Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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Medicine and the arts

Agnes Martin, painter of happiness

Canadian-born Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004) is considered one of the preeminent abstract painters of the 20th century. Her work has inspired a nearly cultish following, perhaps because it is both extremely accessible and potent with meaning. She provided very clear instructions for how to view her paintings, most of which are on large two metre-by-two metre canvases, meant to surround a close viewer with delicately inscribed grids of horizontal pencil lines and subtle, nearly invisible, color washes:

“They’re not about horizontal lines, you know,” she explained at age 86, eight years before she completed her final painting. “They’re about meaning. Lots of painters paint about painting but my painting is about meaning.” She died at age 92.

Her paintings are intended to convey what she refers to as “the subtle emotions that we feel without cause in this world.” Emotions, she explains, such as happiness, joy, love and gratitude. Though these emotions often result in conjunction with encounters with the natural world, Martin repeatedly emphasized the lack of connection to any natural forms in her paintings. She painted inner emotion, she said, and hoped that peoples’ reactions to her subtle grids and washes would help them to realize that their days are replete with experiences that cannot be put into words or formed into pictures. She wanted, she said, to remind people that they regularly “make responses that are completely abstract, and that their lives are broader than they think.” When asked how long one should spend before each of her paintings, she said, “A long time.” When pressed for a more exact time, she said, “About a minute,” adding, “A minute is a long time!”

A minute, though scant, is long in the context of the current selfie-snapping, art-viewing attention span. A minute with a Martin is enough to take in the variations in the grid, the minutely shifting pressures of the hand that held the pencil and the brush, the brush that caught the paint drips and distributed color evenly, but with emotion. Her job was to blow them up without losing the rhythms of the grid’s proportions. She accomplished this using math, inscribing sheets of pale blue paper with masses of hand-written calculations, and mapping the grids on the canvas using a short ruler and a system of dots. Anyone who has ever tried to make evenly-spaced lines on a piece of paper will realize the almost preternatural discipline and self-control that her perfectly-formed grids required. Knowing this adds an element of awe to the viewer’s experience. Fittingly, her paintings must be seen first-hand and full-sized to be understood. In photographs, they appear inconsequential, even boring.

Since subtle emotion was what propelled Martin’s austere-seeming works, she aligned herself not with the Minimalists (though she continues to be mistakenly identified as such) but with the Abstract Expressionists. She explains the root of the error best herself:

“I made the mistake of showing with the minimalists [in 1966]. They had a very definite philosophy. They were non-subjective. That means no emotions were registered in the work of art. They tried to be, like, not there and have the inspiration be completely pure without any influence from them. Ever since people have called me a minimalist but I’m not a minimalist. I believe in having my emotions recorded in the painting. I sign my name on the back. I guess I’m the last abstract expressionist.”

Let the work speak

Martin’s distaste for references to biography with regard to her work is legendary. She balked when asked to put together bios for the catalogues that accompanied her gallery shows, and destroyed nearly all of her paintings in yearly bonfires until she began, in her late 40s, to at last make work that pleased her (the few surviving paintings from her early years demonstrate an eye adept at rendering and a sensitivity to colour). Before she died, Martin exacted promises from those who knew her never to share her personal matters with biographers or the press — and they complied, for the most part.

Ignoring her denouncements of the representation of nature in her work, fans and critics of Martin have sought meaningful parallels between her shimmering grids and the Saskatchewan wheat fields where she was born, as well as with the expansive horizontals of the vast plains of the New Mexican desert where she lived out the latter half of her life. The curious have also pried insistently at the obscurities in her timeline, hoping for facts to add substance to the subtle beauty of her paintings.

A favorite focus is Martin’s mental health. Though she referred throughout her recorded lectures and writing to her psychological conflicts, her diagnosis — of paranoid schizophrenia — was never publicly disclosed in her lifetime. Atypical in so many aspects of her life — a champion of solitude, an intrepid house-builder, a deifier of gender stereotypes — Martin was extraordinary in that she thrived as an artist in spite of her mental condition. Her most recent biographer, senior editor of Art in America Nancy Princenthal, who spent 10 years hunting down the scant remaining details about Martin’s life, casts aspersions on those who point to Martin’s obsessively-crafted grids as essential therapy for her mental condition, calling such speculation “hazardous.” It would be “a gross error,” she says, to regard Martin’s work as a symptom of her illness and even more of a mistake to see it as a cure. Though she suffered from bouts of catatonia and was plagued by voices at various times in her life which abated as she grew older, she told those close to her that the voices did not meddle with her creative process. She suffered from multiple mental breakdowns in times of stress, spent brief stints in mental health institutes, and was treated with medications and talk therapy.

On gender and sexuality

Martin’s sexual orientation is another topic that she strove to keep private. Though many critics confusedly dub her a “closeted lesbian,” she would not have concurred. She did form romantic attachments with women, but she refused the term lesbian, as she did the term feminist when it was applied to her. A friend who once told her she might have a bigger reputation if she was not a woman reported that Martin, “shot back, I’m not a woman and I don’t care about reputations.” She adamantly rejected gender identification and scorned all suggestions that her paintings were feminist. Her distaste for the confines of gender identity roles found sanctuary in the artist’s community at Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan where she spent important years between 1957 and 1967 forming friendships with artists like abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, hard-edger Ellsworth Kelly, and Chryssa known for her neon and metal work. By the time she left New York, Martin sensed that she would be alone for the rest of her life, a fact she found “very odd,” but ultimately pleasing.

A rebel in an age dominated by science, Martin reportedly didn’t read a newspaper for 50 years believing that inspiration and inner experience were more accurate barometers of reality than facts. She claimed, after many years of struggle, to have given up facts. Evolution and atomic theory were hard to let go of, she said, but she managed to do it. Unlike many of her peers and most artists today, she was distinctly apolitical, adhering strictly to the belief that the artist “is irresponsible because his life goes in a different direction.” The mind of the artist, she said, was involved not with facts, but with beauty and happiness.

Hailed as a mystic and a sage by many, Martin was quick to distinguish herself as normal, saying that “you know you’re not a mystic when you respond to beauty.” She did meditate regularly, spend long periods of time in solitude, and maintain a simple lifestyle that veered towards asceticism. But to Martin, these were everyday experiences available to everyone. She ascribed suffering to choosing the negative and the maintenance of happiness to making positive choices. Though fond of humility, she embraced the good fortune and the considerable wealth that her paintings eventually brought her. She lived in small adobe houses she built herself, but drove nice cars and made large anonymous philanthropic donations to her New Mexican community in Taos. In 1998, she travelled from Taos to Washington to accept a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts, presented by Hillary and Bill Clinton. In 2015, her painting Untitled #7 (1984) sold for $4.2 million at Phillips in New York. Last year, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a retrospective of her work.

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