Lines in the Desert

Critics rank her alongside Georgia O’Keeffe and Mark Rothko. So why haven’t we heard of Agnes Martin?

By David Hayes, Saturday Night, December 1997

To walk into a roomful of Agnes Martin paintings, as I did one Saturday at New York’s PaceWildenstein gallery, is to fall into a cloud. There is a dreaminess about them that creates an effect like weightlessness. The ten canvases at the Pace were large – each one five by five feet square, a scaling down of Martin’s traditional six-by-six-foot format – and executed in the palest of reds, blues, and yellows. They brought to mind fabric bleached by the sun. Her trademark faint pencil lines, which she once wove into dense grids, here consist of horizontal lines of varying widths, making the paintings even sparer. In one, alternating bands of pale, dusty blue and rose are divided by several white pinstripes running between narrow pencil lines, suggesting a fiat desert landscape receding to a distant horizon. Viewed close up, each graphite line quivers like a nerve; from a distance her canvases quietly hum.

Her art is subtle, even sublime. Some have described it as sacred, the work of a visionary. In 1976, Hilton Kramer, then the influential chief art critic of The New York Times, wrote that “her art has the quality of a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer.” In an April, 1995, review of a Martin exhibition at Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery, Globe and Mail art critic John Bentley Mays began with a lengthy meditation on spring wildflowers before observing that her paintings are “not virtuoso handicraft, or anything else complex or esoteric. But standing in their presence, we can, if we choose to, allow them to become models for a way of being in the world – innocent and useless as a wildflower, dwelling in the ordinary joy of existence.” Mays’s review and my own efforts to put Martin’s art into words reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Peter Boris, a director of the Pace gallery, which has represented Martin for the past twenty years. He’d said: “Good luck with your poem.” When I asked him what he meant, he said: “Most people who try to write about Agnes end up writing poetry.”

At eighty-five, the reclusive Agnes Martin is Canada’s most accomplished unknown painter. Although her name isn’t common currency among the general public, for more than three decades gallery owners, curators, critics, and collectors from around the world have ranked her alongside more celebrated contemporaries such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and her former friend and fellow New Mexico transplant, Georgia O’Keeffe. She was the subject of a huge retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1992; at this year’s Venice Biennale, Europe’s largest and most influential art festival, she was co-recipient of the Golden Lion for her contribution to contemporary art, the first time in the festival’s history that its top prize went to a living artist. Despite her age, she still produces a dozen or so paintings a year. They command prices in the mid-six figures. Demand exceeds supply.
Her paintings, like their creator, whisper rather than shout, which is a disadvantage if one’s goal is fame as well as critical respect. Fame, though, always seemed the farthest thing from her mind. Living in near-seclusion in New Mexico since 1968, she has relentlessly pursued her muse, always avoiding the noisy sideshow of promotion and politics that characterizes the international art scene. She has been claimed as a spiritual role model – against her will – by, among others, the Minimalist art movement (Martin identities herself as an Abstract Expressionist), New Age converts (who think of her as a mystic, which Martin dismisses as nonsense), and feminists (who see her as a standard-bearing pioneer, a role Martin unequivocally rejects).

“It is not the role of an artist to worry about life – to feel responsible for creating a better world…” she wrote in her notes for a lecture given at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art in 1989. “All human knowledge is useless in artwork. Concepts, relationships, categories, classifications, deductions are distractions of mind that we wish to hold free for inspiration.”

—-

Taos, New Mexico, rests at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, with the flat Rio Grande plains stretching westward. In the first half of the century, during its glory days as an artistic and intellectual centre, full- and part-time residents included Aldous Huxley, Ansel Adams, Carl Jung, and D. H. Lawrence as well as O’Keeffe. Today, at the height of the season (which is much of the year), it is crowded with tourists and neo-hippies and ski-bums and artists for whom the region, judging by the many local galleries, provides inspiration for a seemingly infinite variety of unremarkable landscapes.

It seems an incongruous home for Agnes Martin, a world-class artist with a reputation for living at the margins of civilization. Nonetheless, five years ago, in deference to her advanced years, she gave up her beloved adobe house and studio in Galisteo, an isolated hamlet on a mesa southeast of Santa Fe, and moved into a tidy Taos retirement community.

