In Other Words

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art by Nancy Prin­cen­thal and Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

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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

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