Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Writings of Agnes Martin

"Martin, Agnes, "I Love The Whole World," 1999. Acrylic and graphite on canvas.

On Friday, I finally picked up the books I ordered through inter-library loan at our local college. Agnes Martin: Paintings and Writings, a catalogue published in 2000 by the prestigious Pace-Wildenstein gallery in New York City, combines ideas about artmaking that Agnes put into writing with 15 paintings completed in 1999. All the works are acrylic and graphite on canvas, all are 60" x60" and have titles like "Happiness-Glee", "I Love Love", "Innocent Love" and "Lovely Life." Agnes always painted in a square format -- in her younger years she worked in a 80" x 80" format, but as she aged the larger canvases became too difficult for her to manage and she shifted to the 60" x 60" size.

At the time this exhibition and catalogue were produced, Agnes was 87 years old. In the final years of her life, she lived in a retirement home in Taos, NM, but still drove to her studio every day to work. The paintings in this exhibition are different in coloration from Agnes' earlier works, which were mainly shades of gray and white with her characteristic hand drawn graphite lines. These later works introduce muted pastel washes of earth red and sky blue, greens and yellows. Nancy Doyle's profile of the artist at suggests that these colors may be Agnes' response to the white desert light and the colors of the earth in the southwest.

Even as I started reading the essays interspersed between the images of the paintings, I noticed Martin's writing is as spare and condensed as her painting. Like her art, her writing seems to contain a wealth of insight distilled from experience into each statement. In the essay, "What We Do Not See If We Do Not See," Agnes declares that she wanted to "live a true life." Living this true life meant seeing the joyfulness in reality, maintaining an awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness because without them she believed one could not make works of art.

In the essay "What is Real?", written in 1976, Agnes wrote, " Works of art have successfully represented our response to reality from the beginning. The artist tries to live in a way that will make greater awareness of the sublimity of reality possible. Reality, the truth about life and the mystery of beauty are all the same and they are the first concern of everyone."

Agnes concludes, "There is a purpose in our lives and it is in operation every minute. When we are right on the track we are rewarded with joy. We can know the whole truth with a request to our minds. If we are completely without direction we can withdraw and our minds will tell us the next step to take." I remembered a similar comment Agnes made in the interview with her in the New Art City DVD. Agnes found that connection to an inner voice that revealed insights to her and answers to questions as she worked.

It is that very connection that I depend on more and more with each new piece of work; that inner voice increasingly guides and shuts out the chatter and clutter of marketing, promotion, sales. The making of the work is now central, the connection to that center within fuels and guides the exploration.

It is possible to track Agnes' artistic evolution from her early days in New York City as part of the Abstract Expressionist era of the 1940's and 50's through her seven year sojourn from doing any painting at all followed by her choice to live and paint alone in an isolated part of the northern New Mexican desert. Studying the unfolding of an artist's life and work can be a rich source of inspiration. Alone with her work and a quiet contemplation of nature, I find great inspiration in Martin's leanings towards Asian philosophy and her connections with nature. How fortunate we are to have access to so many artists through the enormous documentation in both books and film of their work and ideas and inspirations.

As Nancy Doyle writes in her profile of Agnes, "Her work was influenced greatly by nature, however not in the sense of replicating nature - rather, she wanted the viewer to experience the same feelings they have when in front of nature. Some of her titles allude to nature - to leaves, rivers, flowers, etc., but her work has more to do with expressing positive inner states of existence. She has been associated with the Minimalist movement, but her work is less rigid, less cerebral - more spiritual in inspiration than Minimalist. She shared with her friend, the artist Richard Tuttle, certain attitudes about art and life, which stem from their interest in eastern philosophy - the ideas of ego-lessness, humility, and the Tao - in life and in art."

Many of us are drawn to art that attempts to express these "positive inner states of existence." Increasing numbers of western artists have been drawn to Asian philosophy. The works of those artists whose true inner selves seem to radiate through their imagery, marks and concepts are those that currently inspire and encourage me in my own artistic journey.

Let me close with this last quote from Martin's writing. because the advice it contains is vital for all of us:

"Make happiness your goal. The way to discover the truth about this life is to discover yourself."


  1. Jeanne, I truly enjoyed what you wrote. Your words were very thought-provoking for me. Thank you for introducing me to Agnes Martin. I am definitely going to do some research on her art.

  2. In 2000, I had an exhibiton of my art quilts here in Montevideo, and the gallery owner at the opening thanked me for bringing a little known artform here, (good grief, I was grateful to him for the opportunity!) and as a token of appreciation he presented me with a catalogue of Agnes Martin's exhibition that was seen in several US cities beginning with the Whitney in NY nov.92 and goiung through Milwaukee, Miami and Houston before Madrid Spain in jan 94.

    At the time I did not know enough about myself and my own work and what I was really looking to express to fully appreciate what Agnes wrote, and how important her approach is to every serious artists' development. Perhaps because of reading that catalogue, or perhaps because of just becoming a bit older and wiser anyway, I have done a lot of thinking about what I am doing. After not looking at the book for about perhaps 6 years, I recently picked it up and was fascinated with the grids and lines in her work which which I had forgotten, and which of course so connect with some of the underlying foundations of traditional geometric quilt designs, a strong influence in my whole approach. Whenther Sr. Esperanza could see this emerging in my work back then, I am not sure, but I am very grateful he gave me that book and opened the door to her thoughtful work.

  3. As usual, you're comments are inspiring to all of us. I print them out and reread them and take lessons from them over and over. Thank you