Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Books: Agnes Martin's Awareness of Perfection

By Pamela W. Wallace

Earlier this year a retrospective of Agnes Martin's work filled the enormous spiral in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The sense of excitement and anticipation I felt when I heard about the exhibition kindled a recollection of the first time I was treated to lobster. Initially I couldn't understand the hype. Then I savored the delicacy and developed a craving.

Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim Musem in New York City
Photo: Joanne Mattera Art Blog

While Martin is well known as a groundbreaking artist, her life and work remain enigmatic (to some) and generative of contradiction. I needed to know more about her. Three books were on my shelf, chosen for their varied type and approach to the artist: Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal 2015, Thames & Hudson; Agnes Martin, edited by Lynne Cooke, Karen Kelly, and Barbara Schroder, Dia Art Foundation/Yale University Press 2011; and.Agnes Martin Writings, edited by Dieter Schwarz, 1991. Let me share some of what I learned from these volumes.

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art

Nancy Princenthal's biography  presents a chronology of Martin's life from her birth in western Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912, to her death in New Mexico in 2004. It is engaging and intriguing as she sorts through conflicting information about Martin's early life and influences. "If she was not the mystic saint some took her for, neither was she altogether adverse to exploiting that reputation," writes Princenthal, who traces Martin's frequent moves between New Mexico and New York City over the following 20 years, detailing what can be known about Martin's friends and her artistic, philosophical, and spiritual influences. 

In 1957, Martin accepted an invitation to show at Betty Parsons in Manhattan on the condition she move back to the city. For the next several years, she was ensconsed in the quiet niche of Coenties Slip on lower Manhattan. Princenthal vividly depicts the artists, their relationships and living conditions in the former bustling port area. She quotes Martin from an article in The Magazine of New York Living:  "When you paint, you don't have time to get involved with people, everything must fall before the work. That's what's wonderful about the Slip - we all respect each other's need to work. The rest of New York? Everybody groans about going into the city and sings when he comes back home."

Issues of Martin's mental health (a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia) and her closeted homosexuality are historically situated to offer insight into her solitary existence, public persona, and her work. Princenthal details the construction of many of Martin's most significant paintings. Convening conversations, historical documents, and decades of curatorial and critical writing about Martin's work, the author succeeds in illuminating not only the work, but Martin's personality, struggles, lifestyle, and numerous contradictions therein—some humorous, some sadly difficult.

Agnes Martin

This volume from the Dia Art Foundation presents a uniquely varied collection of 10 essays by art historians, critics, curators and artists who share a committed engagement with the work of Agnes Martin. The publication arose out of a colloquium in October 2005 during a retrospective organized by Dia's then curator, Lynne Cooke. Cooke initiated discussion by presenting an overview of the chronology of Martin's life citing  the artist’s own writing, which expressed her wish that she be viewed as a classicist. The subsequent essays reflect the individual focus of the authors and the nature of their connection to Martin. They vary from personal and professional recollections to theoretical constructs for viewing and understanding Martin's paintings and her ascetic life style.

Art Historian Douglas Crimp offers a history of his personal experiences with Martin and evolving impressions of her work "Of course, Pat (Steir) and I must have seemed to her just kids. . . I'm not sure why we were there, except we both loved her paintings." Artist Zoe Leonard and Doctoral candidate Christina Bryan Rosenberger speak directly to the work." I find that I cannot look at these paintings in any way that I know how to look,” writes Leonard. On the facture of the work and Martin's mastery of materials, Rosenberger writes, "She intentionally varied the texture of her supports to achieve her desired aesthetic ends."

Essays by Suzanne Hudson and Michael Newman use the language of philosophy to discuss interpretation of Martin's work and the influences behind its creation. Art historians Rhea Anastas and Jaleh Monsoor evaluate critical response to Martin's work. Anastas discusses its place in the canon of art history while Mansoor focuses on how Martin's own words and lifestyle influence critical commentary of her work and persona. Jonathan Katz addresses the unmentionable in Martin's lifetime, that she was a lesbian. He explores his perception of its expression/repression in her paintings.

Professor Anne M. Wagner beautifully concludes this series of disparate essays. She places Martin in a contemporary context citing Martin's own words: "That the cause of the response" [in the viewer] "is not traceable in the work." Further quoting Martin, it is their "conditions," not hers, that trigger their response.  Through this lens, the work of Agnes Martin becomes timeless.


The final book in this trilogy of reportage is a compilation of Martin's own writings. Writings is a short 160 pages, of which half is a translation into German. It is dense, requiring focused attention. Martin wrote for herself but also for students and the public, delivering numerous lectures, some included here. She writes as a teacher, an artist, a poet, and a philosopher about inspiration, perfection, humility, ego, freedom, beauty, and her beliefs on the requirements to live the life of an artist. "Seeking awareness of perfection in the mind is called living the inner life. It is not necessary for artists to live the inner life. It is only necessary for them to recognize inspiration or to represent it."

If you choose only one of these books on Martin, I recommend Nancy Princenthal's comprehensive overview. The Dia essays offer a broad perspective of inquiry and interpretation with some essays posing a challenge to my level of erudition. Agnes Martin Writings feels more like sitting in a quiet room listening to an extraordinary, if sometimes eccentric, artist and human being.  I think the ultimate approach would be to read all three books, and then park yourself in a room with Martin’s paintings. One of my favorite quotes from Martin is this one: "This painting I like because you can get in there and rest." Dia Beacon has four on display right now and it is just down the road from me. I go there to rest.

More on Agnes Martin
. Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim
. Joanne Mattera Art Blog walk through of the exhibition 
. The Agnes Martin Exhibition Catalogue, edited by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell available online or at the Guggenheim bookstore 
. Agnes Martin at Dia Beacon 
. In additon to the three books discussed: Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances,  personal recollections by Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery which represented the artist for many years and now represents her estate

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