Agnes Martin’s Perfection: Now and Not Yet

January 15, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 4 12 min read

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

I come back to Agnes Martin again and again. This time, I did not anticipate how difficult — how disturbing — it would be to re-engage with her work. I thought I knew something about Martin’s art and life, her ideas and philosophies; I thought perhaps I could write a short appreciation piece, especially now that I have the “bloomer” angle: Martin painted for 20 years, into her mid 40s, before showing or selling the work she is known for today.

But the beauty Martin finally came to express presents a difficult pleasure. One must wrestle a bit with Martin — the inspiring, paradoxical, disturbing whole of her — which lives in the work she left behind.

I’d seen some of Martin’s paintings in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until 2005, a year after she died at the age of 92, that I took more notice. It was a short personal essay — a “Lives” piece in The New York Times Magazine by artist Susan York — that caught my attention. In it, York described a visit to Martin’s compound in New Mexico that occurred in 1983, when Martin was 71 and York in her 20s:

As in her books, she spoke in absolutes. “Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work.”

Martin_Tolbert portraitMartin by then had achieved success, by art world standards; twice, in fact. In 1967, at the height of a first wave of recognition, she had disappeared—from New York, where she’d been living and working among the rising stars of Abstract Expressionism, including Ellsworth Kelley, Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, and James Rosenquist — and more importantly, from painting. Some conjecture that she had had a nervous breakdown, others that she was fleeing a failed relationship, or that it had something do with the death of her friend Ad Reinhardt that year. In any case, seven years later, emerging from a crucible of soul-searching, Martin resurfaced — her work did, that is, via Arne Glimcher’s Pace Gallery. By then, she was living a reclusive life on a mesa in New Mexico, where she lived and worked in much the same way for the next 30 years — producing paintings based on the penciled grid form that she’d come upon prior to her first coming out in the ’60s. In her own words,

[F]inally, I got the grid, and it was what I wanted. Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world.

It was York’s account of Martin’s directness and dogmatism, those “absolutes,” that struck me. I was myself recently divorced, and embarking on a late-blooming artist’s life. At the time, her directives registered with me as invigorating truth. I was in my early 30s, and just such decisions about how I would spend my time and energy, how I would make money and live, how these books I hoped to write would get written were all front and center. I had always preferred solitude, to such an extreme that I worried it was a neurosis. Most people reading the essay would likely hear Martin as a kook, an outlier’s voice crying in the wilderness; but to me she was cutting through noise and confusion straight to wisdom.

Martin_Untitled Pink Grid

“Untitled” 1963

Over the next few years, I saw Martin’s paintings whenever I could. I would have described the paintings back then — the grid paintings I mean primarily — as “quiet” and “spiritual.” I sought them out for emotional centering. But even as I “liked” the paintings, what kept me going back was a nagging feeling that something more was happening in them; of not quite perceiving them fully. They evoked both nervous tension and wide openness; with my eye I saw the hand-penciled lines and watery bands of color expressing orderliness and infinity, control and vulnerability. Sometimes the opposing sensations would layer confusingly, sometimes they would cancel each other out and leave me feeling flat. Later I would read that Martin worked on the 6′ by 6′ canvass because it was “the full size of the human body” — a person could step into it, could be swallowed, and absorbed.

My first encounter with Martin herself, and her verbal conception of her work (other than York’s brief account) was through Mary Lance’s documentary, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World. Martin was in her late 80s during the years Lance shot the film — lumbering and weathered and short of breath — yet apparently working as habitually and single-mindedly as ever: the steadiness of Martin’s massive 86-year-old hand as she paints, even as she sometimes labors to speak, is a wonder.

Martin_With My BackAn in-person encounter with Martin for those not brave enough to pick up the phone and call, then show up, as Susan York did (as Mary Lance also did) — even mediated through film — may have been timely. Her gallerists and curators have generally reiterated Martin’s own insistence that her personality, her life history, are irrelevant to her work: Arne Glimcher wrote: “…she was extremely self-effacing and separated her persona from her art. She believed she was the locus where her art happened rather than its creator.” And yet critics, and the public, are generally not so easily satisfied: who was this reclusive Agnes Martin, and from where do these so-called “inspired” paintings come from? Who is the person generating these canvasses of quiet beauty? The average person finds comfort in narrative; in comprehensible cause and effect.

