Agnes Martin: the artist mystic who disappeared into the desert
In the summer of 1967, Martin left New York and went off-grid before reappearing in New Mexico. The art she made there – with its buoyant bands of colour – offer no clues to the turbulent life of an artist who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Ahead of a major retrospective, Olivia Laing celebrates her visions of pure joy
A detail from Untitled #1 2003 by Agnes Martin. Photographs courtesy of the Estate of Agnes Martin
Friday 22 May 2015 10.00 BST
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Art must derive from inspiration, Agnes Martin said, and yet for decades she painted what seems at first glance to be the same thing over and over again, the same core structure subject to infinitely subtle variations. A grid: a set of horizontal and vertical lines drawn meticulously with a ruler and pencil on canvases six feet high and six feet wide. They came, these restrained, reserved, exquisite paintings, as visions, for which she would wait sometimes for weeks on end, rocking in her chair, steadying herself for a glimpse of the minute image that she would paint next. “I paint with my back to the world,” she declared, and what she wanted to catch in her rigorous nets was not material existence, the Earth and its myriad forms, but rather the abstract glories of being: joy, beauty, innocence; happiness itself.
A late starter, Martin kept on going, working at the height of her powers right through her 80s; a stocky figure with apple cheeks and cropped silver hair, dressed in overalls and Indian shirts. She produced the last of her masterpieces a few months before her death in 2004, at the grand old age of 92. But she was also so deeply ambivalent about pride and success and the ego-driven business of making a name for yourself that in the 1960s she abandoned the art world altogether, packing up her New York studio, giving away her materials and disappearing in a pickup truck, surfacing 18 months later on a remote mesa in New Mexico.
When she returned to painting in 1971, the grids had gone, replaced by horizontal or vertical lines, the old palette of grey and white and brown giving way to glowing stripes and bands of very pale pink and blue and yellow. “Sippy cup colours”, the critic Terry Castle once called them, and their titles likewise address states of pre-verbal, infantile bliss. Little Children Loving Love, I Love the Whole World, Lovely Life, even Infant Response to Love. And yet these images of absolute calm did not arise from a life replete with love or ease, but rather out of turbulence, solitude and hardship. Though inspired, they represent an act of dogged will and extreme effort, and their perfection is hard-won.
Martin’s work is in museums and collections across the world, and changes hands for millions of dollars at a time. All the same, she hasn’t achieved quite the renown of her mostly male contemporaries in abstraction, partly because the subtleties of her paintings are almost impossible to reproduce in print, though a substantial retrospective opening at Tate Modern in June makes a powerful case for her position in the first rank. This month also sees the publication of a biography, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art by Nancy Princenthal (Thames & Hudson), a painstaking attempt to disentangle the many contradictions of a long and singular life.
Her story begins on an isolated farm in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. She was born to Scottish Presbyterian pioneers on 22 March 1912, the same year as Jackson Pollock, another child of wide-open prairies and enormous skies. In a documentary made in 2002, Mary Lance’s With My Back to the World, Martin claimed she could remember the exact moment of her birth. She had entered the world, she tells Lance, as a small figure with a little sword. “I was very happy. I thought I would cut my way through life … victory after victory,” she declares, laughing. “Well, I adjusted as soon as they carried me into my mother. Half of my victories fell to the ground.” She pauses. “My mother had victories,” she says, and her candid, weather-beaten face darkens abruptly.
Untitled 5 1998, by Agnes Martin
Untitled 5 1998, by Agnes Martin
She believed that she was hated as a child. Silence was her mother’s weapon and she used it ruthlessly. Martin told her friend, the journalist Jill Johnston, that she had been emotionally abused, and yet she could also wring a value from some of the harsh lessons of her childhood. Her mother liked seeing people hurt, but her sternness did inculcate self-discipline, while the enforced solitude fostered Martin’s self-reliance. The lessons stuck. Whether or not they always served her well, discipline and renunciation continued to be the watchwords of Martin’s existence, right through to old age.
It was a long time before she thought of becoming an artist. A fine swimmer, as a teenager she tried out for the Olympic team. Later, she trained to be a teacher, spending her itinerant 20s in remote schools out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. In 1941, she went to New York City, where she studied fine arts at Teachers College, Columbia University. For the next 15 years, she shuttled back and forth between schools in New York and New Mexico, slowly developing herself as a painter. Little of her work from this time has survived, owing to her habit of destroying anything that failed to match up to the exacting vision of her maturity. This is why it sometimes seems as if Martin sprang into existence fully formed, absolute in her commitment to geometric abstraction.
