Agnes Martin and Zen

Zen Master Eihei Dogen (1200 -1253) writes: Loving fame is worse than breaking a precept. Breaking a precept is a transgression at a particular time. Loving Fame is like an ailment of a lifetime. Do not foolishly hold on to fame, or do not ignorantly accept it. Not to accept fame is continuous practice. To abandon it is continuous practice.

I see a direct relationship between the work and life of Agnes Martin and Zen practice. Certainly this is not a new observation, as many draw the relationship between the two. However, as more information and perspectives come to light regarding Martin, a pattern of a form of practice on her part emerges.

In a recent WNYC interview http://www.wnyc.org/story/creativity-and-crisis-minimalist-artist-agnes-martin/ of Nancy Princenthal on The Leonard Lopate’s show. Princenthal works rather diligently to dissuade Loparte’s observations that Martin was a Zen Buddhist. Though it may be true that Martin studied many traditions, she said, “I have read all the spiritual stuff.” It is also true that ultimately, to be a Zen practitioner is to not be a Zen practitioner. It is also to be mindful of all spiritual traditions. Martin also said that she no longer had ideas; identifying with giving up various scientific theories.

It seems that Martin’s later life was Zen practice; that she worked with her mind according to those principles. I will have to find the documentation where someone refers to her writings as being perceived as crazy… because actually, if one reads carefully, Martin’s writings are often koans.

Martins writings; her meals; her living in silence and her love of Beethoven; her admission that she would not get out of bed in the morning unless she knew what she was going to paint; her simplicity – and finally Arne Glimcher’s confirmation of Agnes Martin meditating daily, all point to a the life of a lay Zen practitioner or at the very least a life that was deeply informed, daily, by Zen philosophy.

Perhaps most obvious is that she did not claim any belief. I often quote Marcia Tucker’s comment on artist’s not being able to admit a spiritual direction in their work as it is taboo in the art world. Princenthal seems to hold on to that antiquated notion in her conversation with Loparte. However – spiritual practice as a medium for creating work is very alive and has been in all cultures. And if we have to rest with the western canonical model we have to only look at Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and the “secret” works of Hilma af Klint to know there is a very healthy spirituality alive in art history, artists’, their work, and the audiences quiet connection with that work. This has to do with energy of the mind and body and what it creates in response to the world in which it lives. It is about spirit, feeling, Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism – the visceral.

In reading The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master edited by artist and scholar Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt. I came upon the quote above at the beginning of this page. I was struck by the directness of Dogen’s view, a Zen Buddhist view, and its relationship to Martin’s intense feelings against praise of her work and herself. It is true, as well, that her upbringing as a child points to other spiritual traditions that also support being humble. Though I would offer, here, that being humble and being selfless are not the same things –Martin was aware of this difference. One can call upon the story of her comment that she was the best painter of the time, to know that she understood confidence as opposed to arrogance.

There were many artists working along with Martin, who had an understanding of Zen philosophy. As a Zen practitioner it seems to me that Martin was also. For whatever reason; her choice in meals, her aesthetic, her daily meditation – and perhaps most clearly, her writings which are rich in their understanding the role of mind and inspiration in art. Martin was likely one of the steadiest practitioners of the Abstract Expressionist movement – one would not necessary realize this unless they shared the same view.