The first time I visited Martin we sat at the kitchen table in her small, spartan apartment. She is a stocky woman with a broad, square face, slate-blue eyes, and grey hair worn in a short, mannish style. Although wearing a colourful print jersey, baggy jeans, and white running shoes, she still looked like a Mennonite pioneer, an impression reinforced by her large hands and powerful arms which, I knew, had hauled lumber and made adobe bricks when she’d constructed the buildings in Galisteo herself while in her sixties and, before that, built a studio at an even more isolated site near Cuba, New Mexico, three hours northwest of Santa Fe.

When I asked her about her early development, she said: “I painted everything – the Indians, flowers, landscapes. But I was never satisfied. It took me twenty years to paint paintings that I liked. What I wanted was to be completely abstract, non-objective.”

Her first abstracts were inspired by living organisms rather than geometry. Commenting on these biomorphic shapes floating against pale backgrounds, a leading curator wrote that they “allude to nature without, in general, depicting it.” Although today her paintings are untitled, for years they were given names such as “Flower in the Wind,” “The Cliff,” and “Tundra,” encouraging the perception of a direct link with nature.

“Yes, there are quite a few people who say they’re like landscapes,” Martin said. “But they aren’t. I can’t object to people thinking that, though, because what it really means is they’re responding to them in the same way they would respond to actually seeing a landscape, with feelings of freedom, space, beauty. I was painting the way you feel when you’re looking at the tundra.”

Although she has cooperated with writers over the years, she makes no secret of disliking the journalistic process, which she sees as intellectualizing a purely intuitive, emotional pursuit, and as emphasizing artists’ lives rather than their work. Sometimes, after I’d asked her a personal question, or a question requiring her to analyse her working methods, there would be a long pause until I realized that she wasn’t planning to answer me. At other times our conversation took on the quality of a Zen riddle.

“Were you ever attracted to religion?”

“It’s like the wind in the grass. The grass says the wind comes and makes us dance and be happy. It brings clouds and rain. Maybe we ought to fall down and worship the wind and the wind will bring us more. When religious people pray they always ask for more.”

“Why do you use reds and blues now, Agnes?”

“Because of inspiration.”

Inspiration does not simply descend on Martin; she works with religious intensity to open herself to it.”I live to have an open mind so that inspiration will come into it,” she explained. “Anyone could do it, if they wanted to. If they were willing to give up reading nonfiction, watching television, following the news of the world. It’s a discipline to just empty your mind, to not think.”

When Martin does so, inspiration emerges in the form of visions. Around 1960, she had a vision of a grid – a network of evenly spaced horizontal and perpendicular lines – that resulted in her first purely abstract paintings. In the late sixties, she moved to the remote mesa near Cuba after having a vision of adobe bricks and desert.

I said to her: “Today, when one talks about visions, one thinks of some kind of religious or psychic phenomenon. Since you live a very solitary life in New Mexico, people think you must be going into the desert like a mystic. But that doesn’t seem to be what you mean.”

“I’ll ask you something,” Martin said patiently. “Can you see a rose in your mind?”

“Of course. I saw it as soon as you said the word, ‘rose.'”

“Well, that’s the way I saw the grid. You put down that i saw it in my mind. I was thinking about the innocence of trees and I saw a grid.”

I mentioned that in my research I’d come across references to her maternal grandfather, Robert Kinnon, having had a profound influence on her. She seemed bemused, as though it hadn’t occurred to her that I would have read through a great many of the dozens of articles and essays in newspapers, magazines, and museum catalogues over the past forty years.

“I don’t know when I talked about all this,” she said, shaking her head. “Yes, my grandfather was a good man who took an interest in me, and I certainly took an interest in him. He didn’t talk very much, but without ever speaking to little children they knew he liked them. He gave me self confidence without talking. I think he was my inspiration.”

—-

Martin was raised in farm country around Macklin, Saskatchewan, west of Saskatoon near the Alberta border. She was the third of four children born to first-generation Scots whose parents had come to the West by covered wagon. When Agnes was two, her father died of injuries sustained during the Boer War, and the family moved in with grandfather Kinnon, a devout Presbyterian with strong moral and spiritual convictions. Later, when Martin’s mother moved the family to Calgary, then Vancouver, Martin often spent summers with her grandfather, who had moved to Victoria. Although her family wasn’t artistic, young Agnes loved to draw and at one time collected inexpensive postcards of famous paintings. (She still remembers her first postcard: The Angelus, Jean-Francois Miller’s nineteenth-century study of peasant labourers.)

