John Ashbery once described Agnes Martin’s watercolors as “almost distressingly powerful.” The same could be said about Nancy Princenthal’s new biography of Martin. Princenthal’s style in Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art is underplayed—she, like her subject, never lends herself to theatricality. Also like Martin, Princenthal does a lot with very little. (Minus citations, the book is only 261 pages.) “Like the horizon between sea and sky,” Princenthal writes in her introduction, “the drawn lines that organize [Martin’s] work are both firm and fluid, and they seem to change with our changing perspective of them; so do the contours of her life.” She smoothly transitions between art and life, lyricism and scholarship.
Martin, currently the subject of a retrospective at the Tate Modern, made work that is notoriously hard to describe or categorize. Is it sublime or impersonal, Abstract Expressionist or Minimalist? Is there a feminist subtext? Princenthal finds the answers to these questions in Martin’s own life.
Early on, Princenthal brings up Martin’s fascination with children and her tenuous relationship with her mother. Born in 1912 in Macklin, Canada, Martin and her three siblings were raised on the Saskatchewan plains. When she was three years old, her father left, for reasons that are still unexplained. The family then moved a few times, ultimately settling in Vancouver, where Martin swam competitively, bought prints of famous paintings, and became “promiscuous” in her high school years.
Martin was formally trained in art, but only after she got a degree from a teacher’s college and taught elementary- and middle-school children. There was a certain logic to this. Her monochrome grid paintings, according to Martin, were about innocence. Sure enough, one of Martin’s final series of paintings was called “Innocent Love,” and her use of pale blue and cream yellow carries a kind of childlike exuberance, albeit muted.
Martin is most famous for her minimal paintings, but Princenthal homes in on the lesser-known pockets of her career as well. A brief section of the book is focused on Gabriel (1976), an out of character 78-minute film about a boy who pensively wanders around a beach. (Martin also planned to make another feature film called Captivity, which was supposed to be “a cross-cultural, trans-historical costume drama ripe with sex and violence.” Unfortunately, or maybe not, this never panned out.) Jonas Mekas told Douglas Crimp that Gabriel was “no great cinema,” but “it is a very beautiful film.” Princenthal describes it as Martin’s attempt to “[celebrate] an art form that she seems to have felt was beyond her reach.”
Martin’s brief foray into film is so strange because much of her work is so distinctive and singular. She was quieter than her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries during the late ’40s, subtler than her avant-garde neighbors in Coenties Slip in the ’50s, and more discerning than the Op artists she was shown alongside in the early ’60s. Of course, there are outliers in each of these time periods that made work vaguely similar to Martin’s. Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, in which squares rendered in slightly different tones are painted on top of one another, are “close in spirit to Martin’s thinking,” Princenthal says, suspecting that “Martin subscribed to—or possibly helped shape—many of Reinhardt’s tenets.” But a calm washes over her work. The best word to describe it is serene.
Her life, however, was anything but. She frequently lost touch with her friends due to episodes of schizophrenia. In one of the book’s more unsettling passages, the artist Robert Indiana, who lived near Martin in Coenties Slip, recalls, “I happened to encounter Agnes on South Street and she simply walked past me and didn’t recognize me. Shortly thereafter she was committed to Bellevue.” This appears, fittingly, in the chapter called “Silence.”
But more often than not, Martin’s silence was by choice. In the late ’60s, she acquired the status of a mystic because she left New York and lived like a hermit. (Her out-there lectures during the ’70s cemented that reputation.) Nobody knows where she went, other than that she traveled the Pacific Northwest, where she had previously lived during the late ’30s. Douglas Crimp apparently got hopelessly lost trying to find the one-room adobe that she had built for herself on the West Coast.
However reclusive Martin was, she maintained all sorts of strange connections in the art world. In the ’40s, when she lived in Taos, New Mexico, Martin became friendly with Georgia O’Keeffe, who, in Martin’s words, was “overstimulating” and “liked to make fun of men.” In 1963, Donald Judd faintly praised Martin’s grid paintings in the magazine Arts, writing that “the paintings are simply attractive, a word which is usually, and is here, used both as a derogation and a compliment.” She also may have had a lesbian relationship with the Greek-American sculptor Chryssa in the ’60s. Later, while in Galisteo, New Mexico, Martin hung out with Bruce Nauman and Richard Tuttle. One of Princenthal’s strengths is presenting the art world as a tangled web of people that hate and love each other at the same time.
Princenthal’s book is thoughtful enough to feel personal, and throughout reading it I wondered why Princenthal was so invested in Martin. In the final third, the author admits to writing a fan letter to Martin as an undergraduate student, to which Martin responded, “Write your true response… All ideas are false.” Princenthal didn’t exactly live up to this mantra–she admits as much in her epilogue. But her words are in service of Martin’s work and spirit, and that’s what matters.