With My Back to the World, however, provides little new insight or access, especially for those already familiar with Martin’s writings. In my recent rewatching of the film, and through corresponding with Lance, it is evident that Lance approached her subject with reverence, allowing Martin to dictate the process. That reverence translates into the film’s mode and aesthetic: if Agnes says her art is about purely abstract emotions, not personal experience or history, then the film will enact that same vessel-like receptivity; it too will be a locus, a transparent vehicle. Much of what Martin says on camera are close versions of what she has written or said before; periodically she reads directly from her writings.

“I think all aggressive behavior is wrong — where you go out and do, and attack things, like an army. That’s aggression.”

“I’m just going forward. I’ve been working on the same theme for 10 years.”

“The intellect is a struggle with facts…you’re certainly never going to find out the truth about life guessing about facts…I gave up facts in order to have an empty mind. I gave up the intellectual entirely.”

“Beauty is the mystery of life. Beauty illustrates happiness.”

The film is thus a spare and loving introduction to Martin’s work and to her verbal accounts of what the work is about; it is, I think, a better introduction than the writings alone, which, in their imperative, aphoristic, disembodied form, can come off as rigid and bloodless (she uses the word “obedience” quite frequently, for example). On screen, we see Martin’s ruddy cheeks, her deeply lined and sun-weathered face, round blue eyes, mussed pageboy; and we hear her frequent chuckle: “I made a movie about happiness, beauty, and innocence,” she says about Gabriel, her one foray into filmmaking, “to see if it would be responded to” (chuckle). Referring to her absolutist attitude (frustrating to curators and collectors) toward her earlier work, all of which she made efforts to track down and destroy, she says, “At the end of every year, I had a big fire, burned them all” (chuckle). The chuckles are both nervous and knowing. They convey at once, I guess folks think that’s pretty silly and I know better. The Martin we meet on screen, in her natural habitat, calls to mind a wry bit from York’s essay that escaped me, all those years ago:

Opening the door to her studio, she said, “Never let anyone in your studio.”

(Surely Martin chuckled as she said this.)

Martin_film-stillLance’s film is one Martin would have approved of. And yet the virtue of unmediated presentation — scripted as it sometimes feels — is that Lance also gives us Martin in her self-contradictions. “I would rather think of humility than anything else,” she reads from one of her published writings, while earlier, she’d said, “Lots of painters paint about painting. But my painting is about meaning.” She resists being thought of as a mystic — “I’m not any different from anybody. You’re not a mystic when you respond to beauty.” — but also describes her clear memory of being born: “I thought I was quite a small figure with a little sword, and I was very happy.” She says, “It doesn’t matter where I work, it’s all the same. The environment doesn’t have any impact on my work because I don’t paint nature,” but also, “I saw the plain driving out of New Mexico, and I thought the plain had it; just the plain…When I draw horizontals you see this big plain, and you have certain feelings like you’re expanding over the plain.”

The contemporary culturati, however, are not satisfied. Martin’s pure abstraction and Zen-ish spiritualism negate too much of the humanist tradition, not to mention a century of psychotherapeutic theory and practice. In 2004, writing about an exhibit at Pace, Peter Schjeldahl expressed marked impatience with Martin’s as yet uninterrogated legacy of “ascetic abstractionism” and “dedicated idealism”:

Her rather blowsy theories, invoking nature in strictly heady ways and harping on “perfection,” consort oddly with her pragmatic, unsentimental practice.

He does grant a dynamic experience in beholding her paintings:

As with Tantric diagrams, you see exactly what the work is, even as, with patient looking, you may undergo a gradual, and then sudden, soft detonation of beauty…Edge and shape, figure and ground, and matter and atmosphere are reversible, bringing about, for me, a sense of oscillation in the optic nerve…a conceptual traffic jam: sheer undecidability. My analytical faculties, after trying to conclude that what I’m looking at is one thing or another, give up, and my mind collapses into a momentary engulfing state that is either “spiritual” or nameless.

