Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art
Nancy Princenthal is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography for Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art. The first full-length biography of Agnes Martin, the influential painter associated with Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and feminism, tells the story of a reclusive painter whose art was hailed by critics, but whose personal life suffered from bouts of schizophrenia. The following is an excerpt from the book.
To be abstracted is to be at some distance from the material world. It is a form of local exaltation but also, sometimes, of disorientation, even disturbance. Art at its most powerful can induce such a state, art without literal content perhaps most potently. Agnes Martin, one of the most esteemed abstract painters of the second half of the twentieth century, expressed—and, at times, dwelled in—the most extreme forms of abstraction: pure, silencing, enveloping, and upending.
Martin’s mature paintings (she destroyed most of her early work) are incontrovertibly right, in the sense that they convince us that not a single preliminary decision or incident of execution could have been changed without damage. Composed of the simplest elements, including ruled, penciled lines and a narrow range of forms—grids, stripes, and, very occasionally, circles, triangles, or squares—and painted in a limited palette on canvases that are always square, they reveal an esthetic sense that is, as her friend Ann Wilson said, the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.
Martin called her creative source “inspiration,” and she said that the paintings came to her as visions, complete in every detail, and needed only to be scaled up before being realized. (This scale shift generally required bedeviling computation; sheets densely covered in calculations attest to the trouble it caused.) It is possible to think of such a refined esthetic sense as savant-like or akin to a religious vocation: an attunement to qualities commonly imperceptible. Such acute sensibility is not rare, but many artists who have a refined visual sense find it a liability, threatening to equate the practice of their art with the design of their homes or the selection of their wardrobes, all elegant and graceful. Martin wasn’t like that. She was capable of the most robust gaucheries. Even when she was wealthy, her choices of domestic furnishings and personal attire seem to have been utterly free of the standards that guided her artwork. But she was a ruthless judge of her own painting, discarding the many examples that failed her vision, and her acuity allowed her to see concatenations of line and color to an order of exactitude, surpassing common perception with ease, that can only be called transcendent.
That is not to say that her motivation, or her world view, were mystical. Martin’s ruled lines resonated with the hum of the physical world, and while she resolutely denied that her paintings contained references to the landscape, seascape, weather, or natural light (notwithstanding the many titles of her works that suggest such associations, most of which she later attributed to well-meaning but misinformed friends), her work is inarguably grounded in visual experience. Moreover, the work is meant to express universal emotional and existential states—emphatically not those corrupted by lived, personal events. The states she represented—and these in later years increasingly provided titles, unquestionably of Martin’s choosing—are rarefied, ideal conditions: happiness, joy, and, especially, innocence. These titles, and the paintings they name, guard against the vulgarities of everyday life. Martin’s work, then, not only channels the visual and psychic abundance of the world but also filters it, relieving it of impurities.
As she stated often in the talks and lectures she started to deliver in the 1970s, many of which have since been published, the sense of self to which she aspired was egoless and devoid of pride, and her paintings can be seen to reflect that commitment in their refusal of either bravura execution or centered composition. At the same time, and again paradoxically, much of Martin’s work suggests a system of boundaries. In more cases than not, the penciled lines don’t go to the canvas’s edge, and the earliest grids were set off by framing lines that echoed the canvases’ edges. And yet, exhibiting one’s artwork, to which Martin was firmly devoted, is sure to breach such boundaries—it is a public act, requiring pride and confidence. She made art to be seen by a wide audience, and she believed it was incomplete without the viewer’s response.
If it is hard to reconcile conflicting aspects of Martin’s work and character, it is because her internal life was deeply fragmented. By adulthood, she had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; she was hospitalized several times and was treated for the illness, with both talk therapy and medication, throughout much of her life. Admiring accounts of her capacity for extended periods of preternatural calm might also point to the catatonia from which she occasionally suffered. As is often the case with schizophrenia, Martin was subject to auditory hallucinations, and although the voices she heard didn’t tell her what to paint—they seemed to steer clear of her work—the images that came to her through inspiration were fixed and articulate enough to suggest a relationship between visions and voices: she heard and saw things that others didn’t.
The pencil that was always in her hand when she began a painting, calculating its rhythms and transcribing her vision, may also be said to have transcribed her thought; in a sense she wrote her work. Born into a generation trained in penmanship (she was for many years a teacher of young children) and much given to handwritten letters, homilies, speeches, and poems, Martin carried that graphic impulse into her painting, where it met the geometric structures and color harmonies shaped by visual inspiration. The sense of hyper-connectedness that is a feature of paranoia may also be seen in Martin’s formal choices, the grid in particular. Representing the structure of interconnection, the grid in common parlance names an international communication system and a map of power. At once electric, alive, and dangerous, it is also supremely orderly and harmonious.
