Between a Tate Modern retrospective and a Nancy Princenthal biography, Agnes Martin has become one of the year’s most talked-about artists. In honor of the Tate show and Princenthal’s book, we turn back to our September 1976 issue, for which John Gruen profiled Martin for ARTnews. Martin told Gruen about the important of innocence, happiness, and purity to her minimalist grid paintings, and about a film she was preparing. Gruen’s profile follows in full below.
“Agnes Martin: ‘Everything, everything is about feeling…feeling and recognition'”
By John Gruen
Her devotees have seen Martin’s art as a product of near-mystical perfection and inspiration, an enigmatic, yet undeniably influential creative force.
For some 15 years, critics have written of Agnes Martin in hushed and reverential tones. To some, she has become a saint. “Her art has the quality of a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer,” wrote one New York critic, reviewing her recent exhibitions at the Elkon and Pace galleries. Indeed, these litanies abound as Miss Martin’s drawings, prints and paintings, centering primarily on images of grids, are analyzed, dissected, interpreted and placed in comparative perspective within the spectrum of 20th-century American abstract art by writers intent on inventing a dialectic that would accurately reveal her work’s content and meaning.
In language often cerebral and obfuscating, Martin’s critical adherents have placed upon her the heavy mantle of high-priestess. Her art (depending on who is looking at it) has been called minimal, classical or romantic. There is no question, however, that her devotees consider Martin a visionary—an artist possessed of perceptive powers that have transformed her style into a heightened visual experience, the effect of which produces mysterious and potent shocks of recognition.
Repeatedly, her work has been praised for its delicacy, its startling control, its obsessive and breathtaking clarity of repeated forms, and for its haunting articulation of color and light. Throughout the years, these unequivocal critical accolades have contrived to make of Martin’s art a product of near-mystical perfection and inspiration. To a large degree, the deification of Agnes Martin has been abetted by the artist’s own Cassandra-like writings and by her compelling persona which, in combination, have lent credence to her rise as an enigmatic, yet undeniably influential creative force.
To meet Agnes Martin in person yields a slight sense of apprehension. Her appearance and her close-cropped grayish hair recall photographs of Gertrude Stein at her most reserved and diffident. Her femininity is masked by apparel at once suitable and ungainly. During our meeting in New York (she had flown in from her retreat in Cuba, New Mexico, to fulfill lecture engagements in the East and also to sign her latest paintings at the Pace Gallery), she wore heavy work clothes—blue jeans, blue tee shirt, beige zipper jacket and sneakers. Exuding extraordinary energy, she seemed oddly ill-at-ease within the claustrophobic confines of the city. The pure air of New Mexico still clung to her, and the light of the open landscape seemed continually reflected in her intense blue eyes.
The artist dislikes interviews. She shuns them and, indeed, permits no one to visit her in New Mexico, where she has lived in virtual seclusion since her abrupt departure from New York in 1967. With persistence, and at the discreet urging of her dealer, she reluctantly agreed to give me a bit of her time. Upon learning that a tape recorder would be employed, she became visibly distressed. “I don’t like my words to be tape-recorded,” she said. “It means that you have me in your power, and I don’t like being in anyone’s power.” Nonetheless, Miss Martin, who had just finished signing her paintings at Pace, relented and invited me to share the short taxi ride back to her small midtown hotel. “You can ask me some questions in the cab,” she told me. Noting my chagrin (the drive would take less than five minutes), she was persuaded to let our interview take place in the hotel lobby. After more pleading, she permitted the use of the tape recorder.
With the din of telephones, perpetual Muzak, and the hectic comings and goings of hotel personnel and guests, we precariously settled into our talk. Throughout, Martin firmly directed her eyes away from her interviewer, while in her hands she nervously twisted and re-twisted a white paper napkin. As it turned out, she rarely answered direct questions, but spoke in oracle fashion on matters that seemed applicable to the life of the artist.