Ultimately, though, he is skeptical of such experience as spiritually meaningful:

When unrelated to a particular belief, might transcendence be no more than a neurological burp, soothing the mind as the alimentary kind does the stomach?…This may be the upward limit of what liberal culture can provide for the common soul. Perhaps it’s enough.

coverJonathan D. Katz, in “Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction,” collected in a 2009 book published by Dia, goes further — arguing that Martin has been too often shielded from identity-based analysis, and that she herself has conjured a “trap,” a game, disingenuously manipulating the discourse:

Martin’s critics have too often been satisfied with accounts of the work’s formal operations, rarely putting even its most sophisticated analyses of structures of meaning making…into broader social-historical frames…When critics…recuse the artist in favor of the artist’s means, they unwittingly fall into Martin’s well-made trap: she has already mediated that response, not only in her paintings but through her copious statements and parables, her eremitic self-sufficiency, her Zen-inflected paeans to humility — all of which serve to underscore that there is nothing individuated, nothing “encoded,” in her art.

But what if, instead of playing along, we were to try to see beyond this authorial transparency and ask why, in the first place, an artist would strive to erect a Trojan horse of signification, seeking to elevate the operations of meaning-making ahead of the maker of meaning herself?

Why. The question is about psychology, about cause and effect. Where there is a person, surely there must be an interpretable narrative. Artist Zoe Leonard, in another essay in the Dia book, expresses something similar:

I can’t help but wonder what role gender played in Martin’s art making. Whether it was a factor in the choices she made regarding society and isolation…Somewhere in the work, informing the work, is a biography of a person. A person who lived, as we all do, with the specifics and complications of her own desire. A person who lived within a certain time, surrounded by society. A person who was a woman, in America, at a specific moment in history.

You can see the heads butting in conflict: Martin’s moment of salvation is the social historian’s very sticking point. Finally, I got the grid, and it was what I wanted. Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world.

The “aggressiveness” of Katz’s investigation alone would surely have elicited Martin’s disapproval (or, perhaps she would merely chuckle and go back to work): You’re hiding something, Agnes Martin. You are evading, repressing. Your “insistently prescriptive aesthetic absolutism,” is driven by latent, unacknowledged personal experience (homosexual experience, in Katz’s analyses). Katz draws attention to Martin’s emotional instability — by her own account and others — along with Ann Wilson’s claim that she relied on “psychopharmacological medication” for most of her adult life. He also quotes sculptor Mary Fuller (McChesney) from a 1994 interview:

Talk about a manipulator. Agnes Martin was like that…she said, “I’m going to make it. I am going to make it. And I don’t care who I have to fuck or how I have to do it. And now all these things of New York are totally, totally different from the stories Aggie told us about her background…She’s re-writing this whole history. [laughs] Why not?

Innocence is a great theme of Martin’s work, and at this point I find myself nostalgic for my first experience of her paintings (and increasingly grateful for Mary Lance’s unintrusive approach); for Martin is right about the perils of intellect: you can know too much as you stand before a painting, you can find yourself in a mental “traffic jam.” Are paintings with titles like “Happiness,” “Contentment,” “Innocent Love,” and “Perfect Happiness” really about those things? Can those things be experienced so purely and simply, in life or in art? And if so, can they be expressed by someone so isolated from regular, messy human connection, and potentially isolated from her very own emotional reality? Can an artist let go all emotional contradiction, and can she truly disappear from her art?

Sitting in the MoMA research library recently, books on Martin piled high and my head throbbing — I wonder if I will ever experience that quietness, that centering, before an Agnes Martin painting again. I wonder if I’ll ever step inside and be absorbed. I am not buying Katz’s assault on Martin as a repressed con artist; but I am weary from the contradictions, how Agnes Martin As Presented By Agnes Martin is not computing. She said things to Arne Glimcher like,

To realize yourself is great art and to do that you need absolute faith that life is perfect. Louise [Nevelson] and I have it and that’s why we’re at the top. I am the best painter in the world today.

and wrote to him in a letter,

I have only one worry in the world! It’s that my paintings will show downtown and fail there. They will fail because they are non-aggressive…in a competitive environment, with big displays of aggressive artwork…With the dark paintings it was not bad because they do have some ‘force.’ I did not get one compliment on that show, however!