Without question, such speculation is hazardous. Creativity and active psychosis are incompatible; common sense tells us it is nearly impossible to work when you’re seriously ill, and luckily Martin was not acutely ill often enough to prevent her production of a very substantial body of work. Just as it would be wrong to call her a mystic, it would be a gross error to see in her work symptoms of illness. Even less was it a cure. Moreover, mental illness is a moving target. In the 1960s, under the reign of orthodox psychoanalysis, schizophrenia (like all forms of mental illness) was treated, literally, as narrative. It was understood to be the result of a person’s circumstances, and it was believed to be curable by telling the story of those circumstances, with honesty and feeling. At the same time—in the sixties—art was stripped of personality, of narrative, of expression, indeed of any information extrinsic to an exploration of art’s own boundaries, of its function as a “language.” Fifty years later, these positions have flipped. Psychosis is now treated most successfully (or so says current wisdom and healthcare policy) with medication; early life experience and parental failure are not widely believed to be the most important contributing factors to schizophrenia. On the other hand, artists have lately been urged to get out in front of their work, to talk about its meaning and its sources, and their own origins as well.
But Martin was unyieldingly, and successfully, opposed to talking about her life, withholding details even from those who considered themselves good friends. As she saw it, art was impersonal and universal—and mental illness was something that didn’t need to be discussed at all. In any case, friendship was a complicated undertaking for her, subject to firm constraints and beset by unpredictable lapses. She seems to have had the gift of mirroring back to people their own best self, while guarding her own identity. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t capable of engaging deeply with others, and her impact on people was often enormous. Martin could be compassionate, inquisitive, astute, and extremely generous. She was often voluble and funny. She was certainly courageous. Most of her friends note her love of the outdoors, of camping and, later, picnicking, of walks and drives, of travel. And for some periods, she forswore all of these pleasures.
Her public persona, too, was at once tightly controlled and distinctly eccentric. Increasingly described as a sage and an ascetic, attributes that didn’t suit her and which she explicitly rejected, she wanted most of all to let her work speak for her. If she was not the mystic saint some took her for, neither was she altogether averse to exploiting that reputation. “Tell them I’m a hermit,” she said to Suzanne Delehanty, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, to avoid appearing at events there connected to the opening of her first major solo museum exhibition, in 1973. And Martin was, indeed, a student of Buddhism, as well as of other spiritual systems, including Christianity. She advocated humility, celibacy, and above all egolessness, and she suffered fairly extreme poverty with little protest. Even when she became wealthy, she lived simply. Her discipline in all things was prodigious.
The religious practices Martin explored, Buddhism in particular, offered not only guidelines for ethical behavior and glimpses of sublimity but also protocols for resisting physical appetites. In its recommendations for rising above the body’s demands, Zen, it has been argued, is particularly appealing to those whose sexual inclinations run counter to what is socially permissible. At the same time, by its determined openness and egalitarianism, and its abrupt detours into precepts and stories that seem inexplicable, absurd, or bawdy, Zen licenses the forbidden. Martin’s romantic attachments, if that is the right term—she was not given to sentiment and preferred living alone—were largely with other women. But she refused the label lesbian (as she did the term feminist when it was applied to her). In her life, as in her work, renunciation was as important as embrace.
Martin was born in rural western Canada in 1912, and she died in New Mexico in 2004. A contemporary of the Abstract Expressionist painters, with whom she identified, Martin was long associated with the younger Minimalists. She participated actively in a number of richly complicated artistic communities, from Taos, New Mexico, in the 1940s, a proving ground for modernism as well as various non-Western spiritual systems, to the riverfront Coenties Slip area of Manhattan in the 1960s, where her neighbors included Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and Jasper Johns, and where both hard-edge abstraction and Pop Art took form. Like any artist of genuine interest, she was both keenly alert to cultural developments and averse to simply accepting them. Her apprenticeship was long; Martin was in her late forties when she produced the grids that, she felt, represented her true vision and that first won her acclaim. Her work has seldom been out of the public eye since.
Any effort to reconcile Martin’s paintings, character, and life faces the challenges of the many contradictions they present. A portrait drawn by Rosamund Bernier in 1992, on the occasion of Martin’s first major retrospective, which originated at the Whitney Museum of American Art, begins, “On a country road not far from Santa Fe, a white BMW sedan came flying. . . . There was a glimpse of close-cut gray hair, a strong jaw, cheeks the color of a McIntosh apple, a face for all weathers. Hardly had the visitor passed than a friend said, ‘Who on earth was that? She looked like Beethoven’s sister.’ ‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘That is Agnes Martin, the painter.’” Bernier continues, “Visitors who come in awe, and almost in terror, are surprised to find that in the right company she likes to party. . . . But it is also true that there are few people who can use a single syllable to greater effect. Did she have any memorable experiences with fellow students or teachers when she was a student at Columbia? No. Has she kept up with her friends from Coenties Slip? No. Or with her friends from Taos? No.” These dismissals are “often accompanied by an abrupt sideways motion of her well-trimmed hand, as if she was brushing a fly away.” But Bernier shifts into mythmaking mode herself in describing Martin’s gifts in drawing people out. “On the other hand, she is a great listener. She turns her head toward the speaker. Half thinker, half seer, she focuses her all-seeing gaze upon eyes and lips. A deep silence, born of attention, envelops her. It could be disconcerting, but the speaker—old friend or new acquaintance—feels drawn into a magic space in which anything can be said without hesitation and will be heard without prejudice.”