In 1931, she moved to Bellingham, Washington, to assist her sister with a difficult pregnancy. She decided to stay in the U.S., obtained a teaching certificate at a local college, and after working for several years moved to New York to attend Columbia University’s highly rated teachers’ college, majoring in fine arts and art education. She visited the city’s galleries and museums, where she saw paintings by the first generation of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. For the first time she realized that it might be possible to earn a living as an artist.

Martin first came to the southwest in the mid-1940s, discovering there a frontier as vast as Saskatchewan. She studied – and later taught – in the art department at the University of New Mexico, in both Albuquerque and Taos. She returned to Columbia twice – for her M.A. in 1951 and to do post-graduate studies three years later – but couldn’t afford to live in New York. In the fall of 1954, she settled in Taos. By then she had moved away from representational painting and was associated with a group of local artists who drew their aesthetic inspiration equally from nature, spirituality, and modern abstract trends. It was around that time that Betty Parsons, a celebrated New York dealer known as “the den mother of Abstract Expressionism,” showed an early interest in Martin’s work. While visiting Taos, Parsons bought enough of Martin’s paintings to allow her to relocate. “She would give me a show,” Martin explained, “but only if I came to New York to live.”

Martin arrived in New York in the fall of 1957 at the age of forty-five, at a time when Abstract Expressionism had made the U.S. the world leader in art. A reaction against traditional American pre-war painting, it drew upon European modernism – from Manet through the Impressionists, Picasso, Kandinsky, and the Surrealists – and was, as every art-history text puts it, a movement characterized by attitude rather than style. It applied equally to Willem de Kooning’s semi-abstract nudes, Mark Rothko’s pale, intensely luminescent floating rectangles, Barnett Newman’s brightly monochromatic, bisected canvases, and Pollock’s wildly extravagant “drip paintings,” which seemed emblematic of the feral sexuality of Marlon Brando and James Dean and the honky, urban sound of bebop jazz. What the artists shared was a spirit of rebellion against established aesthetic standards. They championed self-determination and serendipity, worshipped the treasure chest of the unconscious.

Betty Parsons was the movement’s greatest talent scout. Cultured and well-connected, a former debutante turned artist and impresario, Parsons at one time represented Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and other members of the vanguard, although later many of them moved on to other dealers. By the late 1950s, Parsons was rebuilding her stable with a new generation, among them Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman, who along with fellow artists Lenore Tawney and Robert indiana were living on Coenties Slip, a largely abandoned nineteenth-century seaport area south of Wall Street that might have been lifted from the pages of Melville. Martin moved into a $45-a-month former sail maker’s studio that had windows overlooking the East River. Everywhere could be found the remains of a prosperous maritime industry-sail-making tools, ships’ wheels, notched timbers, square-headed nails. In the morning, she often made biscuits for her fellow artists.

“I certainly enjoyed living on the Slip, and making friends with all those people,” she said, turning uncharacteristically wistful. “In those lofts there was a lot of walnut furniture – walnut desks and counters and things. I made a table, a couple of benches, cupboards. Practically furnished my studio.”

Martin was part of, yet at the same time apart from, the Slip community of artist-friends. For one thing, she was older than most of them; at forty-six she was, in fact, the same age as Pollock (who had died two years earlier) and only a few years younger than Newman, Rothko, and other members of the first generation Abstract Expressionists.

“Agnes was always the earth mother, a kind of sage,” recalled Ellsworth Kelly, now in his early seventies and living in upstate New York. “When you’re in your creative period, between twenty and thirty-five, you go through a lot of crises. She was very much a healer. You’d go to talk to her and she’d soothe things. Sometimes she would correct us because of our follies, like a parent would in a way.”

