Decidedly Pure
Conversations with Agnes Martin
By Linda Mason Hunter
© Linda Mason Hunter, 2004; May not be reprinted without written permission from the author.

“All the worlds of the universe are rushing into invisibility as their next deeper reality; a few stars literally grow more intense and perish in the boundless awareness of the angels, others are allotted to beings which transform them slowly and with difficulty, in whose terror and ecstasy they attain their nearest invisible reality. We are … these transformers of the earth; our entire existence, the soaring and plunging of our love, all this fits us for this task.”
                                --Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

Agnes in her studio, 2004

Photo:Lark Smothermon

Agnes Martin paints invisible reality, intense feelings of being alive reduced to physics, subtle bands of color on a grid.

“I do not paint this world,” she says.

When seen firsthand her paintings shimmer, coming to life before our eyes. They can, if you allow them, produce a sense of calm, peace, joy, rewarding the viewer with understanding emotions so intense and elemental they begin to register on the level of light.

At 91 years old Agnes is hailed by some as the greatest painter in the United States today. ARTnews magazine voted her one of the ten most important contemporary American artists in 1999. She has been at the forefront of every major art trend in the last 40 years. She is famous. She is rich. And she lives simply, like a monk. Though she no longer needs the money Agnes still paints three hours every day, seven days a week, in her Taos, New Mexico studio. It’s her religion. Her meditation. Her essential breath.

She walks with effort, taking deliberate steps, a bit hunched over, often pausing to catch her breath. Her daily dress varies little--baggy jeans, loose-fitting Guatemalan shirts, paint-splattered tennis shoes. Her close-cropped white hair recalls Gertrude Stein in her later Paris years. A closer look reveals a face lacking Stein’s severity, a face which commands honesty.

She speaks in a low hushed voice, her manner calm, her mind sharp, her gaze direct, the pure New Mexico air clinging to her very being. She often makes little jokes and is genuinely funny. Her wispy sky blue eyes (her most distinctive feature) reflect high altitude clarity, northern New Mexico’s magical light.

Just Agnes
In the art world Agnes Martin is considered a member of the Minimalist School, a group of abstract expressionists (including Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko) who came to prominence in the New York scene of the 1960s. Curiously, she’s the only woman and, unlike her intellectual male colleagues, her work is intensely spiritual.

What little negative criticism Agnes’ paintings have received over the years stems from her mystical nature, but “…it would be a mistake,” writes Jeffrey Lee in Weekly/WIRE, “to let that overshadow the fact that they are, first and foremost, gorgeous, uncompromising challenges to the eye…You have to stand close to them. You have to ‘read’ every line. They demand intimacy and a kind of commitment. But what they give back, in their simplicity and richness is indescribably moving.”

Her lifelong commitment--without partner, child, close friend, or pet--has been a complete dedication to finding truth on a deep transcendental level.

Photo:Lark Smothermon

“When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind—the awareness of perfection.”

She’s spent all her life alone, a radical choice.

“I don’t get lonely. I believe in reincarnation, do you? I think I’m hundreds of years old. And I’ve been married hundreds of times. I’ve had all kinds of children. Everybody feels sorry for me because I’m not married and don’t have children. I think I’ve got it pretty good.”

When pressed she admits she was in love once, before she went to New York. What happened?

“He married someone else.”

She boasts a hearty constitution.  

“When I was young my sisters and brothers all got sick. They got dyptheria and scarlet fever. I never got sick, even though we were sleeping and eating together.”

She drinks a glass of red wine almost every day because she heard it’s supposed to be good for you. Though she smoked cigarettes for almost 30 years, she quit years ago.

Of the many honors she has received, she’s most fond of the portrait Chuck Close painted of her. Composed of two-inch-square tiles (microcosms of organic color and shape) the 7x8-foot monumental head reveals a highly-charged glimpse into her mind.

In 1989 she was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York. In 1992 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York honored her with a retrospective that traveled to museums in the U.S. and Spain. For her 90th birthday in 2002, Houston’s Menil Museum held a glowing retrospective with 39 of her paintings, flying her in on a private jet for a huge birthday bash. The Harwood Gallery in Taos (where she feels most at home) feted her with a gala weekend filled with luminaries and praise.

One of her favorite memories occurred at a banquet in 1998 when she was honored as one of ten National Medal of Arts recipients awarded by President Clinton and the National Endowment for the Arts. She sat next to an 82-year-old Gregory Peck who, though charming and still handsome, didn’t impress her near as much President Clinton did.

