The abstract painter Agnes Bernice Martin was born
in rural Saskatewan on March 22, 1912.
Her childhood was filled with punishing silences
from a widowed mother she later claimed
stole her victories.
Agnes Martin found solace moving through water
the rhythmic and repetitive strokes of her
limbs against the surface—she even tried out
for Canada’s Olympic swimming and sailing teams.
Her later life follows a swimmer’s path,
as well. She appears in one place and then another
with no footprints.
Agnes Martin worked many odd jobs while she learned to paint—
butcher’s helper, waitress, janitor, tennis coach, teacher…
But no one can see Agnes Martin’s earliest paintings.
She made bonfires.
After forty years, her lines straightened,
textures simplified, palette softened
from assertive grays, browns, and blacks
to luminous six foot square paintings.
The new artwork quickly gained recognition
from prominent museums, critics, and other artists.
But Agnes Martin’s mental health deteriorated
as her work was warmly embraced.
A diagnosed schizophrenic,
the voices in her mind demanded restraint.
When Martin allowed herself the luxury
of listening to Handel’s Messiah,
she was affected so deeply she wandered the streets
unsure of who or where she was.
So just as Agnes Martin attained the success most artists seek,
she bought a pick-up truck and camper with money from a recent grant
and drove away.
The trip from New York to New Mexico typically takes a few days.
Agnes Martin took 18 months.
She watched the sky stretch itself along the horizon
and sunsets linger overhead in burning golds
and brooding purples.
Eventually, she rented land on a mesa
twenty miles from the nearest highway
and built a house of adobe bricks
made from mud, sand, and straw that
she formed by hand and dried by sun.
During winter, the dirt roads flooded
and she was sometimes stranded 3 to 4 months
with only rudimentary supplies such as
preserved home-grown tomatoes, hard cheese, and walnuts.
Even in dry weather, she often had the same meal
so she wouldn’t have to think about what to eat.
Sometimes only bananas.
Isolated from distractions, Agnes Martin emptied her mind
so it was ready to receive inspiration.
“It is not in the role of an artist to worry about life – to feel responsible for creating a better world. This is a very serious distraction. All of your conditioning has been directed toward intellectual living. This is useless in art work. All human knowledge is useless in art work. Concepts, relationships, categories, classifications, deductions are distractions of mind that we wish to hold free for inspiration.”
She found it most difficult to let go of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
After seven years of “rest,” Agnes Martin returned to painting
and painted nearly everyday until her death at ninety-two.
Martin still destroyed nine out of ten paintings (with a mat knife),
but the post-1973 paintings that survived her severe criticism
are arguably her most well-known and admired.
Towards the end of Agnes Martin’s life,
she moved into a retirement community in Taos
and relaxed the constraints on her thoughts and habits.
She enjoyed a martini now and then,
the company of friends, Agatha Christie mysteries.
She still maintained a painting studio and drove there almost daily,
but now in a spotless white BMW.
Even music returned.
Her favorite song was “Blue Skies.”
Agnes Martin sang it with a friend shortly before she died.
Then, asked him to destroy 2 of the 3 paintings in her studio.
He did as she asked.
It’s tempting to mythologize artists
who leave society and go their own way
rejecting approval, companionship, possessions…
but Agnes Martin’s life asks different questions
than her paintings answer.
Where does anyone find meaning?
And is it in the right place?
Perhaps the only way to see the paintings as Agnes Martin intended
is to think of the painter as the means of her painting
and not its end.