In Other Words
Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art by Nancy Princenthal and Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri
Though her paintings currently fetch millions at auction, Agnes Martin’s path to becoming an artist, let alone a successful one, was meandering and full of false starts. She roamed between the American coasts for much of her life, destroyed many of her paintings, and lived like a hermit for years at a time; chronicling the life of such a person presents obvious challenges. Agnes Martin: Her Life
and Art is the first biography of the artist, and its author, Nancy Princenthal, examines Martin’s itinerant, solitary nature with great sensitivity. It’s a portrayal at once in-depth and dignified, and includes Martin’s own musings as well as insights from friends and peers; perhaps most strikingly, it offers a candid look at Martin’s schizophrenia. Throughout her book, Princenthal seems hesitant to form a bridge between Martin’s mental illness and her artistic practice, repeatedly insisting that her life and her art were distinct, if not entirely separate. It sometimes seems that Martin’s paintings beg to differ. They are both enigmatic and totally straightforward, containing monochromatic, intersecting vertical and horizontal lines — and later, delicately pigmented stripes that descend the length of a canvas in calm bands of pale blue and cream. They reproduce terribly, but in person, they fascinate. Up close, what sounds sterile is organic and soft: pencil lines appear through lattices of paint, and surfaces aren’t slickly opaque, but textured and luminous. Martin’s paintings are deliberately arranged, and seem to strive for predictability more than perfection. It’s natural to think that perhaps this type of painting was born of a troubled mind, but Princenthal is hesitant to draw such conclusions.
Martin was born in 1912 on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, where Princenthal writes that the artist learned to “make do with little if she had to, and to invent herself as freely as circumstances required.” She cast out on her own as a teenager, roaming the Pacific Northwest for short periods of time, teaching and doing odd jobs to support herself. The nature of Martin’s nomadic life, which included months and years with little human contact, has made it challenging to determine when and why she decided to make art in the first place. We do know that in 1941, shortly after receiving a teaching certificate in Bellingham, Washington, she moved to New York City to study art and art education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Five years later, she left New York for New Mexico, where she made abstract paintings and sporadically taught art. She returned to New York City in the late ’50s at the beckoning of art dealer Betty Parsons, who bought a handful of Martin’s paintings in Taos with the caveat that she live and work in New York.
In 1964, while living in the bohemian Lower Manhattan district of Coenties Slip (neighbors included Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, and Robert Indiana), Martin began painting and drawing rectilinear grids. Of their origin, Martin was poetic: “I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence.” Intriguingly, this seminal period in Martin’s career also saw the artist’s first recorded hospitalization for schizophrenia — a stint at Bellevue that included electric shock therapy. Friend and artist Richard Tuttle remarked that “through the paranoia, [Martin] will hurt people, cut them off, not see them for years. … ‘I have no friends and you’re one of them’ is a favorite statement.’ ” Martin was open about “voices” that told her to do things, none of which, at least according to Princenthal’s sources, were violent; they did warn her against buying property. Martin ignored this particular missive when she left New York for good in 1967 and first rented, and then bought property outside Portales, New Mexico, where she had little outside contact for the next nine years. It was here that Martin switched from painting grids to stripes. She later moved to the village of Galisteo for 15 years, and eventually to Taos in 1992, where she painted until her death in 2004.
Martin’s psychotic episodes, which included amnesia and bouts of terrifying confusion, must certainly have played a role in her art. Or did they? Princenthal’s concession that “[Martin] was against anything that stood in the way of maintaining an innocent, untroubled mind” is by no means a conclusive statement, yet it’s about as close as she gets to suggesting that Martin’s methodically formulated paintings belie a predilection for order that occurs as necessarily related to, or even informed by, a corresponding desire for mental calm.
By many accounts, Martin had romantic relationships with women, though she denied being a lesbian, and even curtly told friend and writer Jill Johnston that she “[wasn’t] a woman.” According to Princenthal, Martin “was adamant that personal experience had nothing to do with her work.” In solitude, then, it seems Martin found the most inspiration. Princenthal’s inclusion of Martin’s Zen-like poems (“look between the rain/the drops are insular/ try to remember before you were born”) along with her musings (“all art work is made in obedience to the conscious mind”) are poignantly suggestive of an artist whose life, and by extension, life’s work, was irrefutably cerebral. If being alone gave her space to quiet her mind, perhaps painting acted as a means of giving it structure and solace. Martin once said that her work is “about merging, about formlessness. … A world without objects, without interruption.” Her life may not have been as ordered as her paintings — no one’s could be — but it’s comforting to think her paintings gave her peace, which is certainly what they offer her viewers. — Iris McLister