The Legacy of Agnes Martin: A Collection of Thoughts by Artists

 

Agnes Martin, by Steve Karlik

I went for a walk yesterday; a thin veil of snow cloaked the sidewalk. 

At once, grids became apparent. 

The accumulation of packed snow in the concrete’s seams made opaque grids, grids that were again defined by planes of less dense, more transparent layers of snow that covered the higher surfaces. 

The combination of these lines and planes brought me back to painting and why painting has significance for me. 

Reason, logic, the man made: the systems and structures within which we navigate that need to be expressed because we navigate them. 

I saw what I needed to think about. 

Where the snow began to melt the planes fell away and the grids softened, I was reminded, as I am with Agnes Martin’s work, that with structure there is always the poetic that defines it.

 

Agnes Martin, by Kevin Finklea

“I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect — completely removed in fact — even as we ourselves are.”

This is the opening of the Notes section of Agnes Martin’s Writings/Schriften (1991, Hatze Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany). 

I found myself opening this book for the first time in many years. This book essentially replaced the scattered notes, xeroxes and catalog quotations I had gathered over the years from Agnes Martin. I held on to this and Profile: Agnes Martin (vol. 1, no. 2, March 1981, Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, Illinois). While there is much that I can say about her work that was and remains important to me; it was her writing and interviews that were of the greatest use to me as a young artist. Her ruminations on investigation, truth and perfection are absolutely peerless.

My recent interview with MINUS SPACE suddenly sprang to mind. I recalled saying that nothing I paint is perfect. I then used the word approximation to further describe my work’s perceived perfectness. I have to admit a wave of embarassment came over me. While I felt momentarily like a plagerist, I soon realized that I had actually internalized and put into practice much of what Martin had to say about painting. It is employing this sense of self-analysis and reflection that was Martin’s greatest contribution to non-objective painters. I can not encourage young non-objective painters enough to read what she had to say. I offer the following from Profile: Agnes Martin:

“The work of artists is an investigation into truth, and you’re going to see it in your mind, you own mind.”

 

Thoughts on Agnes, by Douglas Witmer

There was record flooding in south central Pennsylvania, where I grew up, in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. I was too young to remember the event, but the phrase “flood of Agnes” was often spoken in my childhood. I didn’t know Agnes was a woman’s name. The sound of it definitely left an impression. This is an aside, though…

I long fancied making a visit to Taos to visit Agnes Martin. I read she took visitors. I never knew what I would ask or say, though. Words tend to drop away for me when it comes to her work.

I believe I did not actually “see” the first Agnes Martin painting I was exposed to. It was likely “The Rose,” which sometimes hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the time was probably in the late 1980s. It took interacting with the work of my mentor Warren Rohrer, who shared affinities with Agnes, for my consciousness to be opened.

I’ve begun to think that’s how some work is — invisible until its viewer is ready to see.

In my upbringing I was encouraged to “be in the world but not of the world” and this is definitely a feeling I got from Agnes’ work. The feeling was bolstered as I learned more about her life and writing.

The story of her move to the desert, building a house by hand (one account made it sound like she began by putting adobe around her camper and worked outward from there) and of her “quitting” painting for the better part of a decade: I find all of that an inspiring example of taking an alternative path. I wrestle personally, though, with the viability of that kind of asceticism for an artist of my generation.

Seeing her early work at Dia:Beacon this past fall was a true highlight. Whereas her gridded paintings could at times seem a closed system, cutting themselves off from the world, the early works were incredibly open, humble, innocent, and vulnerable. I could see they came from a special time and place. I am very curious about her decision to revisit some of those images in what was her last exhibition at Pace Wildenstein.

I made a special trip to see those paintings in real life. I’m glad I did, but they made me sad because in them I felt like I could see that Agnes no longer possessed the physical mechanics. The paint quality didn’t carry the images like it had before.

Her paintings, like all reductive or distilled work, have such possibility for total failure. In this (our) kind of work, it’s a real accomplishment when feel you have made a success. Agnes’ work for so long had all the parts in play so beautifully and I am thankful to be able to experience that.