“What a nice man. You know, I don’t go up and down very much emotionally. I’m pretty even. But I went up a little when I met him.”

Otherwise, she has avoided the overtly political all her life.

“It is not the role of the artist to worry about life, to feel responsible for creating a better world.”  

Her History
Agnes Bernice Martin was born March 22, 1912, in Maklin, Saskatchewan, northern Canada.

“The land of no opportunity. My ancestors were wheat farmers growing thousands of acres of wheat for the world to make into bread. They worked for life. Anybody doing something positive creates life.”

Her father died when Agnes was two years old, leaving her mother with five children to rear, one a babe in arms. Her mother renovated old houses to support the family, hiring subcontractors and organizing all the labor, then reselling the houses for more than her original price.

Agnes wasn’t a particularly “arty” child, though she remembers drawing some as a small child, usually with her brother, after the family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. She didn’t have the opportunity to paint, visit museums, or talk to others about art, but she indulged her passion by collecting large postcards of famous old paintings purchased for fifteen cents apiece.

“I was always intensely aware of my surroundings. I saw every shadow, every line. When I saw a beautiful scene, I felt if I could paint it and really get the beauty I’d like to be an artist.”

She went to New York City for the first time in 1936, when she was 24 years old. She walked the city, haunting all the major art museums, frequenting galleries, meeting serious artists.

“I said to myself, if you can make a living painting, that is what you should do.”

So she signed up for art course. By 1952 she had earned two degrees from New York’s Columbia University—a bachelor of science in social studies in 1942 then, ten years later, a masters degree in art education. Tuition at the time was $22 a semester. In the intervening years she earned a living teaching everything from nursery school through university level art classes—basic drawing, composition, portraiture--and she continued her art studies at the University of New Mexico.

“I’d teach a year, then take a year off to paint.”

She painted nearly every day for 20 years, but didn’t show or sell her work.

“I was not satisfied. They weren’t abstract enough, without any hint of this world.”

She kept at it because she felt she had something to say. Each painting informed the next. Every day she got a little more abstract.

“At the end of each year I built a big bonfire and burned all my paintings. You really suffer if you put out a painting you don’t like.”

Finally, at 40 years old she painted a painting she liked.

“I was sitting thinking about innocence and a grid came into my head with lines going horizontally and lines going vertically. I thought, My goodness, am I suppose to paint that? Nobody will ever think it is a painting. I painted one on a 6x6--foot canvas, then carried it over to the Museum of Modern Art and asked if they wanted it. They did--my first painting. After that I painted grids for 3 ½ years and they all sold. They’ve always been popular.”

She decided to devote herself full time to painting. She stopped teaching and moved to New Mexico, “to starve,” she says. That was 1952.

“I chose New Mexico because it was the second poorest state in the union. I thought I could get cheap living, and sure enough I got a very good studio in Taos for $15 a month.”

Would she still paint if her paintings weren’t popular?

“Yes. Inspirations urge me forward. I’m not happy when I’m not painting.”

Betty Parsons, New York art maven and gallery owner who represented several important abstract expressionists at the time (Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock), discovered her in Taos five years later. At Parsons’ urging Agnes moved back to New York City, renting a cheap fifth floor loft in the Coenties Slip, an old sailmakers’ warehouse below Wall Street. Located a block and a half from the ferry, with a view of the East River.

“The ships were so close I could see the sailor’s faces.”

A famous photograph taken in 1957 shows a tall slender Agnes Martin leaning against a skylight on the roof of her loft building, deep in discussion with her friends and neighbors—artists Jack Youngerman, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and Delphine Syrig.

In her eyes, she had arrived—a paint-splattered bohemin whose paintings sold briskly. She didn’t dream of moving, undeterred by dirty bums who regularly slept on her warehouse steps.

“I used to tell them, I treat you fair, all the same. I don’t give any of you money.’”

By the end of the 1950s her art was receiving high acclaim. Paintings she created in the next several years established her position in the pantheon of major American artists.

“Abstract expressionists all painted the same things but they painted so differently. The first thing they did was planned space, the arrangement of things in space. They gave up forms, everything recognizable in their paintings. Rothko, no forms. Barnett Newman, no forms. Reinhardt, no forms. There was Tomlin, but people don’t know Tomlin; he also gave up defined space. I’m a late late abstract expressionist. All the rest of them are dead. I don’t think there’s anybody else alive.”

