canvas. 116 x 150 in.

We’ve all heard poets say they don’t know what they are going to write about until they begin writing. Do you ever sense that your poetry is being informed or in dialogue with your art and vice versa, and have you ventured into any recent interdisciplinary projects that combine your talents? Do you ever collaborate?

It seems essential to know oneself and remember that nothing stands still, that holding too tightly to anything is to be imprisoned by it. I try to fight against myself, against my beliefs, and against my self-contentment, and I like to surprise myself, though it is not easy to get around our ruts and expectations.

My writings and my paintings influence one another, sometimes by informing and supporting and other times by disrupting. Poetry and literature, in general, have been and continue to be an education in the capacity to be moved, and also in developing standards and aspirations. A poem by Czesław Miłosz, Miguel Hernández, Robert Frost, or Marina Tsvetaeva, or novels like The Master and Margarita, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Grapes of Wrath, Niebla, or The Death of Ivan Ilyich, transform readers and reveal moral, perceptual, and emotive possibilities that might have remained outside of our awareness.

I think of those works and the artists, writers, and thinkers of the past as part of who I am, so, in a way, every project is a collaboration. I am collaborating with everyone whose work I admire, with the people, books, ideas, and artworks I have encountered, with all those who helped me and those who got in my way, as well as with those other mes who moved my work along to where it is today. This view of all work as collaborative makes it easy and exciting for me to interact with others. I have collaborated with artists, architects, scientists, curators, writers, fashion designers, and landscape architects, and I am always looking for new and unexpected collaborations.

I love that your paintings engage with time and its liminal threshold, much in the same way poetry does. When I first saw your paintings, they felt raw, like “waking dreams” (Magritte’s definition of painting), juxtaposing knowing and unknowing, allowing absence to represent presence. Can you tell us a little more about your work and how you chose the titles for specific artworks?

I appreciate your response to my paintings. At times, I see them like waking dreams, too. For the most part, I am searching for something about which I have a hunch, a sense, which I hope to bring forth more fully — with more clarity and presence.

This process is creative, but my idea of creativity is different from much of what I hear around. Creativity involves taking the known, the not-so-known, and often some disparate information, to bring forth something new, and this process is structurally similar regardless of the pursuit or the field. It has associative qualities as well as aspects that seem mystical or unconscious, but it is not a wacky, disorganized effort about something one does not know well. Instead, most significant creative leaps result from sustained attention, in-depth knowledge, and intense engagement.

In this journey or process, time and space are the conditions as well as the means, and also the obstacles that clarify the path. I am aware of space physically, though intellectually it is an elusive concept. My relationship to time and being is intuitive, and not much can be said about these intuitions, other than that they are beacons in the distance, whose light finds me occasionally.

You asked about titling my work, and for the most part the process is mysterious to me. Titles are rotations, bindings of words to a visual experience, or openings that allow a glimpse of emotional or thought undercurrents. Sometimes, the title emerges while I am working, and other times I go back to my notes to find a passage related to the work. It is not always clear why some words resonate while others do not. You might have noticed that my titles begin with the article “the,” whose particularizing effect seems to suggest a location on some truth-map. The definite article adds agency to titles, which seems appropriate for now.

“The Crown,” 2015. Oil and wax on canvas. 100 x 78 in. Collection of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.

Art marries body and mind like a meditation. Roland Barthes declared language to be “a skin.” Following poetry’s assertion that language begins in the body, I’m curious which of your endeavors originates from and occupies your body the most.

I find your question fascinating. My first inclination was to answer “painting and sculpture,” because they are physical and we experience their presence. But I think it is poetry. The words and silences in a poem have an emotional texture that activates the body. The heart resonance of some passages in a poem makes the body feel heavy, earthly, and other passages make it feel light as if it was weaved with strands of air.

We are witnessing a great human divide between people, between body and mind, where fact and truth engage in a deadly battle. The horrifying resurgence of bigotry, of racially motivated killings, police killings, as well as new heights of political insanity during a global pandemic, challenge our personal and collective sense of what truth means today. This anxiety puts pressure on the artist.

Even science can’t claim objective truth or that what we know is true everywhere and every time. History is an account, always partial and distorted, and serious historians know that what they are trying to hold is, at best, a transient truth. But transient truths are useful. Without them, it would be difficult to organize ourselves around our trajectory and our moment.

Bigotry and racism have never stopped being around. Difference is threatening, and almost everyone tries to perpetuate their structural advantages — sometimes unconsciously. The recent killings seem exceptional only to those who have not been paying attention. What happened to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor is typical of what the black community has been suffering for a long time. And, while there are historical specificities, we should recognize that hatred and abuse are happening to just about every oppressed or disenfranchised group in this country and around the world. But the problems cannot be solved by changing the names of buildings or torching stores. The answer will be found in education and more value given to respect, integrity, and honor.

The knee-jerk reaction is to want — and to make — work that seems political, that preaches, that delivers “messages,” and this type of work will be making the rounds for a while. In the long run, it is the work that confronts the human condition and unconceals truths transcending the moment that will reveal how to complete the task of becoming human. 

A lifelong task indeed … In a 2016 discussion with Ben Tufnell, you address the idea of sight as insight. “I continue the painting from memory,” you say, “to avoid enslaving it to an existing image or a likeness.” Do you believe art has the power to change commerce-driven social media and other influencers that define and encourage false “likeness”?

The proliferation of images has made the reproduction of appearance more important than it used to be 70 years ago. This increased interest in likeness as the goal has meant that, to invoke meanings beyond the seductive appeal of reproduction, images have to be loaded with digestible, catchy stories, or saddled with onerous didactic moral or political lessons. The result is that we find ourselves in the age of illustration. All these things point to what art is not.

The legacy of violence we leave our children, including violence to our environment, is wholly distressing. However, I am encouraged by new efforts to include, educate, and inspire our children. Your Whale & Star initiative offers exciting outreach programs for adults and children. Can you tell us what these programs might offer once we can safely gather together again and reenter the world?

My studio and I enthusiastically started Whale & Star in 1998, and that enthusiasm has only grown as we have been able to work with children, to involve the public in some of our lectures and books, and to look for ways to engage the world beyond the galleries and museums. There is a lot more that can be done, and we are looking for ways to persevere and reinvent ourselves.


An editor-at-large for Terminus magazine, Elena Karina Byrne is currently enrolled in Antioch University Santa Barbara’s MFA program in Writing and Contemporary Media while serving as poetry consultant and moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and Literary Programs Director for the historic Ruskin Art Club.