Here she seems vain and a little manic, more narcissist than Obi Wan of the desert. There is substantial evidence that she experienced mental imbalance — in Jack Youngerman’s words, “extremity of distress,” and in her own, “unheard of torment” — but the tight lid she kept on those parts of her life undermines the trust I might otherwise put in a concretely evolved quietude.

The sun has set and the library will close shortly. My appreciation piece has gone nowhere. I reach into my pile and begin flipping through a thin catalog from 2000 — 11” by 11”, unpaginated — published by Pace. Martin’s paintings reproduce poorly in general, but here they are printed on vellum, in color, overlaid on white linen. There is nothing else in the catalog — no text, no essays — but these prints. Unexpectedly, a wave of emotion comes over me as I slowly turn each page. The throbbing in my head quiets, and I feel something gathering, pulsing, in my chest. Maybe it’s the stress of all the reading I’ve done, but I have the distinct urge to weep — to release something. I feel happy and sad, that’s the best I can describe it.

The next day I make a trip to Dia: Beacon. I spend most of my time with Martin’s “Innocence” series, initially standing in the center of the gallery and slowly turning to each of eight paintings one by one. Lines, rectangles, symmetry. Pale radiant color swathed wetly inside hand-rendered depictions of absolute form. Again, emotion wells up: I feel sorrow, and gratitude, and pity. I don’t know what I am sorrowful about, for what I am grateful, or for whom I feel pity. But I feel these things, teeming and indistinguishable.

Exercising my eye now, I step closer to each painting: glowing bands of red, yellow, blue, fade or thicken at random on either ends of the canvass; wavering graphite lines dive under and reemerge over top layers of paint and stop short, inexactly, of the canvass’s edge; broad swift brush strokes wash a monochromatic canvass in ambivalent gray textures; bright white gesso gleams like artificial moonlight against the mundane white of the gallery walls; blue and yellow make green in just a few places where rectangles bleed together. My hand comes to my mouth and the emotions brim and pulse, like whiskey in the blood; like warm sun on the skin; like happiness.


Martin_Dia closeup

All this speaks to me of the paradox of perfection. Of imperfection reaching for perfection — for truth, happiness, innocence. The artist’s received awareness of the existence of that perfection is everywhere in the work; it is the work’s “voice.” The emotion I feel could be described as the tragedy of beauty, of perceiving and expressing impossibly pure emotions. When Agnes Martin makes commands of the artist — insisting, prescribing, “harping” — I believe she is directing the imperatives, first and foremost, consciously — unconsciously, to herself — who is both the locus of art that is genuinely about “perfect happiness and innocence” and a finely cracked vessel. She is the little figure wielding her paintbrush-sword; but the paint will not stay within the lines.

Unlike MoMA curator Leah Dickerman, who sees the “tension between the regularity of the grid and the handmade quality of the lines” as a calculated message on Martin’s part — “what she gets you to focus on are the subtle variations in making the grid” — I believe that Martin was focused on perfection, her awareness of perfection, and on heightening the viewer’s experience of life. That her own imperfections — of her hand and her life — live also in the paintings may not have pleased Martin, but in this sense she truly was a vessel, then: the inspirations she “obeyed” illustrate poignancy as much as perfection. Pure abstraction, perhaps not; but moving and transformative still.

For a few minutes, standing in the Innocence galleries, I really do forget what was on my mind that day, the worries of the week past and coming. The holidays, with all its materialism, revealed to me anew that the physical clutter of my middle-class life is cluttering my mind. I am en route to a brief solitude retreat, and was anxious about leaving home, partner, appointments, dog. Departing the museum, as intellect kicks back in, I think of a phrase that modern Christians have used — The Now and the Not Yet — to describe the Kingdom of God as both fully realized, via the resurrection, and still in process, by good works. I’ve always liked the phrase. It is at once proclamatory and replete with longing, exultant and heartbreaking.


Click here to read a Q&A with filmmaker Mary Lance.

Agnes Martin photo credit: Mildred Tolbert, 1954.
Homepage portrait via Phaidon.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.