In the lobby of the south entrance to the One World Trade Center in lower Manhatten, Donald Martiny is busy at work. His 600 square-foot impromptu work space has been cordoned off by nylon curtains for privacy. It is about the same size as his painting studio back home in Chapel Hill.
61-year-old Martiny has been working the last two months on a couple of paintings that will hang at the World Trade Center. He wears paint-splattered black scrubs as he works, while dozens of white plastic pails of liquid pigment and medium remain stacked against a wall nearby.
"I think my paintings keep me in good shape. The buckets I’m carrying around are five-gallon buckets, and moving the paint around is like moving peanut butter around. It’s not light when it’s wet," Martiny said.
There is nothing conventional about Martiny’s finished paintings or the paint he uses to make them. The two paintings here at the World Trade Center are about 14 feet wide and 12 feet tall. They are too big to fit through the doors. Martiny uses special paint that took six years to formulate with the help of technicians and scientists around the world.
"I put micro-bubbles in the paint. I also put chemicals into the paint to make them stiffer or to make them more flexible, to adjust the viscosity of the paint. I want to adjust the workability of the paint. For different parts of the painting, I want the painting to do different things," he explained.
Martiny does not paint on canvas and his finished paintings are not framed. They look like huge brush strokes floating in space. The style is known as gestures in the art world.
The paint on these two new works is up to seven inches thick at some points and is dried with the help of industrial fans. One painting is mostly orange, purple and beige. The other is green, blue and white.
"I want to be very present in my works, so sometimes I use brushes but these paintings I’ve used just my hands," Martiny said.
But it's not exactly his bare hands. Martiny wore latex gloves as he manipulated paint whose consistency is somewhere between honey and peanut butter. He paints on a thin plastic sheet on the floor. After the painting has dried, it is attached to a sheet of alumite: two thin layers of aluminum separated by a plastic core. The alumite is cut out in the shape of the painting, but you can’t see it when you’re standing in front of the artwork.
"His paintings float a good inch off the wall," said Charles Shepard III, president of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
"They’re very energetic. I mean, if you’ve seen one in person, the energy’s palpable and you think this is just going to rocket around the room in some moment. To be in a gallery filled with his work is really a very powerful experience."
Martiny names his paintings after extinct languages. The two World Trade Center paintings are named for languages once spoken by Native Americans on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, Lenape and Unami. The "Lenape" painting took between 45 and 60 gallons of paint. Martiny mixed five gallons at a time.
"The color is so important to me, so I take a lot of time. I could spend three days mixing just the color to get it to where I want it to be. It takes as long to mix the paint as it does to make the painting," Martiny said.
Martiny will return to Chapel Hill early next month where he’s been working on small sculptures made of paint.
For more on Martiny's work at the World Trade Center, view this video.