14 September 2015
Essay published to coincide with:
Tate Modern: Exhibition
3 June – 11 October 2015
Agnes Martin, Untitled 1977; Watercolour and graphite on paper 9 x 9” (22.9 x 22.9 cm); Private collection; Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery; © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Agnes Martin: The Development of a Belief System
by John Ros
The first time I approached a six-by-six foot gridded canvas of Agnes Martin I remember the breath being knocked out of me. neither thirteen years of catholic school nor all the catholic masses I would attend throughout my youth would prepare me for the blow I was about to receive. My religious study would also fail to prepare me for the understanding of such power. All the scriptures and saints could not provide what Agnes Martin provided in 5,184 square inches. A force so powerful, so quiet, that it transformed me from that moment on. To be able to look at such a piece in earnest, one must shed all beliefs and assumptions, for Agnes Martin supersedes all ideas of desire by simply unveiling the layers of questions with the glimpse of hope in finding an answer.
Hope keeps the viewer invested in this seemingly empty shield of mass — it reveals forgiveness, empathy, concern and continuance — as well as everything in between. A belief system created from loving emotion so powerful that her discovery unfolds before us as we enter into her reflective space. This contemplative space is not simply the reflection of the artist, for she admits, “[the painting] … is done when it goes out the door”,01 for she has now offered the viewer the opportunity to glance at his or herself in the most humble way, with everything stripped to the core.
In this way, Agnes Martin presents us all with a sort of “in-between.” This in-between occupies us as space, thought, action — not only everything that is imbued in her art, but everything she distinguishes about life. By constantly being in-between, Agnes Martin was able to establish herself off the radar. It is through this solitude of the in-between that she set up her own belief system and thus developed her language of visual imagery. This essay will look into that “in-between” space and begin to unravel the potential and struggle it represented for the artist.
In-Between: An Introduction
Agnes Martin found herself in-between during many periods throughout her life. Being both on and off the grid allowed her to develop the vast visual vocabulary that would come to her work. At her earliest, during her childhood, she was in-between homes throughout Canada. Between the homes of grandfather, mother and sister she would get comfortable with a lifestyle of transience and self-motivation. Especially when her mother would establish a business renovating and reselling old homes.02
This in-between continued throughout her life. She was in-between Canada and the United States, in-between rural and urban, in-between academia and society, in-between eastern spirituality and western religion, in-between nature and “anti-nature”. Martin may have even been in-between sexually as well, as Anna Chave suggests in her text, On And Off The Grid, as a possible lesbian,03 not only living in-between society in a cultural fridge, but also in-between in gender.
Later in her path as an artist and in developing her career, Agnes Martin would be considered somewhere in-between abstract expressionist and minimalist, and even though she would be considered a “good woman,” she was in-between the art world as a woman. Even in the minimalist circles she was in-between with her soft squares versus the more predominant rigid squares as well as in-between the emotional and the intellectual. And after leaving New York City, she would again find herself in-between when she moved to Cuba, New Mexico and would live off the grid, in-between civilization and nature.
Seemingly an almost daunting force, one that could keep anyone else running in fear of it, Agnes Martin not only seemed to embrace this in-between, it became an essential element that laid the foundation of her belief system as an artist. The in-between can be summed up perfectly in Agnes Martin’s desire to, “paint the space between the raindrops,”04 as she said while in New York City, working out her belief system through her studio practice. The in-between would be referenced again, this time as a spiritual reference to landscape. From Isaiah, “Surely the people is grass” … “somehow the biblical equation of people with a field of grass gave her the inspiration to paint rows and rows of rectangles — and, in so doing, to extend the analogy between grass and people to rectangles. ‘All the people were like those rectangles; they are just like grass. That’s the way to freedom. If you can imagine you’re a grain of sand … all your troubles fall away…. In a big picture a blade of grass amounts to not very much. Worries fall off you when you can believe that.”05 This constant visual of the in-between existing in nature is what Agnes Martin was most fascinated with. Like grains of sand scraping and the spaces between those grains of sand, or blades of grass. These metaphors gave Martin the structure she would need to continue to unfold the belief in the images she was making.