False starts, circling, a gaining of territory. Then, at 45, she settled at the suggestion of her then dealer, Betty Parsons, in a studio community established in abandoned shipping lofts on the ramshackle waterfront of lower Manhattan. Coenties Slip was home to a group of young and predominantly gay artists – among them Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly – bent on differentiating themselves from the more established abstract expressionists uptown, with their grating machismo.
Though a good decade older than the other residents, Martin felt immediately at home in this place of experimentation and monastic discipline, of “humour, endless possibilities, and rampant freedom”. A famous photograph shows her up on the roof with a group that includes Indiana and Kelly as well as a small boy and a dog, camped with coffee and cigarettes among the skyscrapers of the financial district. She sits smiling on the very edge of the roof, her hands jammed in her coat pocket, something of the overseer still about her stance.
Her first residence on the Slip was a 100ft-long former sailmaker’s loft with no water and walls that didn’t quite meet its soaring ceiling. In this chilly space, increasingly austere geometric abstractions – regimented spots, squares and triangles in nocturnal palettes – slowly resolved themselves into the repeating pattern of the grid. These new works began to be shown as part of the emerging movement of minimalism, though she regarded herself as an abstract expressionist – her subject was feeling, yet feeling anonymous and unadorned.
Martin often described a painting from 1964, The Tree, as her first grid. In fact, she had been making them since at least the beginning of the decade, first by scratching lattices into paint and then by pencilling ruled vertical and horizontal lines on to canvases, sometimes embellishing the hatchings with dabs or lines of colour, even sheets of gold leaf. “Well,” she told an interviewer, “when I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.”
Tiffany Bell, the co-curator with Frances Morris of the Tate retrospective, observes of the early grids that “it is as though the energy of a Pollock drip painting has been stretched out and carefully sustained over time”. Emphatically ambiguous, they refuse artistry, reducing painting to the simplest of mark-making procedures at the same time as exceeding themselves with their grandeur of scale and grave beauty. The longer you look, the more impressive their insistent neutrality becomes. Forget confessional art. This is withholding art, evading disclosure, declining to give itself away.
Take The Islands (1961). Against a buff-coloured ground, its neat pencilled lines form a successions of tiny boxes. With the exception of its border, which resembles the fringe of a rug, these elegant rows have been seeded with hundreds of tiny paired dots of pale yellow paint, which from a distance translate into a shimmering veil. Everything is relentlessly the same, and yet out of this sameness arises an image unlike anything that had gone before.
Friendship, 1963 by Agnes Martin
Friendship, 1963 by Agnes Martin
It isn’t easy to catch the workings of these paintings in words, since they were explicitly designed to dodge the burden of representation, to stymie the viewers in their incorrigible habit of searching for recognisable forms in the abstract field. They aren’t made to be read, but are there to be responded to, providing enigmatic triggers for a spontaneous upwelling of pure emotion. Martin was deeply influenced by Taoism and Zen Buddhism, and there is a driving interest in her work in cutting through materiality. In an interview with the artist Ann Wilson, she explained: “Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this … that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature, an experience of simple joy … My paintings are about merging, about formlessness … A world without objects, without interruption.”
Merging and formlessness can be blissful, but losing a solid sense of the self is also terrifying, as Martin knew. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in early adulthood, and her symptoms included auditory hallucinations, spells of depression and catatonic trances. Her voices, as she called them, directed almost every aspect of her life, sometimes punitive and sometimes protective. According to Princenthal’s biography: “Although the voices didn’t tell her what to paint – they seemed to steer clear of her work – the images that came to her through inspirations were fixed and articulate enough to suggest a relationship between visions and voices: she heard and saw things that others didn’t.”
During the Coenties Slip years, she was hospitalised repeatedly. One winter, she fell into a trance in a church on Second Avenue, triggered when she heard the first few notes of Handel’s Messiah (although she loved music, it was often too emotionally stimulating). Another time, she was admitted to the notoriously chaotic Bellevue psychiatric hospital after being found wandering Park Avenue, uncertain of who or where she was. Before friends located her and had her moved to more salubrious environs, she was given shock therapy.