 

Meeting Agnes Martin, by Sharon Brant

In 1973 Agnes Martin was in New York City. I think she was here in preparation for a retrospective of her work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This may have been the first retrospective for her, because she was not famous in a widespread way as she is now. Mostly, painters knew and loved her work.

Somehow I heard, maybe through the art world grapevine, she was going to give a talk at Cooper Union. I was excited and could not believe my good fortune. She was a painter I admired very much and I was going to be in her presence. This was an unusual event because she had left NYC a long time ago and was living in New Mexico in a reclusive way.

The group that had gathered was not huge. It wasn’t held in Cooper Union’s big auditorium. It was in a classroom. She spoke slowly and carefully, as if she had prepared succinctly the entire talk. At one point she was silent for a really long time, as if she was trying to remember what she wanted to say next. Now, regardless of its reason, the combination of this silence and succinctness is so appropriate, because it’s what we experience in her paintings. I don’t remember the specifics of her talk, but I remember the stance about painting she embodied as she stood before us. The way I would put it is that she made paying attention to her thoughts and attitudes the main purpose of her life and that painting then developed out of that awareness. Yes, the painting comes out of how we live our lives.

 

Agnes Martin, by Chris Ashley

I learned about Agnes Martin as an undergrad in the San Francisco Bay Area, around 1976. I had an early, natural attraction to abstract art, even as young as 11 or 12; on a trip to the Oakland Museum with my grandmother around 1968 I was as interested in Bierstadt [1], as, say, Hassel Smith [2]. I thought that a painting is a painting: they all deserve to be looked at, and that they weren’t that easy to make. Adults said that a child could make that, but I didn’t agree; I couldn’t make one, and I thought there was something going on there besides the skilled (or unskilled) representation of a person, tree, cow, or table top. I don’t know why I knew that so young.

At age 18 or 19 I suddenly had access to a college library with freely available back issues of art magazines, which I studied pretty closely in the stacks. I particularly liked Art International and Artforum. This, combined with access to SFMOMA, the de Young and Legion of Honor, the Oakland Museum, and the Berkeley Art Museum, were the real foundation of my education, rather than the studio classes I took, where I pretty much ended up doing whatever I wanted to do anyway.

I became really intrigued by what was usually called minimalist painting: Ryman, Marden, Novros, Berthot, Humphrey, etc., in NY; Charlton, Greene in the UK; the Swiss — Lohse, Bill; BMPT in France: Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, and Toroni; as well as lots of others. I was really interested in a number of question: what is a painting; how could so little could provoke so much looking; what is the basis for the artist of this kind of work; is this a reduction or expansion of painting, i.e., is minimalist painting additive (starting from zero) or subtractive (a removing from painting of other subjects, techniques, concerns); how are decisions made by the artist; what are the differences between similar kinds of work, and how does an individual resist the urge to fix things up, design, and decorate.

The problem was that in the SF Bay Area I found little exposure to this work (that would change around 1979-80 when two SF galleries — Modernism and Shirley Cerf — were actively showing Saxon, Hayward, Tchakalian, Marioni, Hafif, Gimblett, Sims, Lawson, to name a few). I was trying to figure it out through reproductions, all the while still looking closely at Bay Area figurative artists like Diebenkorn, Park, Bischoff, Brown, and Neri.

I recall on a late afternoon in 1976 buying a copy of Art News (vol. 75, no. 7, September 1976) [3] at the Oakland Museum. A Rembrandt self portrait is on the cover, and inside is a multi-page article about Agnes Martin. I remember that I bought the magazine because of this article; I had seen her name before. I remember walking down the street carrying the magzine, eager to read it later. I clearly recall that the sun was out, light was bouncing off the sidewalk, and it was warm and a little windy. I still have this issue.

The article covered Martin’s history, talked about her leaving New York, the film she made called “Gabriel,” and discussed her new work. I believe the occasion of the article had to do with her first show of new work since she began painting again in 1974. What made an impression on me was the way she wrote and spoke. I had just read Alan Watts’ “The Book,” and I think I’d also begun Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” Martin’s thoughts and ideas were in this realm, but she spoke as a painter. I was immediately struck by her statement, “Anyone can look at a waterfall all day.” Having read that, I had just then learned a new way to approach a painting and to understand and talk about looking.