Nature As Observer
Thinking; we consider that which we perceived. it is a secondary experience. Thinking compares everything that we have perceived with everything that we are perceiving at the moment.06
Agnes Martin’s work almost seems to approach the viewer more than they might want to approach it. In this way she has created and in-between for the viewer — the space in-between the painting and the viewer. She would often reflect on nature as a type of sourcing material. Though the sources were never direct, the more implicit uses were likely unconscious or derivative of an empty and free state.
The presence of an Agnes Martin painting may resonate with spiritual beauty and harmony for some, though she knew others might come to the work and be at a loss. “There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience, you become lighter and lighter in weight, you wouldn’t want anything else. Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like parting a curtain you go into. I want to draw a certain response like this…. not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature – an experience of simple joy … the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.07 Martin brings us back to nature. Spaces at once so comfortable and natural to her, but at the same time a sort of constant field to push away or refuse.
Thomas Crow points out an attraction to a likeness to nature, but understands there is a deeper place of these connections, and not simply the desire, for Agnes Martin to create a landscape-inspired painting. “One commentator aptly likened them in respect to snowflakes, an analogy that captures the fundamental naturalism of Martin’s approach to painting, consistent with her emotional tie to the far western terrain that again drew her away from New York in 1967. Conventional landscape sentiment is rigorously excluded; instead her paintings stand as intensely concrete metaphors for the principle by which infinite natural variety is generated from a small number of physical laws and an iron determinism in which human feeling plays no part.”08
Throughout the constant in-betweens, Agnes Martin would continue with her format of six-by-six-foot canvases. The field that would only hint at nature, but never intentionally be about nature. “I paint with my back to the world,” she said during an interview in 1996,09 not only remarking on ideas of anti-nature, but also her ideas of humility and lack of ego. She also explained, “My work is anti-nature, it is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”10 Martin would continue abide by these ideas which seemed against the nature she loved so much, but more truly, she was open to and honest with them by separating herself from them.
The underside of the leaf
cool in shadow
smiling of innocence
the frailest stems
quivering in light
bend and break
This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.11
For Agnes Martin nature was so closely related to emotion and trust. The emotional versus the intellectual could be potentially hard to defend, especially when there was such an emphasis toward the conceptual during her time of vast development and creation, particularly the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, and with her vast knowledge in education and spirituality. However, she would continue to argue, “It is quite commonly thought that the intellect is responsible for everything that is made and done. It is commonly thought that everything that is can be put into words. But there is a wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put into words.” As Barbara Haskell points out, “Art speaks the language of this emotional sphere. Because it too contains meanings that are wordless and silent, it has the singular ability to stimulate awareness of otherwise screened emotions.”12 The trust in emotions and honesty would give Martin the momentum she would require in her continued search throughout her belief in the visual language she was creating.
The Sound Of Silence
Perhaps the best way into Agnes Martin’s work is through music. “Art is responded to with emotion… and the best art is music… that is the highest art. [And] completely abstract.”13 Perhaps it is the only way to do justice to her subtleties. The in-between space of viewer and artwork continues, now through sound. For the air that makes up the space in-between again relates to the space between things in nature, but also poses a new in-between, one of the abstractness of music. Perhaps this is the best way in and the only way to do justice to the ineffable oeuvre and aura that is Agnes Martin. She wrote it best:
We respond to beauty with emotion. beauty speaks a message to us. We are confused about this message because of distractions. sometimes we even think that it is in the mail. The message is about different kinds of happiness and joy. Joy is most successfully represented in Beethoven’s ninth symphony and by the Parthenon.14
In approach to an Agnes Martin piece, the viewer experiences the in-between as if being sandwiched between two poles, absorbing emotion and honesty. The space is silent, yet if you listen close enough you can hear the hum. In this space of seeing and hearing everything and nothing at the same time it is almost like the viewer is being given a secret, like they are made privy to the very in-between of the maker. Materially, the image, bound by stretchers and sometimes welded aluminum frames, asks the viewer to accept the challenge brought by Martin. These worked canvases do not simply give, for the relationship is symbiotic. This give and take reveals the silence of the studio, as if Martin was whispering in your ear as participant, off-stage performer standing guard and coaxing the viewer to reflect the image and possibly the self in the process. The hum and movement, the cacophony and torrent of everything stopping all at once as if all life came to a halt and you were teetering on a thin blade between truth and honesty, pinned against air, floating in space. All else seems arbitrary when confronted with the subtle pencil mark, rolling over canvas and paint like a symphony-filled echo drumming through your veins.