Though a decidedly solitary figure, Martin was not entirely alone during these years. She had relationships with women, among them the ground-breaking fibre artist Lenore Tawney and the Greek sculptor Chryssa (later famous for her work in neon). Like many gay people in the pre-Stonewall era, she was deep in the closet, at least once denying she was a lesbian. That statement should be taken with a pinch of salt, considering that, when asked about feminism in an interview with Johnston, she snapped, “I’m not a woman.”
It’s tempting to read these formidable tensions and turbulences into the paintings: to convert the grid into a closet or cell, a system of traps or an endless maze. But Martin was adamant that personal experience had nothing to do with her works. In her copious writing she was formidably insistent about what meanings they did and didn’t contain: they did not embrace ideas, and certainly not personal emotions or biographical elements. She was passionately opposed to critical readings, going so far as to cancel a prestigious retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1980 because they insisted on a catalogue. The paintings were the thing: the paintings and the sublime responses they engendered in the viewer.
In the sweltering summer of 1967, Martin renounced art altogether. Over the years, she gave an assortment of reasons for her departure. She had been living in a beautiful studio on South Street, with cathedral ceilings, so close to the river that she could clearly see the expressions on the sailors’ faces. One day, she heard that it was going to be torn down. In the same post she received notification that she had won a grant, enough to purchase a pickup truck and an Airstream camper. Her friend Ad Reinhardt, whose black paintings she loved, had just died; her relationship with Chryssa had ended, and anyway she’d had enough of living in the city. The voices, too, were in agreement. “I could no longer stay, so I had to leave, you see,” she explained decades later. “I left New York because every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting. It took me several years to find out that the cause was an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
No one is exactly sure where she went. Like Huckleberry Finn, she lit out for the territories, travelling off-grid, into open space. She re-emerged at a cafe and filling station in Cuba, New Mexico in 1968, pulling in and asking the manager if he knew of any land for rent. By chance, his wife had a property available, and so, at the age of 56, Martin moved up to a remote mesa, 20 miles across dirt roads from the nearest highway. No electricity, no phone, no neighbours, there was not even a shelter to move into. For the first few months, she focused her energy on building, working from scratch and mostly alone. She made a one-room dwelling out of adobe bricks she shaped herself, and then a log-cabin studio from trees she cut down with a chainsaw. It was in this latter space that she began to inch towards art again, first prints, then drawings, then the luminous work of her maturity.
The best guide to Martin’s life from here on is the wonderfully evocative Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (Phaidon) by her friend and dealer Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery. In June 1974, she appeared out of the blue at Pace and asked if they’d like to show her new work. She invited Glimcher to come and view it, posting him a hand-drawn map, at the bottom of which she had scrawled “bring ice thanks Agnes”. When he arrived, after an arduous journey from New York, she fed him mutton chops and apple pie before allowing him into the studio. There, she showed him five new paintings, made of either horizontal or vertical stripes in ice blue and red so watered it was barely pink. At 62, Martin had found a new language, a mode of expression in which she continued to communicate for 30 more years.
Untitled 1959 by Agnes Martin
Untitled 1959 by Agnes Martin
Sometimes the bands she made were sombre, in troubled driving strokes of slaty grey, but more often they are buoyant, elegant stacks of dilute acrylic paint. Layers the colour of sand and apricots, layers the colour of morning sky; flags for a borderless state, a new republic of ease and freedom. Her process was always the same. She waited until she saw her vision: a tiny full-colour version of the painting to come. Then came the painstaking labour of scaling up, filling pages with scribbled fractions and long division. Next, she would mark two lengths of tape, using a short ruler to pencil the lines on to a gessoed canvas. Only then did she begin to apply colour, working very fast. If there were displeasing drips or blots or other errors, she would destroy the canvas with a knife or box cutter, sometimes even hurling it off the mesa, before beginning again once or twice or seven times: every mark in a Martin painting is intentional, wholly meant.
Their meticulous geometries have intense effects on the viewer. At the London outpost of Pace, I saw Untitled #2, 1992: five blue bands separated by four repeating runners of white, watery orange and salmon pink. Up close, the pencil lines wobbled over the weave like an ECG. There were two hairs stuck to the canvas; five peach splatters the size of fingernails. The eye seized on these small details, on the infinitesimally darker patches where two brush strokes had collided, because there was nothing else to grasp: no view, no closure, just a radiant openness, as if the ocean had come into the windowless room.