The party came to an abrupt end for her in 1967 when the city condemned the old building in which she lived. She couldn’t bear to think of living anyplace else so, with her reputation established, she gave away all her belongings, left town, ceased painting, and wandered the western U.S. and Canada in a pickup truck and camper. It was simple shelter with every necessity—lavatory, furnace, refrigerator.

“I sure got my money out of that camper! A camper is a lot easier than a trailer. You can take it anyplace—to campgrounds, to riversides. I have camped all my life and always felt safe. I never get afraid. I do not understand it, camping by myself in the mountains with lions and bears, I never got afraid.”

One day, while traveling dusty back roads near Cuba, New Mexico, she spied a truck in a yard with a big crane on the back.

“I asked if they wanted to sell it, and they said yes, for $300. So I bought it, complete with these big round logs. A neighbor cut them for me and I built a house with my own hands. The property was so far away on the mesa I couldn’t get any workmen if I wanted them. The house went up real fast.”

When the modest house and studio were completed, she resumed painting. It was 1974.

“I think it’s more important to figure out where you want to be than what you want to do.”

The next year she made her first film, “Gabriel,” shot in 35 mm, depicting the beauty witnessed by a young boy as he climbs a mountain. In 1976 she shot a second film, about Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan, filmed outside Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. Unlike “Gabriel,” it was never made available to the public.

In 1978 she joined a loose community of artists in Galisteo, New Mexico, again building her own house, this time out of adobe brick. She lived and worked in Galisteo for the next 15 years, as her fame grew both in the United States and abroad. In 1993 she returned to Taos, settling in the retirement home where she now lives.

Being Old
Agnes used to work full days, but she’s cut back to half days now. Her canvases, too, have shrunk. Where she formerly worked on a 6x6-foot canvas, she’s scaled back to 5x5. Though somewhat physically compromised, she remains well and doesn’t mind being old.

“I think it’s a very pleasant time of life. Everybody would do better to slow down. There’s too much go go go. I’m quite content to spend a quiet old age and not do anything but paint.”

She doesn’t believe in using aggressive Western medicine to prolong life, and accepts the fact her life is nearing its end, admitting to a desire not to return in another incarnation.

“I’m curious about what happens next.”

Age imposes its limits. She can’t stay up late, and often wakes up tired, even though she sleeps well.

“You wake up tired if you’re old.”

For someone from “the land of no opportunity” she’s led a blessed life.

“I guess I didn’t need opportunity. I’ve had everything I ever wanted. I did everything I wanted to do. I wanted to paint and now I’ve got them all over the world.”

Her large paintings sell for $500,000 each.

“Two for a million.”

Smaller, one-foot-square canvases sell for $150,000. Her drawings command $45,000 apiece.

Her Art
Agnes is known as a painter’s painter. Her canvases, in their energetic stark simplicity, transport us to that silent mental place where inspiration lives.

She spends her days thinking about beauty, happiness, love. For the past five years she’s given her paintings titles, like “A Child’s First Response to Love,” “Happy Holiday,” and “I Love the World.”

“Because there’s something I want to get across. “I don’t agree about love, what people think about love, that intense love. ‘You gotta sigh a little, cry a little. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love.’ Truth is, love is like babies, the infant, little tiny children. The little child is love himself. He does not have to change to respond to love. He just sits there.”

The key to Agnes’ paintings is her geometrically pure grid, each one different depending upon the emotional key she wants to convey. The grid is innocence, traced in graphite lines so faint they seem to be emerging from or disappearing into a mist. It takes a lot of arithmetic. She does her calculations on paper, claiming she trusts her head more than a calculator.

Before beginning to paint Agnes waits for inspiration to guide her. After two or three days meditating on a specific thought (gratitude, a child’s love, a radiant morning) a vision appears complete in her mind. Though small, these mental images include every detail--subtle hues, number of stripes. The challenge is to render it on canvas without even a slight alteration.

She paints on linen canvas over a ground coat of stark white gesso, which keeps her acrylics from soaking in. After figuring out the mathematics of her grid, she tapes the sides and every 18 inches of the canvas with masking tape, puts all measurements on the tape, then transfers them to canvas using a short ruler and a pencil. (A long ruler sinks into the canvas.)

If she makes a mistake she gessos over it and starts again.