This dominating feeling of potential silence created by the abundance of harmony and melody hits the viewer with a visual rhythm. The silence of patience, trust and love all breathing below the sphere of consciousness. This silence becomes a slight hum upon further investigation and then even further still, a repetitious flowing. The sound of a pencil being drawn across raw canvas. The brush softly floating almost above the surface laying on delicate layer upon layer. Martin has managed to create a symphony. A masterpiece of silence and sound and everything in-between. Doris von Drathen touches upon this in her essay, “Chords of Silence,” when speaking of the horizontals of Agnes Martin’s later work, a decision that came to her in 1977. “Unfurling the horizontal — which distantly reminds one of the abstraction of musical notation — does in fact prove to the vehicle, suggesting that one could descend these outstretched strings, layer for layer, down into one’s consciousness and find the sole, essential image.”15 We find a commonality throughout both in Agnes Martin’s approach and the approach of the viewer: an unconscious ability to loose oneself and allow the innate knowledge be trusted.
New York City: Expressionist Minimalism And Beyond
Agnes Martin’s search for truth would bring her to the United States. She would travel through the country in education programs back and forth between New Mexico and New York City.16 “Although her faith in destiny and in the superiority and truth of immaterial experience led her to shun political participation, her belief in the ability of everyone to perceive truth is congruent with American democratic tenets…. In 1954 Martin defined her artistic goals as helping to establish a distinct and authentic national art which could represent the expression of the American people.”17
Her search would eventually lead her back to New York City to the downtown studios of the Coenties Slip Building in 1957 where she would begin her development of a new visual language.18 At this intense time in the studio an artist must value the sum of all her experiences while at the same time be completely open to everything new. Agnes Martin called this “inspiration.” “I don’t have any ideas myself… I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for.”19 She would continue to develop her language with colleagues such as Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Ann Wilson and Lenore Tawney.20 This camaraderie among artists is of utmost importance, especially when they are behind the force of something new.
Agnes Martin’s continued development would not be without the constant in-between — this time as the art world might see it. One might call her an abstract expressionist because of the emphasis on the emotive aspects of her work, but unlike the ideas of her abstract expressionist peers, Martin would shy away from the ambitions of the new American art form. She stressed the importance of humility and being free of ego. Her peers of the late 1940s and early 50s might have had a little more difficulty, though emotional and sublime, the ego also came forward, evident in scale and courage alone. Furthermore, Anna Chave argues, “Their anxiety-driven and heroic ambitions (to render ‘tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on’) differed sharply from [Agnes Martin’s] humble aims, to pay close attention to our most muted or ‘wordless and silent’ experiences.”21
Agnes Martin would also be in-between with the minimalists and the minimal ideas of the conceptual. Unlike Sol Lewitt, she perceived herself as the anti-intellectual. “All human knowledge is useless in art work. Concepts, relationships … deductions are distractions of mind that we wish to hold free for inspiration, and living by inspiration in living. Living by intellect — by compassions, calculations, schemes, concepts, ideas is all a structure of pride, in which there is no beauty or happiness — no life. The intellectual life is in fact death.”22 Martin would continually argue that the real art is made by emotion and inspiration and that one would have to free her mind completely to be open to it.
The journey of an artist encapsulates much more than simply a romantic dance of negotiating the studio throughout one’s oeuvre. An artist constantly negotiates her space in relationship to everything; personal, emotional, spiritual, physical and everything in-between. It is not simply a stance or decision, an artist takes necessity at any given time to embark on the extraordinary. Agnes Martin had to negotiate such space and relationships throughout her life. The essence of what one is and who one is always at the helm of explosion. After ten years of making artwork in New York City Agnes Martin would decide to travel. Her wanderlust would take her on fantastic journeys of solace throughout the United States and Canada and even to a place of hiatus from making artwork. Alone in her truck she would sweep the road for discovery and freedom. Her freedom would allow her the energy of spirit to come back to her work some seven years later and take on a new-found power in the studio.