I first saw an actual painting by Agnes Martin in 1977; I vividly remember the moment. I walked into a gallery at SFMOMA, at the old building in the Veteran’s War Memorial Building near the City Hall; it was one of the inner galleries just around the corner from the elevators. There it hung, and I instantly knew who the artist was. I felt happy, as if I’d discovered something.

“Falling Blue,” 1963 [4], is six feet square, oil and pencil on canvas which actually looks like coarse, dark linen. Horizontal pencil lines perhaps half an inch apart are ruled to the edges of a framing border of bare canvas two inches or so on all four sides. In between the penciled horizontal lines dark violet-blue is painted in repeated strokes with a small brush from one side to the other; the blue line is brushed horizontally as far as the paint the brush can carry lasts, and then the brush is loaded with more paint to continue the line across. Each horizontal band of blue paint spanning the painting, then, isn’t completely continuous: you can see places in each band where the stroke starts, stops, and continues. Up close you can see the movement, the labor, the patience in these repeated thin stripes. But I didn’t see the details at first. I remember stopping at least ten feet away and seeing the whole painting. The thin stripes of paint turning thick and thin with starts and stops looked something like thin, soft, slowly undulating corduroy, and the painting shimmered. It both gave off and took in light.

Multiple kinds of space could be seen: there was a deep space, difficult to pin down, fuzzy, wavy and distant; there was an intimate space, enveloping and up close, and the painting felt in its material like a real thing, handmade in small amounts like weaving; and there was the formal space of the boundaries between the painting and the wall, and in the border that separated the edge of the canvas and the inner painted area, slices of architectural space against painted space.

The dark brown canvas and the dark blue paint were basically the two colors in the painting, but they simultaneously projected a brillaint image and also collapsed into a kind of mud that couldn’t be captured and separated by the eye. The painting wavered in and out of sight, not always easy to see, but the process of looking at it was an experience that was constant and steady. Finally, I began to see how so little could do and mean so much. I learned a lot from Falling Blue, and I looked at it at every opportunity. I learned how to look at a painting as a critical observer, and as one who experiences the painting emotionally and intellectually.

It’s much harder to say, however, what I learned about making a painting, because the entire painting is there before me — canvas, pencil lines, strokes of blue paint — and the entire act of its making can apparently be deciphered. Why can’t this be easily repeated? I can look at he painting almost as a recipe, but I can’t make it. I learned something to do with intention (having an idea, following through on it, and staring down the results to decide whether or not to keep it) and contrivance (having a bad idea, illustrating an idea, losing sight of or failing to follow the idea, or just plain bad editing of work). “Falling Blue,” and successive paintings by Agnes Martin I’ve seen, taught me about using materials directly, finding and committing to a vision and voice, avoiding illustration, and the power of distillation. I think these are some of the strengths of her work. Happily, she was able to work for a long time, and I believe her example and body of work is very important to any kind of artist.

[1] http://www.museumca.org/images/1151.jpg
[2] http://www.transit-lounge.com/hassel_smith
[3] See Notes, 13: http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs_b/martin-going/essay.html
[4] http://collections.sfmoma.org/Obj207$6082

 

MARTIN, Agnes
(22 March 1912)

Born in Saskatchewan, she emigrated to the United States in 1932 to attend college in Washington State and New York. In the early 1960s, a few years after relocating from New York to New Mexico, Martin began producing paintings of grids composed of horizontal bricks, so to speak, that run from edge to edge, both vertically and horizontally. Perhaps sensing that she had reached an ultimate image, much as her near-contemporary Ad Rheinhardt had, she stopped painting for several years before returning to grids that were even more subtle in making thin, straight parallel lines that shimmer, and thus evoke a spiritual experience outside of themselves. Not unlike Reinhardt again, Martin is also an assertive writer: “Art work is a representation of our devotion to life. Everyone is devoted to life with an intensity far beyond our comprehension. The slightest hint of devotion to life in art work is received by all with gratitude.” Especially in group exhibitions, in my experience, her work shines through the strength of subtlety.

— Richard Kostelanetz, excerpted with permission from his book A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, New York: Schirmer Books, second edition, 2000