Agnes Martin: finding patience and thoughtfulness in a chaotic world

Untitled #9 (1981), Untitled #35 (1988), Untitled #9 (1995), Night Sea (1963) // courtesy of @rocor

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Something I have come to find with artists such as Agnes Martin and contemporary artists as a whole, is that there is a large element of looking inward that is not immediately apparent. In fact, the only reason that I was able to understand Martin from the outset was because I was exposed to Mark Rothko very early on in learning about art history. For somebody not versed in art history, which lets be honest is the majority of the world (it is a very privileged subject after all) this kind of minimalist/abstract art can feel almost impenetrable to the viewer. Some people may react to such art very quickly, on a personal, intimate level, and understand the intent of the artist immediately. But for some, (and I know this to be true for myself) a meaningful experience is not always found off the bat. So I'm here to shed some light. In a time when the world feels like it is both spinning out of control and somehow also coming to an abrupt stop, the patience and thoughtfulness of an Agnes Martin painting strikes me as being more relevant than ever. Agnes Martin’s style of painting has come to be instantly recognisable as large scale, geometric paintings that utilise a muted but powerful colour palette. The paintings consist of a variety of lines and grids where the paint has the illusion of having just “appeared” on the canvas, as if it belongs there. This is not true of course, but Martin's application of paint is deliberately handmade, organic. The process of the artist is visible on the finished painting, the traces of her hand are left on the canvas in the form of pencil lines.

Agnes Martin, Untitled #5 (1998) acrylic paint, graphite on canvas // Courtesy of the Guggenheim

These ideas culminate in her 1979 installation The Islands. Imagine yourself in a circular room, surrounded by 1.8m canvases, so big that when you stand in front of one it fills up your entire vision. You feel like you could step into the quietly humming void, if the fact that it was canvas didn’t stop you.

The Islands is an installation work that comprises of 12 separate canvases, designed to make up one whole. (Installation art is a movement designed to transform physical space and is often very large in scale (think Yayoi Kusama)). Each canvas is stained white and the detail is (initially) hard to distinguish. The lack of obvious colour in these paintings makes them seem to be the same at first glance, but with time, attentiveness and patience, the difference in each work is revealed and the viewer rewarded. After a closer look, each picture is its own entity, different number of lines and variations in the width of the faint blue/grey paint. The paintings are imbued with emotion, an experience that gets stronger the longer you sit and look. The Islands create an immersive environment that quietly demands your attention. In a 1997 interview, Martin likens painting to meditating- reaching another level of your unconscious, the action of turning your back to the world. This process of looking inward and emptying her mind of thought in order to paint, is also an act required of the viewer. What it feels like to me- is an artist who devoted her life to the pursuit of painting intuitively, of emptying her mind and creating art of intangible emotion and feeling. “I am simply painting concrete representation of abstract emotions such as innocent love, ordinary happiness. I paint about emotions, not lines.”

website links: video links: Interview with Agnes Martin (1997) Artist Agnes Martin – 'Beauty is in Your Mind' | TateShots Agnes Martin at Tate Modern on The Art Channel

[cover photo courtesy of @rocor]