This feeling of free fall is not to everyone’s taste. Over the years, a surprising number of Martin’s paintings have been vandalised. One viewer used as their weapon an ice cream cone. Another attacked with green crayon, while at a show in Germany, nationalists hurled rubbish. The grids in particular seem to attract embellishment. Martin herself thought it was narcissistic, a kind of horror vacui. “You know,” she said ruefully, “people just can’t stand that those are all empty squares.”
Learning to withstand emptiness was her own speciality, her given task. Her years in New Mexico were marked by a profound withdrawal from worldly things, a life of renunciation and restriction that often sounds punishingly masochistic, though Martin insisted the intention was spiritual, an ongoing war against the sin of pride. The voices were strict in their limitations. She wasn’t allowed to buy records, own a television, or have a dog or cat for company. Over the winter of 1973 she lived off nothing but preserved home-grown tomatoes, walnuts and hard cheese. Another winter it was Knox gelatin mixed with orange juice and bananas. When she was evicted from the mesa after an argument with the owners, she rang Glimcher, telling him she had lost everything, even her clothes. “It’s a sign I’ve been living too grandly,” she announced cheerfully. “It’s another test for me.”
Agnes Martin at her house near Cuba, New Mexico, in 1974. Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgon
Agnes Martin at her house near Cuba, New Mexico, in 1974. Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgon
Ironically, Martin’s reclusiveness, her spartan existence, contributed to her growing status as the desert mystic of minimalism, something she simultaneously resisted and fed. During this period, she began to give public lectures that managed to be both bossy and self-effacing, mixing the language of Zen sermons with the babyish burblings and deliberate repetitions of Gertrude Stein, whose poems she was fond of declaiming. Martin was adept at using language opaquely, creating a screen of words that could veil her from the gaze of the world. Like her enigmatic, resistant paintings, her statements are designed to express something beyond the reach of ordinary understanding, weapons in a campaign to devalue the material and elevate the abstract. “When you give up on the idea of right and wrong, you don’t get anything,” she told Johnston. “What you get is rid of everything, freedom from ideas and responsibilities.”
Towards the end of her life, even the strictures began to dissolve. As she aged, Martin became happier and more social, as well as considerably more wealthy. In 1992, she moved into a retirement community in Taos, New Mexico, driving each day to her studio in a spotless white BMW, one of the few extravagances in a life still dedicated to extreme material simplicity. Other things that gave her pleasure were the novels of Agatha Christie (themselves, as Princenthal observes, infinitely ingenious repetitions on the same core structure), occasional martinis and the music of Beethoven. To Lillian Ross in 2003, she announced cheerfully: “Beethoven is really about something. I go to sleep when it gets dark, get up when it’s light. Like a chicken. Let’s go to lunch.”
It was in this period that objects began to return to her canvases; a final swerve in a life dedicated to absolute obedience to vision. Triangles, trapezoids, squares: black geometric shapes, arising out of drained and sober fields. In one of the most striking of these paintings, Homage to Life, 2003, a severe black trapezoid looms out of a wash of exquisitely agitated putty grey (reviewing it in the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl observed: “It looks thoroughly deathly to me”). And her very last work was, of all things, a tiny drawing of a plant, barely more than three inches high: a tottering ink line that attests at long last to the material things in which beauty temporarily makes its home.
After that, she set down her pencil. Her final days, in December 2004, were spent in the infirmary of the retirement home, surrounded by a few of her closest friends and family members. In his memoir, Glimcher describes sitting and holding her hand, singing her favourite “Blue Skies”, a song they’d often sung together while she drove him through the mountains, her foot on the gas, exhibiting a queenly disregard for speed limits and stop signs. Sometimes she’d chime in from her bed with a couple of wavering lines: “Nothing but blue skies / From now on.”
She wanted to be buried in the garden of the Harwood Museum in Taos, near a room of paintings she had donated, but New Mexico law forbade it, and so in the spring after her death, a group assembled at midnight and scaled the adobe walls with a ladder. It was a full moon, and they dug a hole under the roots of an apricot tree, placing her ashes in a Japanese bowl lined with gold leaf before scattering them in the earth. A beautiful scene, but as Martin knew, “beauty is unattached, it’s inspiration – it’s inspiration”.