In her later years, Martin gave interviews rather freely, and she spoke with considerable frankness, which did little to dispel the confusion. To the filmmaker Mary Lance, who produced a sensitive documentary about her in 2003, Martin proclaimed, with refreshing satisfaction, “I was born in the north of Canada, just like being born in Siberia. The land of no opportunity, that’s where I was born. And still, I have had every kind of opportunity and been every place and done everything I ever wanted. And I’m rich and famous. God knows I’m rich.” Indeed, she has come to represent a certain kind of triumphant success. In Michael Cunningham’s popular novel By Nightfall, we are led through a wealthy collector’s perfectly appointed Connecticut home to its inner sanctum, where we find “on the one windowless wall the Big Kahuna, the Agnes Martin, presiding over the room like the visiting god it is, satisfied, it would seem, by these offerings of sofas and tables created by geniuses, by these stacks of books and this gaggle of glass-eyed wooden saints and these Japanese vases full of roses . . . ” Martin’s painting plays a similar cameo role in Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel, The Goldfinch. A recent volume of critical essays about Martin’s work, its cover showing an enlarged detail of a grid painting, served in 2013 as an accessory on a table of shirts in a J. Crew store in Manhattan: a quick emblem of educated taste and elegance, an elusive promise of insider chic to the masses. On Martin’s birthday in 2014, Google used a detail of one of her paintings from the 1980s as the banner for its search page.
Perhaps anticipating just such promiscuous dissemination of her work and image, Martin late in her life elicited pledges from friends that they wouldn’t talk about her after she was gone. Whether or not sworn to secrecy, many have honored her wish—a wish that is also plainly apparent in her deeply reticent work and even more explicit in her writing. Her paramount injunctions, against pride and ego, have continued to shape attempts to bring her life into focus. A champion of rigor, she elicited great feats of tact. In the context of sketching an “Aesthetics of Silence,” Susan Sontag wrote, “what any work of art supplies is a specific model for meta-social or meta-ethical tact [the emphasis is Sontag’s], a standard of decorum. Each artwork indicates the unity of certain preferences about what can and cannot be said (or represented).” Martin clearly established such a standard, in both her character and her art. My qualms about violating her privacy, which have grown in the writing of this volume, are a little allayed by unintended consequences of her success in guarding it. Richard Tuttle, a younger artist who had an exceptionally long friendship with Martin, and who steadfastly resisted my shameless badgering for his insights about her, finally gave me this: people often ask him whether he misses Agnes, he said, but he (and his wife, the poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge) live with her paintings, and everything of her is in them. There is, he said, nothing to miss. But certainly she gave abundantly in her friendships, and in the example of her life, just as she did in her work—even to those whose attachments to her were less enduring.
As Tuttle suggests, the paintings are the most reliable sources of information. I first saw one when I was a teenager, and I first wrote about her when I was in college; at that time, we exchanged letters, and hers to me, a long handwritten note in which she firmly encouraged me to dismiss “intellect” and “ideas” in favor of “true feelings,” was a puzzle that I worked at for years. It wasn’t what I wanted—I was writing an academic paper and had asked for her opinions of various critical responses—but its deep generosity provided a story I’ve told students more than once. The more I’ve come to know about her life and work, the more I’ve come to respect her essential unknowability and to beware of her many inconsistencies. She was a student of Plato and Saint Teresa of Avila, of Lao Tzu and Daisetz Suzuki, and of Gertrude Stein; by the end of her life, her favorite author was Agatha Christie. She was a fan of the director Akira Kurosawa and equally of big-budget Hollywood Westerns.
Help in sorting out these disparate clues is offered by Martin’s own written words; those seldom quoted are often the most revealing. Similarly, her paintings require discriminating attention and a fair amount of time. They are notoriously difficult to reproduce; as with live performance, you have to be there. Like the horizon between sea and sky, the drawn lines that organize her work are both firm and fluid, and they seem to change with our changing perspective on them; so do the contours of her life.
Excerpted from Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal. Copyright © 2015 Nancy Princenthal. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.
Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners here.