When I was in art school the work of Agnes Martin was a beacon to me. The gentleness, the grids, the relationship to woven materials, the color, the simplicity, the rigor and mostly how they made me feel, demanded my attention.
Mostly I saw reproductions in books and slides. Occasionally, a canvas in person. In September of 2016, I visited Los Angeles County Museum of Art and spent hours with her traveling retrospective. It was so much more than I had hoped.
I made a short set of notes at that visit which I came across today. Some were about her techniques of washes and graphite. A number of my notes were about the grids and how they were a combination of straightedge and hand drawn. That they were imperfect, implied, fragmented, incomplete and often a grid inside a grid. That there were so many little gestures repeated and repeated.
My last note talks about the volume of work she completed over her long active career. A worker with a mission. I admired that a great deal. And in that there is much I can learn.
What has remained with me in a deeper more visceral way, and is nowhere to be found in my notes is the feeling that she was growing more peaceful and joyful through the years. The show was arraigned chronologically and left me with the feeling of health and optimism. In the final room the colors were bright, clean, radiant.
This stands in contrast to someone like Mark Rothko (who Martin admired). It seems almost impossible to view his final paintings outside of his life situation of failing health, dissolving marriage, heavy drinking and eventual suicide. This isn’t intended to take away any of the power of those painting or to label them in a one dimensional way. Simply acknowledging that different psychologies and different levels of health are bound to be reflected in the work.
And this growing peace and determined happiness found in her works, is all the more surprising knowing she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Over the years she had a number of psychotic breaks. She heard voices in occasions. At times nearly catatonic. She experienced these things throughout her life.
But she also brought a determined order to her life. She took medications. She undertook talk therapy. She adopted Taoist and Zen teachings as sources of moral stability. And she worked.
Her paintings, beginning in her mind in tiny postage stamp size, allowed her to reestablish order daily. Continually, repeatedly, almost ritually recreating the tiny picture maps in her mind on six foot square canvas allowing her to engage her inner world and forge a path of peace. Maybe she became increasingly at peace because she practiced making images of peace so continually.
Martin considered herself to be among the abstract expressionist painters while critics generally see her as a minimalist. I tend to lean to her understanding of her work. The minimal structure of the grid isn’t nearly as important in her work as her deeply felt emotional, inner world. Her paintings are not intellectual monuments or expressions of machine age perfection like others in the minimalist camp. Instead, these paintings are full of the artist’s hand, experience and spirit. And that life, captured on canvas, seemed, against all expectations, to lead to greater health and more happiness.
Agnes Martin had once said, “Beauty and perfection are the same. They never occur without happiness.”