Sense Making


“Night Sea,” by Agnes Martin (Photo: San Francisco Museum of Art)

What we read and hear, how we form our sense of a something—the way we give shape and meaning to information—is going through a major evolution and change. When I read the personal accounts of how people responded to the invention of the printing press—the fear and overwhelm they felt in the face of this massive shift in knowledge distribution—it seems strangely apropos for our own chapter of the information evolution.

When you are caught in the middle of a maelstrom, it is difficult to see the larger patterns forming. While dodging the barrage of fire hoses indiscriminately blasting information at us every day, I am heartened when I encounter an alternative approach, one that steps me away from the involuntary meaning making that the mind just can’t stop being about. These small “oases” of sense-making slow things down and offer an intimacy with information that is similar to the way a landscape is transformed when you get out of your speeding car and actually walk it. Something personal takes place.

A good example is the way my friend Joshua Baer does wine reviews. Joshua writes the “One Bottle” wine column for THE Magazine in Santa Fe. Instead of launching into a display of his formidable wine connoisseurship, his reviews are actually exquisitely concise prose poems. Yes, they end with a wine pitch. But how he gets you to the wine is through a host of other experiences that can be observed in a life. His portal can range from thoughtful commentary about the exquisiteness of a Navajo blanket (yet another area of his expertise*) or the creative inspiration behind the work of artist Cindy Sherman. However it begins, Joshua’s journey to the wine is a literary tour de force. No one else does wine reviews quite like him. (The full archive of his One Bottle columns can be found here.)

Another exploration into how one object can open up a full and memorable experience is art historian Suzanne Hudson‘s book, Night Sea. Part of Afterall Books’ One Work series, Night Sea looks deeply at one painting by Agnes Martin. Hudson starts with this one memorable painting and then extrapolates her account into an insightful portrait of Martin and her work.

It was a courageous step by Hudson, setting out to find her footing in what has recently become a very crowded space—writing about Agnes Martin. In just the last few years, a slew of serious books about Martin have appeared (that also coincided with a massive Martin retrospective that traveled from London to the U.S.):

Agnes Martin
By Briony Fer, Frances Morris, Tiffany Bell, Maria Müller-Schareck and Jacquelynn Baas

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art
By Nancy Princenthal

Agnes Martin (Dia Foundation)
By Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly

Agnes Martin and Me
By Donald Woodman

(This is the list from my personal library. I know there are other titles as well.)

While the plethora of attention on Martin has catapulted her into even more international recognition, the increased scholarship has also made her a more complex and controversial figure. She has a large cadre of fans who are passionate about her work as well as her writings, a devotion that can sometimes resemble zealotry. Meanwhile a more nuanced version of her life and who she was (Martin passed away in 2004) is coming to the surface. Intensely private, Martin was also unexpectedly concerned about how she was perceived by the world. She destroyed a lot of her earlier work and rewrote several accounts about her earlier life (eliminating any mention of her friendships with a number of once close companions.) Some of the stories surfacing now—like Donald Woodman’s first hand account—are more direct in describing a difficult person who suffered from mental illness (Martin was hospitalized on several occasions related to a bipolar diagnosis.) Like most of us, she was a person with many disparate parts. But her faceted self is more extreme than was previously known.

I was a Hudson fan before I bought this book (I first heard her speak at a conference in 2014 and was so impressed by her ideas and point of view,) but she has brought something rich and rewarding to this area of research. Because she has written her concise, insightful text with the benefit of the research done by these earlier publications, her assessment of Martin is syncretistic, informed and even handed. In many ways this small book is one of my favorites about Martin.

Here is a sample:

For her, expression was universal and abstract, “subtle emotions of happiness”–this is what she was after. Another way to say this is: Martin’s “expressionism” is much more “conceptual,” more meta about its means and consequences, than was the work made by the first-generation Abstract Expressionists consumed by their processes. By 1965, the expressive aspect of her work nonetheless was gaining notice as something that set her apart from the likes of Judd and Carl Andre. No longer hyper-masculine, expressiveness had come to connote sensitivity.

And this:

Martin’s level of technical refinement allows the viewer access to her own private experience without the artist standing in the way. Her presence was muted in direct proportion to her exercise of controlled manual dexterity, as lines snapped into formation, taut and comparatively unmarred. It was necessary for her to stand to the side for the picture to work for the viewer, though that successful functioning was impossible without the lucidity of vision that allowed Martin to achieve it in the first place. Egolessness makes room for others.

Baer and Hudson, both sense-makers extraordinaire.

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*A wonderful book by Joshua, Twelve Classics, features 12 of Joshua’s favorite American Indian treasures. Currently out of print, it is worth tracking down a copy.

1 Comment

  1. Deborah, I’ve had this Agnes Martin book on my wishlist for some time now. Thanks for this post and the wonderful info.

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