In pursuit of her art, Martin was venturing further and further into spiritual territories. By the early sixties she was employing subtle washes of dusky paint against which she would etch pencil lines in dense grids that looked like the warp and weft of woven fabric (perhaps inspired by her friendship with Lenore Tawney, a noted textile artist). Her paintings were finally reflecting the transcendental sublimity and egolessness inspired by her passion for Christian devotional texts and the Oriental philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism. They were hypnotic, subliminal. As her reputation grew, her style became so reductive that she was associated with the Minimalist movement that emerged in the mid-sixties, although, unlike Minimalism, Martin’s art was emotional and unostentatious, combining naturalism and abstraction.

Yet despite her success, unsettling forces buffeted her life. She and Parsons remained close, but she had also entered into an unsatisfactory arrangement with another dealer. Friends talked about her emotional fragility; about a relationship with a fiery sculptress that went sour; about the day that Martin, whose spiritual quests included periods of fasting and meditation, was hospitalized after she was found wandering the streets of Coenties Slip in a trance; about the trip around the world that ended prematurely with an illness in India; about the day she learned that her new studio – larger and better appointed than the first – was to be destroyed as part of a redevelopment project.

And so it was that in early 1967 Martin abruptly retired from painting, bought a Dodge pickup, packed some belongings, and left New York. For most of the next two years she wandered the U.S. and Canada alone, camping out in the Grand Canyon, in California, in the Northwest Territories, and in remote northern Saskatchewan until finally moving to Cuba, New Mexico, where she eventually resumed painting again.

About New York she later told an inquiring writer: “I could no longer stay so I had to leave, you see. I suppose you could say I wasn’t up to the demands and everything…. But there was something else: that I came to a place of recognition of confusion that had to be solved.”
When I brought it up, Martin dismissed the episode.

“Were you going through some kind of spiritual crisis at the time?”

She paused, then deflected the question. “No, no. My shows were selling out.”

Pressed, she added: “I gave up painting for four and a half years. I decided I’d experiment with a solitary, simple life, to see if I’d become wise.”

—-

Martin’s one concession to materialism, the only possession that indicates her stature as a well-off, international artist, is a white BMW 325LX, in which she drove me on a sleepy Sunday morning to her studio, located behind the main square of Taos. Most mornings Martin can be found working here, before having lunch and returning home, where she often reads who-dunnits (her favourite author is Agatha Christie) because they’re undemanding, leaving her mind free for inspiration. The studio is a small space, about the size of a bachelor apartment, with white stucco walls, several narrow windows, and a skylight above the back wall where a canvas was suspended. It was similar to the bleached pastel series that I’d seen at the Pace show in New York. We stared at the canvas in silence.

“Do you see happiness there?” she asked.

“Yes, I do. You’ve said that many people describe them as tranquil, and I’ve also felt that. When you execute those horizontal lines, Agnes, how do you do them?”

Pause. “I put tape down the side and put measurements on it and then take care using a little ruler,” she said.

“I asked because one thing that strikes me is the microscopic trembling in the lines. They remind me of a nerve, like a nerve running through the body to the brain.” Martin cleared her throat impatiently.

“Are you always a journalist?” she asked, as she began to pull out one of several finished canvases stacked against a side wall. “People should pay attention to their feelings,” she said. “They’re supposed to be asking themselves, ‘How does it make me feel? Happy? Sad?’ They’re thinking about artists and the art instead of responding emotionally.”

We studied the second canvas. I knew better than to pursue the notion that these abstracts which so strongly suggest landscapes might be linked to her prairie childhood and attraction to the New Mexico desert. Martin would vehemently deny it.

“Beautiful. It feels like I’m falling into a cloud.”

“Really?” Martin said, with a quiet laugh.

Later, sitting in the parking lot in her car, I asked if she could describe her physical relation to the canvas.

“No.”

I pressed on.”The British painter Francis Bacon talked about ‘fighting’ the canvas. If you look at his work it looks as though he fights with it.”

Martin smiled indulgently and said nothing.

“But your work is very tranquil. Is your relationship with the canvas more peaceful?”

“I just try to get the image from my mind onto the canvas,” she said. “It’s not like fighting or anything.”

“So getting paint onto the canvas is relatively easy?”

Pause. “Oh, it’s pretty hard.”

“Do you believe craft plays a big part?”

“No,” Martin said firmly. “No part at all. Method is a very bad thing. Technique is a hazard, even in living life. Do you live life with technique?”

“Probably more than I should.”

Chuckling quietly to herself, Martin started the car.