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Wednesday
Mar042015

Agnes Martin: 1912-2004

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1963

The minimalist of all minimalists, Agnes Martin, presents us with surface, often inscribed to a numbing field of equivalence.  She came from Maklin Saskatchewan (born on a homestead NW 19-38-27-W3), grew up in Vancouver, moved to the States at nineteen, taught through the 30s and 40s, moved to New York for the 60s, discovered Taoism and Zen and ended up spending the rest of her life alone in New Mexico.  Below is a minimalist interview: talking Agnes Martin in front of a white stucco wall, fixed camera – a numbing field of equivalent statements about not being an intellectual, or having ideas: she just responds to the inspiration. I'm not sure exactly what that is, but it leaves her with a clear mind, she says. 

Above: interview by Chuck Smith & Sono Kuwayama with painter Agnes Martin at her studio in Taos in November 1997. longer version here

 

Agnes Martin in her NY Studio, 1960. Photo Alexander LibermanAn earlier image, when studios were uninhabitable and unheated spaces. Martin's work demands contemplation; there is no image, just surface which has been touched, by her. The importance of Martin to twentieth century painting, and her massive influence on the conceptualists, mocks, a bit, her statements at 85 that she has an empty mind and so when inspiration crosses that empty field she can see it.  Painters are rarely wordsmiths, most are inarticulate when talking about their work after a lifetime of doing it.  I'd rather see an interview of Agnes Martin at 48 as she was in this photo when New York was the centre of the new art world afire with experimental art, when critics such as Rosenberg and Greenberg were defining and undefining painting and installation.  On the other hand, perhaps she was seemingly as unconnected to things then as later, but the climate of ideas picked her up and ran all over the field with her.  In the interview she sounds overly simplistic, and one wonders if this was a terrific defence – goodness knows the robust masculinity of the twentieth century New York art scene made short work of women artists.  To be a Taoist and to work minutely, almost obsessively, on huge canvases must have been unassailable.

In a fine and revealing essay in artcritical, Deborah Garwood mentions the increasingly violent politics of 1960s America: Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Weather Underground.  In such a world the calm, investigative studies that are Martin's works from the early 1960s perhaps codify that turmoil – the grain of sand that contains the universe.  Much has been written of her shared sensibility with John Cage: both erase noise and let the ears and eyes register some sort of deep space.

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