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the new discussions surrounding Agnes Martin

We are in the advent of new scholarship on Agnes Martin; inclusive of some superior re-contextualizing of her work. Among the things to consider in this wake is a new type of model for women artists.

Many thought they understood Martin. Pretty straight forward, in fact, there was nothing there really. Well, we instinctively knew better. So much in the world goes unspoken.

Martin is not O’Keeffe, is not Gentileschi, is not Delaunay, is not Kahlo, is not Abramovic, is not Nevelson, is not Mendieta, is not Hesse, is not Spero, is not af Klint, is not Weems, and on. There was a standard by which Martin lived. That is not to say that others have not, however, I would offer that she met her own standard and that is not only rare but remarkable.

At this time when there is so much pulling in so many different directions, it is paramount to understand Martin’s vision and more importantly to recognize that she was on point, regularly, without distraction. She understood her own mind.

Like many artists, Martin’s life informed her work.  In and of itself, it is a confirmation of an approach to studio practice that is being recognized and explored today albeit with some criticism.   Marcia Tucker, who was light years ahead of her time, nailed it when she wrote about the “taboo” of talking about spirituality in art. But wait… Kandinsky was talking about the spiritual in art, Malevich also – among others –the men. It seemed like part of the discourse of the time. Af Klint’s spiritualism? No, not the same thing; but certainly as much conjecture, she knew to keep quiet about what her reality was at that time.

Martin appears to deny “the spiritual stuff” at the end of her life.  But, there is something that permeates the consistent approach and dedication to feelings of happiness, joy and innocence in her work and also about the way she speaks and writes about it.

Martin’s schizophrenia was news to some. But it’s what she did with it, as Arne Glimcher points out, in commenting on her immense and long standing productivity as a painter. The manifestation of her work creates another vision for those who are painting today and who are in need of an affirmation that the perceptual rigor and discipline with which they are approaching their work is valid.

And further, that making work from yet another root inspiration is possible. Everything is possible and yes, times are different- art worlds are different, but what is not different is the internal struggle women face being themselves in their studios and in the market. It is still much easier to be in someone else’s skin.

In Martin’s case, among her attributes was an ascetic rigor to her life that bled into her studio practice and finished work. What is ascetic today and is the life style and the studio practice always connected? What does an ascetic studio practice mean for women artists?

While I was living in Chicago years ago, someone who was purchasing a piece of work came to visit and while sitting down in what they deemed to be a rather uncomfortable bench exclaimed “What are you, some kind of ascetic?”  Well, I had not thought about it until then – but if that was what they thought – it was fine. However I didn’t forget the exchange – well there wasn’t much of an exchange – I did not have an answer really, they were sitting in the bench. What did stay with me was the tone – some sort of  snarky disapproval at the moment.

Never forgetting that comment; I moved west, by myself, knowing no one and started a life in Wyoming.  Was the move, the location, an ascetic’s choice? To live in the middle of nowhere, was that ascetic? Is eating the same thing for days on end ascetic? Preferring silence over conversation? Is wearing the same style of clothing consistently, ascetic? Being frugal; choosing not to be recognized? To limit conversation or social activity? Ascetic or schizophrenic or both or neither? …Labels.

What the new writing about Martin does for artists that are women is it gives them permission to be silent – to choose to be rigorous, to write, be thoughtful, to make work that they want to make as the world continues around them. To have a contemplative practice that informs their studio practice. To listen to muses (voices). To speak dharmically about life and work, which Martin did without concern.  A license to be serious, absorbed, isolated, alone, private, and to be comfortable with that. To have uninterrupted vision; while everyone else’s hair is on fire, the door is closed and the painter is working.  And to stop pretending that they are something other than that; they really don’t care about anything else but their work. To make the significant decisions about their work later in their life – not when they are younger because that “is what the market will bear”. To be a particular kind of comfortable in their skin.

What we are learning from Martin, now, is a new type of vision for ourselves. Yes, in part to maintain one’s sanity – that is what all of us are doing. This is not, at all, to minimize Martin’s struggle. However, her incessant, beautiful, lyrical production, a consistent rhythm of staying “above the line” emanates a type of fortitude of vision that as a model for women artists says, ‘Be alone if it fits. Personify the spirit as it suits you in your work; paint with your back to the world, it is not always a happy place. When you find happiness in your work – rest in that. Rest in your work; not considering what others say. They will find a place to rest as well. And in that emptiness, be fierce and on point.’


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