“Toward freedom is the direction that the artist takes,” she began. “Art work comes straight through a free mind—an open mind. Absolute freedom is possible. We gradually give up things that disturb us and cover our mind. And with each relinquishment, we feel better. You think it would be easy to discover what is blinding you, but it isn’t so easy. It’s pride and fear that cover the mind. Pride blinds you. It destroys everything on the way in. Pride is completely destructive. It never leaves anything untouched. First it takes one way. . . telling you that you’re alright. . . boosting up your ego, making all kinds of excuses for you. Pride can attack your neighbors and destroy them. But sometimes, pride turns, and destroys you. It takes a long time for us to turn against pride and get rid of it entirely. And, of course, with every little downfall of pride, we feel a tremendous step up in freedom and in joy. Of course, most people don’t really have to come to grips with pride and fear. But artists do, because as soon as they’re alone and solitary, they feel fear. Most people don’t believe they have pride and fear, because they’ve been conditioned on pride and fear. But all of us have it. If we don’t think we have it, then that’s a deceit of pride. Pride practices all kinds of deceits. It’s very, very tricky. To recognize and overcome fear and pride, in order to have freedom of mind, is a long process.
Looking fixedly into the cluttered distance, Martin spoke in fervent tones. If she had personally achieved the loss of pride and fear, she did not voice it. But her career—long and circuitous—indicates a major struggle with the self, and an ultimate releasing of an imagery that indirectly attests to a clearing of dark inner forests.
Agnes Martin was born in Macklin, Canada, in 1912. At the age of 20, she came to the United States and, in 1940, became an American citizen. Settling in New York, she intermittently attended Columbia University between 1941 and 1954, ultimately receiving an M.F.A. degree. During the 1940s and early ’50s, Martin’s work was representational, centering on portraits, still lifes and landscapes. For a time, she traveled to Oregon, California and New Mexico, teaching at Eastern Oregon College and the University of New Mexico. In 1956, Martin returned to New York and, in 1957, moved to Coenties Slip, working in the proximity of, among others, Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly. While deeply impressed by the Abstract Expressionists, she did not follow in their stylistic or esthetic precepts, but began to paint in a reductionist mode, producing paintings that recalled early Mark Rothko in their simplified geometric frontal forms.
The subsequent years found Agnes Martin moving away from Rothko’s generally romantic overtones—his luminous, floating rectangles—toward a more precise and impersonal image. Her paintings became progressively more symmetrical—highly organized and delicately executed squares, rectangles, circles, all bathed in pale and muted colors. Her preoccupation with the detached and geometric culminated in an intense fixation on grids, which have become Martin’s overriding signature and style. These compositions, with their philosophic and spiritual allusions, brought Martin serious critical and public attention, and by 1967, her work was deemed as daring as it was original.
Inexplicably, and for reasons she has never made public, Agnes Martin stopped painting for some seven years, beginning in 1967, when she was 55. Her only work during that period consisted of the production of a series of prints entitled “On a Clear Day,” which centered on grid variations. She was willing to touch on her abrupt departure from painting and from New York.
“At that time, I had quite a common complaint of artists—especially in America. It seemed to have been something that happens to all of us. From an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, we sort of cave in. We suffer terrible confusion. You see, it’s the pressure in the art field in America. I think they must not have these pressures in Europe, because the artist lives so much longer over there. They have a class there that considers it to be their business to support their culture. But I’m not criticizing. Anyway, I left New York and traveled for about a year and a half, waiting for some inspiration.
“You see, if you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait for a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take. I never move without a sort of command from my mind. And so I left New York. I went on a camping trip. I stayed in forest camps up north which could camp three thousand people. But there was nobody there. I was there alone. I enjoyed it. I had this problem, you see, and I had to have my mind to myself. When you’re with other people, your mind isn’t your own. Well . . . finally, you see, I remembered New Mexico. I was there before, but I traveled a long way, as far as I could go, and in every direction. And then, I went to New Mexico and built a lot buildings made of different materials.
“I had an inspiration about a land thing—like Smithson. I thought I was going to build a garden. I mean, I was going to build an eight-foot wall, 40 yards square. It was going to be like a Zen garden, or at least something like it, but with absolutely nothing alive in it. We have a lot of interesting materials where I live. The mountains are volcanic, and there are a lot of different kinds of lava, some of it very light and very white. I was only going to let people in this construction one at a time, and if their response to the silence would be good, then I would have considered the structure successful. And so, when I went to this mesa in New Mexico, where I’m still staying, I had this inspiration. But I haven’t built this garden. I don’t know if I will, because I can almost see what I’m going to do. I’m 64 now.”
