Between the lines
Donald Woodman remembers Agnes Martin
She was brilliant and irascible, yet could be surprisingly welcoming. She lived simply, even starkly, winnowing everything out of her life that interfered with her vision. She devoted herself to art with a formidable directness of purpose that yielded a lifetime oeuvre of amazing scope and influence. She was Agnes Martin, widely considered to be one of the great painters of the 20th century — and throughout her long life (1912-2004), a woman who combined sphinx-like simplicity with a baffling complexity exacerbated by schizophrenia. Her luminous, enticing works are a landmark of contemporary creativity.
Photographer Donald Woodman, known for his wide range of work from formal architecture documentation and landscapes to fine art studies and commercial projects, knew Martin from an unusual angle: From 1977 to 1984, he served as her personal assistant, performing a staggering range of duties and devoting his life to hers. In his telling memoir Agnes Martin and
Me, published by Lyon Artbooks, he recalls and explores the challenges and rewards of those seven years.
Woodman will discuss and sign Agnes Martin and Me on Friday, Aug. 5, at the New Mexico History Museum. The event takes place in conjunction with an exhibit of his photographs from the book. “It’s basically based on images I used in the book — and a few images from work I was working on in that time,” Woodman said from the studios he and his wife, acclaimed artist Judy Chicago, occupy in Belen. “The History Museum is actually the repository for my archives, so it was a natural fit for them to do this as part of ingesting my material into their collections.”
Woodman met Martin in 1977 in Albuquerque. Not long after that, he recounts in the book, she told him that “her voices” had declared that while she could never own any property, she could live near him on land he owned in Galisteo. She would pay the monthly mortgage and cover the cost of bringing electricity and water to the land. In return, he would build her a house and be a general dogsbody for anything that she needed doing. It was, as he notes in the book, “a nonnegotiable verbal agreement” — and to his own surprise, both then and now, Woodman agreed to it.
“I think it’s an innate aspect of my own personality,” he said. “When I find someone I admire or whose work I admire, I pitch in and do whatever’s necessary to help with the process.” That he did, and in spades. And Martin definitely needed Woodman, even if she was at times childish and ungrateful, and even though they went through periods when she cruelly rebuffed him.
In Woodman tellingly describes his almost bondsman-like efforts. He built Martin a solid house using rammed-earth techniques. He drilled a well and later piped water throughout the property, including to the camper where Martin lived alone for so many years. He brought electrical power to the complex, doing all the heavy, dangerous work alone. He was grip, cameraman, and helper on a demanding film project she devoted much time to in 1977. Early on in their association, in 1978, he went with her on an epic and challenging trip along Canada’s Mackenzie River, which he documented in 4x5 film format. It was a hero’s journey in some ways, he recounts, though with moments of humor as well.
Martin famously would destroy any piece she was working on that displeased her; if her meticulous process did not yield the result she saw in her own mind; or if a slip of the hand led to a paint blotch. For perhaps the same reasons, the film project never saw completion.
Woodman said, “As I’ve been saying, it’s probably going to be the greatest archaeological dig in art history, because as I understand it — I don’t know from Agnes, or whether this is fact — the film is at the bottom of the Galisteo dump. She tossed it. My personal assessment is that I think she had a lot of difficulty dealing with a narrative story and that’s what she was basing the film on. And so I think taking time to edit the thing together just didn’t work with her vocabulary.
“Everything involved with Agnes was really intense. Going out and shooting on the film, we each shot a 400-foot roll of film that lasted 11, 12 minutes. There was no cut. Once we started rolling, there was 12 minutes of intense shooting. She would never give me instructions. I never saw any of the final footage so I can’t tell you what really was on the film. But in my mind’s eye, setting up exposures and that, there was some really incredible material.”
Woodman notes in the book that Martin was very seldom directly supportive of his own work, and was famous, in fact, for not being helpful to other artists. On the other hand, he said, “I’ve heard from other people she was very supportive of. My experience was [that] she was really tough.”
When he saw a Martin exhibit at the Tate Modern in London, he went through it with an art historian and a linguist. The linguist “pointed out what I had never seen before — in some of her early and most abstract painting, the line quality in them was that of writing; very immature writing. Maybe what she was doing here is transcribing what was going on in her head.”
In fact, Woodman believes that Martin used her work not only for expression, but as a means of controlling her mental state. “That’s kind of my idea, after spending time thinking about the language that she created. I think it was a way for her to quiet the noise in her head, to get to a place where she could put down her feelings. The basic things she painted were very, very simple. She painted joy, she painted beauty, she painted those kinds of elementary emotions, to get everything quiet and out of the way.
“I’m happy to have the opportunity to get the material out,” he said. “I’m glad that my story about Agnes is adding to the history of who she was.”