Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin: A Singular Career

After years of noticing references to the painter Agnes Martin in the work of other poets, I finally encountered her work in spades at the Guggenheim retrospective on view through January 11, 2017.

I knew little about Martin—partly my own failing and partly, I’m guessing, due to the short shrift she got for a long time. Why was she overlooked? Probably a combo of several factors including her gender, her resistance to the “star-making machinery” many artists embrace, and the fact that her work hasn’t translated very well online (that’s changing, though, thanks to improved video tech).

So I didn’t know that most of her works are paintings of lines and grids. Nor that she strove to provide viewers with states of happiness and joy, a sense of expansive, ego-emptied beauty such as we experience in nature. She gave some of her paintings names like “I Love the Whole World” and “Lovely Life.”

Cheesy titles, right? And how do they go with her restrained, abstract works? And while we’re questioning, how can she think grids are like nature?

These dilemmas slowly dissolve as you stare at painting after painting, experiencing the marked similarities and subtle differences between them. Sometimes you select one work for deeper communion, moving close up to see the meticulously drawn pencil lines and precisely applied paint, then further away till the lines fade like details disappearing out a window as a plane ascends. Through patient engagement (a mere smidge of the patience Martin demonstrated in creating this body of work) you start to experience a sense of meditative peace.

You begin to reflect (or I did) that ocean waves are so similar, arriving one after another, yet no two are the same. That an orchid or an oak has many systematic, predictable features, yet each can pull you into its particular universe. That there’s something about the necessarily imperfect striving for perfect form that feeds the human soul. You start to feel gratitude for this break from the daily grind of trying to be an important somebody, for the careful, deliberate markings made by this earnest, hardworking human, Agnes Martin.

There are so many facts about Martin and her creative process that inspire me as a poet and that I will no doubt draw on over time to support my clients in my work as a Life & Professional Coach. For example:

She suffered enormously (an emotionally abusive mother; paranoid schizophrenia replete with auditory hallucinations, spells of depression, and catatonic trances; shock treatment). But she found ways to cope. And to create.

She didn’t let others define her (the Minimalists wanted to claim her; she resisted).

She abjured fame.

As a queer woman in a male-dominated art world she overcame incredible odds to develop a successful career. (And she did that while abjuring fame!)

She was quirky as hell. (She claimed to remember the exact moment of her birth. She saw visions. She abruptly stopped painting for several years in the middle of her career; then resumed and proceeded at full tilt.)

She was a late bloomer (started painting at age 30) and a cool elder (painted her last work at age 92).

But the main thing is the work, and what it transmits, moving from deep inside Martin’s sensitive, introverted practice all the way over to now, to us.