With the all-important grid in place, she places the canvas on its side (so horizontal stripes run vertically, because paint tends to run down), dilutes her acrylics to a thin wash to get just the right hue, and applies color with a steady hand using a one-inch red sable watercolor brush.

While painting she refuses to let anything interfere with her vision.

“I think the big mistake painters make is not waiting ‘till their inspiration is complete. If they were building a difficult bridge and didn’t wait until the inspiration was complete, the bridge would not be successful. But in painting they get away with it. You have to wait until the inspiration is finished telling you what to do.”

How does she know when her vision is complete?

“The inspiration just stops. It doesn’t tell you anything else.”

She doesn’t find it hard to give up her paintings. Her happiest moments are when paintings go out the door.

“This is one of my happiest days. Eleven went out the door this morning.”

After she finishes all the paintings for a show she takes a holiday, a long rest until she’s moved to paint again, usually about a week.

Her Philosophy
Agnes doesn’t subscribe to any particular dogma or religion. She has her own.

“You know people say God is love. I just have love without god. Love itself rules the world. The creative process comes from this love that started the world. You get in touch with your creative side by getting in touch with what you feel, and being honest about it.

“Certainly, there is evil in the world, but it doesn’t count. Love doesn’t pay any attention to the bad…There’s no need to worry because love pressing in on you makes you want to work for life. It certainly makes me want to paint.

“Science isn’t creative because it doesn’t make anything new. There has to be new things for the world to go ahead. But I think when it goes ahead, when everybody knows the truth, that’s the end of the world. Everybody just breaks up. That’s the end of it all. When everybody knows the truth and everybody agrees, that’s the end.

“They say, ‘In the beginning there was only love and it filled the world.’ Then they wanted to have some people. But love still fills the world. We’re the people. Love fills the world and it’s all around us like air. It’s visible like air. Love presses in on you like that. Presses love in you. Makes you like people. Makes you want to work for life. Makes you honest. Makes you all the good things. That’s my religion. I think I can feel love pressing in. All over, pressing. Can’t you?”

Trust Inspiration
Surroundings are important to Agnes Martin. She must work in a place where she is assured of no interruptions.

“ Interruptions just drive everything out of your mind.”

She does not have a telephone, nor does she have a radio, or music. Television is not a part of her life.

“It goes too fast for me. I have a slow mind.”

Just silence and not thinking. Only in this atmosphere can inspiration come to you.

“I think you live by inspiration. You have to ask for help. Wait for the answer. Then do it. It comes into your mind how to do it. For example, it passed through my mind I wanted to build a house with adobe brick. At once all these ideas came into my mind--where I wanted to build, what kind of house I wanted. And all the building technicalities: how to square properly, how to square the rooms, how to build a foundation. I even made the doors and windows. That’s by inspiration. I did not know a thing about building a house.

“Everybody isn’t privy to inspiration, just people with creative minds. People with creative minds are so modest they ask for help. Most people think somebody with a creative mind would be confident, but no! They are modest. They ask for help, and get it.

“That help comes from the creative side of life. The same as created the world. Everybody who does something new, they have to have inspiration. It could be anything, you know. People can be creative about small things. But not something like embroidery where what you have to do is already decided. It has to be something new, undecided.

“I can tell of someone is creative or not by the way they act. If they have something to do, they just go out and do it and go go go. They are aggressive. That’s the opposite of creative. You would think people with a lot of go would be the creative people, but they’re not. People who dream, dream. They are creative. People who do things, do things.”

Solitude is crucial for the creative mind. In order to be open to inspiration you must have solitude.

 “It is much easier to respond accurately when alone. Solitude is necessary for the untroubled mind, and inspiration only comes to the untroubled mind. All you have to do is ask and you will be given whatever you need. Trust in that.”

Favorite Poem

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
                           --Wordsworth

Chasing Down Authentic Martins
Agnes’ paintings, with their subtle lines, hushed palette, and soft contemplative brush strokes, are difficult to photograph. The best way to experience one is to see the real thing in a gallery or museum.

The Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico, displays seven of Agnes Martin’s paintings in an octagonal room with benches in the center for a true Zen experience. She has paintings in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the University Art Museum in Albany, New York.

Her dealer, Pace Wildenstein Gallery in midtown Manhattan (32 East 57th Street), sells her recent paintings. Pace has a second gallery in Beverly Hills at 9540 Wilshire Boulevard.

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