Still with eyes averted, and speaking in a kind of possessed monotone, Martin next spoke on the subject of painting.
“Painting is a very subtle medium, and it speaks of the most subtle phases of our responses, and so, it is much more rewarding to the painter. I think that since the Abstract Expressionists, painting is in the same category as music. It really is abstract. There is no element of the environment that represents it anymore. Not that I think that abstract painting is the only kind of painting. There are lots of kinds of music and lots of kinds of painting. But now, there is abstract painting, free of environmental elements and even relationship to the environment. . . and that is a much broader sort of feeling. You can really go off when you get out into the abstract!”
Agnes Martin fell silent. Many moments passed. Suddenly she said, “Rothko’s painting is pure devotion to reality. That’s what it is! I wish you could publish that I don’t believe for a minute that Rothko committed suicide. Nobody in that state of mind could. He was done-in, obviously. . . by the people who have profited or have tried to profit. Why, Rothko might have been the happiest man in this world, because his devotion was without mark or stain. He just poured it out, right from his heels!”
Another pause, and then, “Barney Newman’s paintings are about the joy of recognition of reality. Pollock’s are about complete freedom and acceptance. It’s remarkable that the Abstract Expressionists followed the same line, in that they gave up relative space. That was the first thing. And then, they gave up any arrangement, just when a man in England was writing about positive and negative space! Well, they just thew it out, and then they got this remarkable scale, and they recognized that they had gotten out into abstract space. And then, of course, they gave up forms. They all did that, but they did it in such varied ways. And still they managed to fight. But I’m not going to talk about that.”
Would Martin have liked being a part of the Abstract Expressionist movement?
“I’m afraid I wasn’t in the running,” she said. “But I do place myself as an expressionist. The fact is, I don’t believe in influence. I think that in order to be an artist, you have to move. When you stop moving, then you’re no longer an artist. And if you move from somebody else’s position, you simply cannot know the next step. I think that everyone is on his own line. I think that after you’ve made one step, the next step reveals itself. I believe that you were born on this line. I don’t say that the actual footsteps were marked before you get to them, and I don’t say that change isn’t possible in your course. But I do believe we unfold out of ourselves, and we do what we are born to do sooner or later, anyway.
“But we all make mistakes. I mean, when I exhibited at the Dwan Gallery, I was much affected by my association with them. But, don’t you see, the minimalists are idealists. . . they’re non-subjective. They want to minimalize themselves in favor of the ideal. Well, I just can’t. The minimalists clear their minds of their personal problems. . . they don’t even leave themselves there! They prefer being absolutely pure, which is a very valid expression of involvement with reality. But I just can’t. I rather regretted that I wasn’t really a minimalist. It’s possible to regret that you’re not something else. You see, my paintings are not cool.”
It was not until 1974 that Agnes Martin resumed painting, and a dramatic change came with her exhibition at the Pace Gallery in May 1976, when Martin’s work bore no traces of her well-known grids, but focused entirely on vertical stripes. What is more, the artist’s former emphasis on subdued, chromatic color was abandoned in favor of what, for Martin, amounts to a shockingly vivid palette. The stripes are painted in pale blues, pinks and whites, suggesting a geometry of the senses at its most tranquil and undisturbed. Yet another major signal of change came with Martin’s sudden eschewing of symmetry. The bands vary both in width and placement upon the canvas. The shift, to the unstudied eye, is extremely subtle, yet within the canon of Martin’s oeuvre, it constitutes an almost violent departure from the strict adherence to the relentlessly symmetrical that was the hallmark of her previous work.
Asked about this new preoccupation, Martin claimed that it was as much of a shock to her anyone else.
“I can say that it took me a great intensity of work to find out that I had to give up the symmetrical. I was painting just small paintings, and I painted and painted every day. I don’t know how many of those small paintings I did, or how many I threw away. I just couldn’t understand what was the matter. I could hardly believe that that was what I had to do!”
Does something tell Martin she must paint?
“No. Something tells you that you haven’t painted when you must paint. Then, when you finally paint what you’re supposed to paint, then something tells you, ‘O.K., this is it!’ If you accept a painting that has good points, but isn’t really it, then you’re not on the track. You’re permanently derailed. It’s through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure that you arrive at what it is you must paint.”
