From Tie Dye to Rayographs: The Art of Martha Stewart [NSFW]

by Whitney Kimball on September 8, 2011 · 13 comments Opinion

Stewart's Untitled tie dye, 2007, Simon Hantaï, "Etude," 1969

There are moments on the Living website when one suspects that Martha Stewart may have once held fine art aspirations.  In an article explaining how to compose a mushroom print, she writes, “The embryonic shape, diaphanous structure, and creamy spores of an amanita make it a good solo subject; this one recalls a Surrealist photogram.”  Sure, she’s no avant-gardener, and she is a strident formalist, but a case can be made for a select handful of fine artworks from Stewart’s oeuvre.

  • The invention of pliage is attributed to painter Simon Hantaï.  Martha creates pliage works under a humbler name: tie dye.  This method consists of folding the canvas, painting it, then stretching it to reveal graphic shapes that evoke space, scale shifts, and atmosphere.  Stewart's T-shirts and wrapping paper pliage (intentionally?) recalls the work of her predecessor.

Martha Stewart mushroom print, Man Ray rayograph, 1926

  • Martha's mushroom prints do kinda recall Surrealist photograms.

Martha Stewart untitled marbling, Philip Taaffe "Untitled," 2004

  • Her marbling may lack the complexity of, say, that of Philip Taaffe or Roland Flexner, but its vibrant hue and luscious ink handling demonstrates more-than-proficient skill.

Martha Stewart, Josef Albers

  • Anyone who makes overlapping squares will eventually end up with something that resembles an Albers, but her palette borrows directly from his.

Martha's decoupaged dresser, Kosuth's One and Three Chairs

  • Martha never self-identifies as a conceptual artist.  However, this decoupaged chest seems to aspire to a gestalt similar to Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs.”

Martha Stewart's cornhole game; image from Jeff Koons's "Made in Heaven"

  • AFC’s Will Brand sent me this “cornhole game,” in conjunction with a Koons image of a dick fucking a vagina asshole. [Editor’s note: amended via reader feedback.] Thanks, Will!

There is nothing funny about this photo.

  • For further reading, check out a slideshow of portraits a la Cindy Sherman.


  • petra cortright

    she is the best

    • Jsloanesnurepaullus

      Yes, she really is the best.  I wish I could remember which book I found it in, but there is a short essay in a catalog of Tom Friedman’s work that quite delightfully compares Stewart’s work to that of Friedman. 

  • Anonymous

    as i recall she has a degree in Art History….  and I’m not ashamed to admit i like the color combination and color schemes on many of her products. 
    but .. i don’t think i’ll be making a cornhole game any time soon.

  • Virge Lorents

    Oh, come on! The fact is that Martha has employees who create those arty projects. She no doubt renders verdicts on what her employees present to her, but she is not the creator.

  • toomanyLennys

    What Martha Stewart stands for is mediocrity. Palin and simple. No color too bright, no art too sophisticated, just enough to not offend anyone, or keep them from buying something. This is not art, it is anti-art.

  • peachfuzz

    Most decorators and designers dabble in art — this is not remarkable.  Many artists feel a pull toward practical art; hence, design and decor for everyday use.

  • Danny Olda

    I hate to dissent from the other commenters, but I think I agree with the point of the blog post: Martha Stewart is our generations greatest artist, and maybe the greatest of all time. 

  • stevf

    so martha stewart = damien hirst 2.0?

  • T Bara

    Everybody looks at art or at things that are perceived as art differently. So there is no sense in criticising anyone’s taste in art.

  • Artslark

    Hate to be the ol’ fuddy duddy here –  but I was just reading a story about the Yahoo CEO who got fired, and they had a warning that there was a “word” at the bottom of the page that might be offensive to people. I’m reading this article innocently, and get down to the cornhole game. I really wish I had been warned. It is true, a picture is worth a thousand words.

    But Martha is amazing and inspiring. She is precise and skillful in her artistry.

    • Anonymous

      NSFW (not safe for work) was in the title. I don’t know how much more warning we can give. 

    • Anonymous

      Oh jeez, sorry about that.  Koons is kind of a low blow.  

  • Brooklynartistsherry

    Was the cornhole finale meant to demonstrate the authors judgment, or was it just a cheap trick?  I’m no Martha Stewart acolyte, but I’m grateful for some advice I once got on her website on how to make a ceramic holder with wire and pliers. I strongly agree with what ‘peachfuzz’ wrote. I’ll add that some of the more visually appealing and comprehensible art being offered in many galleries is very interior design-based. We’re in a very vacuous moment in what is being  encouraged by art schools and their corporate promoters. Except for reasons of perceived status, no one is in a position to get an attitude toward Martha Stewart or any other purveyors to the gentrified masses.

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