Artist Without Ego :: Spiritual Life Practice
Throughout Agnes Martin’s writings, she talks of the necessity of lack of ego. As mentioned earlier, this would eventually help differentiate herself from the abstract expressionists, but would also help to pave her path in the studio. Perhaps the most defining elements to her thought processes forward would be her love of nature as well as her study of Taoism.
Chuang-Tzu wrote, “Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.” and, “We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence; like Autumn and Winter, they gradually pass away.”23 Martin would cite these philosophies numerous times throughout her life, but in her art, it is forever abundant. She also discussed the human scale of her paintings. “My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance…when I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power.”24 Not only is the power of the square destroyed, there is a sense of the power of the artist and viewer alike being destroyed, from the idea of the human scale of the work. To keep the work balanced and understood would be to understand it, but Martin keeps us lingering, not on the idea of the perfect situation but in the idea of questioning what one sees.
Agnes Martin would continue her metaphors for ego in visual art, “For those who are visual minded I will say: there seems to be a fine ship at anchor. Fear is the anchor, convention is the chain, ghosts stalk the decks, the sails are filled with pride and the ship does now move.”25 Again, following in the path of ego renders us powerless. Not in the conventional sense, but in the idea of submission. Submission is powerless to Agnes Martin, strength in faith and the unknown is power.
I can see humility
delicate and white
it is satisfying
just by itself…
a precious gift
I would rather think of humility than
humility, the beautiful daughter
she cannot do either right or wrong
she does not do anything
all of her ways are empty
infinitely light and delicate
she treads an even path.
sweet, smiling, uninterrupted, free.26
This is one of her most famous pieces of her writing, the sense of humility is again presented as a lesson, almost in parable form. Like her work it is something absorbed more to elicit more questions, not simply provide answers.
The East and West in spirituality and religion would place Agnes Martin in yet another in-between. As a child, she would experience the immense land of Saskatchewan with a family history of farmers and ranchers. “She grew up among self-reliant, prudent pioneers”.27 This would give Martin the tools to be able to rely on herself in the future, either through her studies, in the New York City art scene, traveling solo across Canada and the United States, or building her own home off the grid in Cuba, New Mexico. Her philosophies and ideas of spirituality would be engrained in her at an early age, but as part of that philosophy, she always learned to be open and free to receive and navigate through her own inspiration.
Presbyterianism would be her grounding in Western religion, as Agnes Martin’s grandfather and mentor, Robert Kinnon, was very devout. “[A deeply religious man] … Kinnon was her mentor and a ‘great friend.’ [He] provided a model for a life lived according to moral and spiritual convictions.”28 Though Martin was interested in spirituality more than religion, the sense of morality struck her. Those teachings combined with later teachings of Chuang-Tzu would help form her greater ideas of strength in a spiritual belief system.
Agnes Martin would develop her ideas on materiality based on some of the teachings from her early life as a Protestant and be able to take it further in her later beliefs in Taoism. “Martin regards the material environment as transient and exhaustible. Fueled by ego and pride and imprisoned in a never-ending cycle of conquest and defeat, it is an illusory world of shadows and dreams.29 This would be supported further by Chuang-Tzu, “All existing things are really one. We regard those that are beautiful and rare as valuable, and those that are ugly as foul and rotten, the foul and rotten may come to be transformed into what is rare and valuable, and the rare and valuable into what is foul and rotten.”30 In further developing her work she would find herself in-between the sense of identity and anonymity — self and spirit.
Off The Grid And On To Life
Though Agnes Martin sought perfection and beauty, she understood both were out of her control and neither were actually within an object, but rather part of the object by idea. “When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in my mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.”31 This notion would free Agnes Martin of a certain identity, or ego, and could move her more in the direction of a “known honesty” — artist as muse. “For Agnes Martin, the secret of beauty is commensurate with the secrete of life. For her, perfection can be palpably experiences, whether on seeing grass bend in the wind or observing how a stellar-petalled flower glows on the prairie.”32
The idea of perfection and beauty would continue to resonate with Agnes Martin, “We must surrender the idea that this perfection that we see in the mind or before our eyes is obtainable or attainable. It is really far from us. We are no more capable of having it than the infant that tries to eat it. But our happiness lies in our moments of awareness of it.”33 She would insist, “All artwork is about beauty; all positive work represents it and celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives. When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind. It is a mental and emotional response that we make. We respond to life as though it were perfect.”34
Though putting words to Agnes Martin’s work seems counter to everything she believed, it places us at another sense of the in-between. The in-between of word and art. The visual language is continually bombarded with the written language. The only way to do justice to Agnes Martin would be to assure freedom of the self and ego. The perfection of art and life seems like an arduous task enough. Any chosen words must be carefully done so. In line with Agnes Martin’s ideas of artist as conduit, for the inspiration of the work to speak louder than the intentions of the artist, one can only hope that the silent and in-between be given a chance to absorb and relate. That occupying space with an Agnes Martin painting is to occupy space with Agnes Martin, free of ego, full of emotion and almost completely perfect.