Martin is not certain whether she will return to painting grids, but she spoke of how she came to paint them in the first place.
“One time, I was coming out of the mountains, and having painted the mountains, I came out on this plain, and I thought, Ah! What a relief! (This was just outside of Tulsa.) I thought, This is for me! The expansiveness of it. I sort of surrendered. This plain . . . it was just like a straight line. It was a horizontal line. And I thought there wasn’t a line that affected me like a horizontal line. Then, I found that the more I drew that line, the happier I got. First I thought it was like the sea . . . then, I thought it was like singing! Well, I just went to town on that horizontal line.
“But I didn’t like it without any verticals. And I thought to myself, there aren’t too many verticals I like. But I did put a few in there. Finally, I was putting in almost as many verticals as horizontals. But, I assure you, that after looking at the work of students, they think that artists such as myself are involved with structure. Well, I’ve been doing those grids for years, but I never thought ‘Structure.’ Structure is not the process of composition. Why, even musical compositions, which are very formally structured, are not about structure. Because the musical composer listens. He doesn’t think about structure. So you must say that my work is not about structure.”
Once more, Agnes Martin fell silent. All along, she kept her eyes averted, and all along, twisted the small white paper napkin in her hands. Now, quite suddenly, she turned her head, fixing her eyes upon me. Even in the dimly-lit hotel lobby, they contained an extraordinary pure and serene light.
Very quietly she said, “We all have the same inner life. The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is. Having lived 40 years by myself, I’ve done a lot of recognizing. I have no personal ties and, of course, I don’t miss them. But I don’t want to discourage people who have a different sort of setup. That isn’t the point. The point is, that if you work by yourself, rather than in some social group, that’s very different, and it takes self-recognition to do it. It’s inevitable with all artist. People think they are different, because they recognize their response. But they are no different. We all have the same life. But I’m telling you what the response is: It’s recognition.”
Martin hesitated when asked how she spends her days in New Mexico. Finally she said, “I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three in the afternoon, without any breakfast. You see, I have a visual image. But then to actually accurately put it down, is a long, long ways from just knowing what you’re going to do. Because the image comes into your mind after what it is. The image comes only to help you to know what it is. You’re really feeling what your real response is. And so, if you put down this image, you know it’s going to remind other people of the same experience.
“First, I have the experience of happiness and innocence. Then, if I can keep from becoming distracted, I will have an image to paint. But the funny thing is that at one time, I had the image, and I tried to paint it for months and months. But there really was no image. There was no image, no feeling, no inspiration, no nothing! It meant I had come to the end. I never stop painting until I come to the end. I don’t know about other painters. They have a continuous flow. But I do come to the end. And when I start again, I’m in a very low, unproductive condition. Then it works up and up and up. For months, the first paintings don’t mean anything—nothing. But you have to keep going, despite all kinds of disappointments.”
According to Martin, her recent show at Pace constituted a kind of end. She does not plan to stop painting, but her new project will be the making of a film.
“As soon as I brought my paintings to New York, I went out to buy moving picture equipment. I’ll be making a movie. Of course, I’ll never consider my movie-making on the level with painting. But I’m making it in order to reach a large audience. The movie will be called ‘Gabriel.’ It’s about happiness—exact thing with my paintings. It’s about happiness and innocence. It’ve never seen a movie or read a story that was absolutely free of any misery. And so, I thought I would make one. The whole thing is about a little boy who has a day of freedom. . . in which he feels free. It will all be taken out-of-doors. I feel that photography has been neglected in motion pictures. People may think that’s exaggerated, but, really, I think that photography is a very sensitive medium, and I’m depending on it absolutely to indicate this boy’s adventure.
“Now, you have to understand that when I make a movie, my inspiration is not to make a movie. The materialistic point of view is that there is technique and expertise in the making of something. But that is not so. And it’s not how I work. If I’m going to make a movie about innocence and happiness, then I have to have in my mind—free of distraction—innocence and happiness. And then, into my mind will come everything that I have to do. And if it doesn’t come into my mind what to do, then we just cannot proceed. You see, the artist lives by perception. So that what we make, is what we feel. The making of something is not just construction. it’s all about feeling . . . everything, everything is about feeling . . . feeling and recognition!”