Be­tween the lines

Don­ald Wood­man re­mem­bers Agnes Martin

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS - Agnes Martin and Me,

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.”

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