Agnes Martin: No ordinary vision

Martin-Untitled5Agnes Martin, Untitled Number 5, 72 x 72 inches, 1975

Painting doesn’t exist and artists don’t exist. In the process of life, only the response exists. For example, sun shines on your hand and you say, “This is a caress,” now that’s real. Reality has infinite expressions. Each winter day is different from any winter day that ever existed and every painting that is real is different. The art world depends on obedience and surrender.
—Agnes Martin

 

Agnes Martin was a complicated person, singular in many ways. She suffered from schizophrenia, and during the 1960s she was hospitalized several times. In one instance “at Manhattan’s then-notorious Bellevue Hospital, she was subjected to more than 100 electroshock treatments.”[1]

After living, painting, and teaching in various places including New York City, Martin gave up painting and moved to New Mexico for good in 1968. She began painting again in 1974. Although she was forbidden by her “voices” from owning land, she was able to make rental agreements with local landowners in New Mexico — first in Cuba, then later in Galisteo — which allowed her to build her own structures, including living quarters and studios. She had some help, but did much of the work herself, including making her own adobe bricks, digging a well, building a wind-powered generator, and building a 150-ft. windbreak from canvas, leather, and wood poles.

She did keep ducks and chickens at various times, but her “voices” did not allow her to have a garden because it was a distraction.

During her periods of sustained working, she did not allow herself external pleasures. She would limit her diet to bananas and coffee, or on one occasion, to bananas and Knox gelatin mixed into orange juice. At times, she slept in her unheated trailer even when the night temperature was below zero. She said, “I have absolutely no comfort now. But I don’t want it, all I want is a greater awareness of reality – joy and innocence.”

Hers was a solitary, reclusive life. She didn’t want friends, and she rejected offers of help and friendship. She told her dealer, Arne Glimcher, about the importance of eliminating distractions. “Emptiness is what I want – zero when I’m painting and then eight hours later with no interruptions hopefully you’ve done some good painting. In Cuba, they’re scared to death of me. I tell them if they knock on my door, I’ll chop their heads off.”

She was known to repaint a composition multiple times on fresh canvases until she was satisfied with it, deeming the others to have “mistakes” and finally destroying them with a box cutter.

Much has been said about the link between schizophrenia and creativity, and I don’t want to get into that here. But one cannot help being mindful of this when considering Martin’s own words. At times they sound truly profound and insightful, and at other times somewhat alarming. Perhaps there is no separation there, when you think about it. I’ll leave you with some of her thoughts on life and art, from a 1982 draft of her artist statement for Contemporary Artists (Macmillan 1983):

The enormous pitfall is devotion to oneself instead of to life. All works that are self devoted are absolutely ineffective. Even though they are often purchased by prideful people they are soon recognized as dead.

Devotion to life is a feeling. Art work is made with this feeling and response to art work is exactly the same feeling. This feeling of devotion literally carries us through life, past all distractions and pitfalls to a perfect awareness of life, to measureless happiness and perfection.

With no experience of real happiness, no conscious experience of devotion to life, one cannot be an artist. One must be lifted up, out of oneself, unconscious self, as in the contemplation of beauty.

The response to art work is unchanging even in thousands of years, proving that it is of life.

(Note: my reference for all of the above is Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Arne Glimcher.)

[1] Agnes Martin: In Two New Books, A Life Revealed by by Edward M. Gómez, July 4, 2015

Posted in Interesting Artists

Agnes Martin on self-expression

Adams-Facade08-detail-Detail from Façade VIII, acrylic paint on stitched textile, ©Deidre Adams

Agnes Martin, notes from lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, February 14, 1973. From Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Arne Glimcher.

Work is self-expression. We must not think of self-expression as something we may do or something we may not do. Self-expression is inevitable. In your work, in the way that you do your work and in the results of your work, your self is expressed. Behind and before self-expression is a developing awareness I will also call ‘the work.’ It is the most important part of the work. There is the work in our minds, the work in our hands and the work as a result.

In your work, in everyone’s work, in the work of the world, the work that reminds us of pride is gradually abandoned. Having in moments of perfection enjoyed freedom from pride, we know that that is what we want. With this knowing we recognize and eliminate expression of pride.

My interest and yours is art work, works of art, every smallest work of art and every kind of art work. We are very interested, dedicated in fact. There is no half way with art. We wake up thinking about it and we go to sleep thinking about it.

We go everywhere looking for it both artists and non-artists. It is very mysterious the fast hold that it has upon us considering how little we know about it. We do not even understand our own response to our own work.

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Agnes Martin on the importance of a proper studio environment

Adams-SAM_0005-

The following are thoughts from lecture notes by Agnes Martin, reproduced in Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Arne Glimcher.

The most important thing is to have a studio and establish and preserve its atmosphere. You must have a studio no matter what kind of artist you are. A musician who must practice in the living room is at a tremendous disadvantage. You must gather yourself together in your studio all of your sensibilities and when they are gathered you must not be disturbed. The murdered inspirations and loss of art work due to interruptions and shattered studio atmosphere are unassessable.

If you are an architect you have to have some place besides the place where the draughtsmen work, no telephone, the door locked — to be disturbed only if the house is burning!

A studio is not a place in which to talk to friends. You will hate your friends if they destroy the atmosphere of your studio. As an artist you will have to try and live with inspiration. You are not like the little boy in the dirt free and open. The whole world which you now know intrudes. It is almost hopeless to expect clarity of mind. It is hopeless if your studio atmosphere cannot be preserved.

An ivory tower is something that I cannot imagine but I can imagine an artist standing on the edge of town looking out while the town roared and boiled behind him and never looking around, always looking out. It simply has to be that way.

You must clean and arrange your studio in a way that will forward a quiet state of mind. This cautious care of atmosphere is really needed to show respect for the work. Respect for art work and everything connected with it, one’s own and that of everyone else must be maintained and forwarded. No disrespect, carelessness or ego selfishness must be allowed to interfere if it can be prevented.

Indifference and antagonism are easily detected. You should take such people out immediately. Just turning the paintings to the wall is not enough. You yourself should not go to your studio in an indifferent or fighting mood.

 

The notes are reproduced in Agnes’ own handwriting, printed on pages that simulate note paper.

Martin-notes

The book also contains many faithful reproductions of Agnes’ work, along with additional writings by her and by Arne Glimcher, her friend and dealer. The recollections by Glimcher of his visits to her studio are especially interesting, detailing how she lived in her spare surroundings as well as how she viewed her own work and process.

Also fascinating are the numerous Polaroid photos that remain from the studio visits, with the typical color shifts adding a surreal dimension to our lens on Agnes’ life. (See this Bookforum review.)

Agnes Martin and Arne Glimcher in her new truck in Galisteo, New Mexico, 1979.

Posted in Interesting Artists