01. Martin, Agnes. Interview By Chuck Smith. Vimeo.Com. Np, 1997. Web. 2 Dec 2011.
02. Timeline Page 167. – Haskell, Barbara. Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 167-82. Print.
03. Chave, Anna. “Agnes Martin: On And Off The Grid” annachave.com (2004). PDF., Page 3.
04. Haskell, Barbara. “Agnes Martin: The Awareness Of Perfection.” Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 93-117. Print., Page 103.
05. Ibid., Page 104.
06. Von Dieter Schwarz, Herausgegeben. Agnes Martin Writings. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1991. Print., Page 89.
07. Haskell, Barbara. “Agnes Martin: The Awareness Of Perfection.” Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 93-117. Print., Page 109.
08. Crow, Thomas. The Rise Of The Sixties. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Print., Page 114.
09. Martin, Agnes. Interview By Chuck Smith. Vimeo.Com. Np, 1997. Web. 2 Dec 2011.
10. Haskell, Barbara. “Agnes Martin: The Awareness Of Perfection.” Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 93-117. Print., Page 109.
11. Von Dieter Schwarz, Herausgegeben. Agnes Martin Writings. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1991. Print., Page 15.
12. Haskell, Barbara. “Agnes Martin: The Awareness Of Perfection.” Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 93-117. Print., Page 95.
13. Martin, Agnes. Interview By Chuck Smith. Vimeo.Com. Np, 1997. Web. 2 Dec 2011.
14. Von Dieter Schwarz, Herausgegeben. Agnes Martin Writings. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1991. Print., Page 153.
15. Von Draven, Doris. Vortex Of Silence. Milan: Charta, 2004. Print., Page 214.
16. Timeline Page 167. – Haskell, Barbara. Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 167-82. Print.
17. Haskell, Barbara. “Agnes Martin: The Awareness Of Perfection.” Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 93-117. Print., Page 96.
18. Timeline Page 167. – Haskell, Barbara. Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 167-82. Print.
19. Martin, Agnes. Interview By Chuck Smith. Vimeo.Com. Np, 1997. Web. 2 Dec 2011.
20. Haskell, Barbara. “Agnes Martin: The Awareness Of Perfection.” Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 93-117. Print., Page 101.
21. Chave, Anna. “Agnes Martin: Humility, The Beautiful Daughter . . . . All Of Her Ways Are Empty.” Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 131-53. Print., Page 135.
22. Ibid., Page 135.
23. Chuang Tzu Quotes: Http://Thinkexist.Com/Quotes/Chuang_Tzu/
24. Von Dieter Schwarz, Herausgegeben. Agnes Martin Writings. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1991. Print., Page 29.
25. Ibid., Page 74.
26. Ibid., Page 17.
27. Haskell, Barbara. “Agnes Martin: The Awareness Of Perfection.” Agnes Martin. Ed. Barbara Haskell. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc, 1992. 93-117. Print., Page 95.
28. Ibid., Page 96.
29. Ibid., Page 93.
30. Chuang Tzu Quotes: Http://Thinkexist.Com/Quotes/Chuang_Tzu/
31. Von Dieter Schwarz, Herausgegeben. Agnes Martin Writings. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1991. Print., Page 153.
32. Von Draven, Doris. Vortex Of Silence. Milan: Charta, 2004. Print., Page 214.
33. Von Dieter Schwarz, Herausgegeben. Agnes Martin Writings. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1991. Print., Page 69.
34. Ibid., Page 153.