Art Making

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Making Space

studioat6am
Early morning light, South Boston

The ease of viewing contemporary work today is staggering. The steady flow of images on Facebook, Instagram and online art sites brings thousands of images from all over the globe into easy view every day. When I first started as an artist, new work came to me through two or three art publications, gallery visits or the occasional invitation to a friend’s studio. This change in exposure is exponential.

In all this art viewing, some work speaks to me and some does not. Often however I see new work that I admire, and at times my admiration can spill over into the personal, taking the form of comparing or self questioning: How does my work stack up? Is this better at doing what I am trying to do than my own?

For years I have been advocating the importance for an artist to possess a strong sense of self direction and clarity. It now seems that being connected to one’s essence is more important than ever. It is in that effort that I preserve my studio space as a barrage-free safe zone. Of course new ideas and approaches are constantly being explored, but bringing them into the process of my work is a delicate, alchemical thing. I have learned from experience that it must be done with care.

I thought about that as I read a short piece by Sarah Manguso, Green-Eyed Verbs, which recently appeared in the New York Times. (Her book, Ongoingness, knocked me out when I read it last year, written about here.). Her topic is the envy that writers (and by association, other creatives) harbor towards the work of others. As she did in Ongoingness, Manguso fearlessly turns us over for a ventral examination of those darker underbelly issues of life. In her hands that exposure isn’t harsh, hurtful or demeaning. It is more like a good scrub, a much needed grooming of that hidden side of us.

In her article she talks cuts through the admiration and envy to what really matters:

I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. This feeling depends on admitting to myself that I had an idea of how it should turn out, and that some part of me is trying to reverse-engineer the piece I admire. Some vocations demand this exact strategy: Builders, surgeons and chefs must do this. Writers, though, must not. Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it. That effort is practiced in a place typically insulated from even the idea of publication, and it depends upon a combination of exerting and relaxing one’s will over the writing.

The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

It’s a simple test, and it brings me back around to my own grounded place.

Surrounded as we are by great works—languaged, visual, aural, all of it—we do need a tool or aid that can help us hold the balance between admiration of others and devotion to our own work. “The way to honor great work is to love it, then turn away from it as you write,” Manguso advises. “No imitation, no pastiche.”

She goes on:

All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility. And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.

“Allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.” A beautiful description of humility.

And humility is, as my regular readers know, a favorite theme. A search on that term produced a list of nearly 20 previously written posts. So here’s one more.

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Emily Nelligan (Photo: Alexandre Gallery)

Being a “retinalist”—one who has given the eye primary sovereignty—I live knowing that at any time or any place, something I see can airlift me instantly into some new unexplored territory.

An occasion for airlifting happened last weekend. Emily Nelligan‘s work was hanging on the wall right as you walked into the You Can’t Get There From Here: The 2015 Portland Museum of Art Biennial. I would not have expected a grouping of small (7 x 10″) charcoal drawings to have been the source of a powerful (and welcomed) disorientation. But it was.

Nelligan, 91, spent most of her summers on Great Cranberry Island in Maine with her husband, illustrator Marvin Bileck. She has said that she finds it hard to draw anywhere else, and most of her work over the last 50 years has centered on that evocative, foggy landscape.

The need for color disappears in Nelligan’s works. Originally drawn to charcoal and writing paper because they were less expensive than paints and canvas, Nelligan soon found herself at home with this simple medium. Using only charcoal, erasers, cotton swabs and her fingers, her drawings capture a quality about that coastline that I recognize. While her work comes directly from her encounter with the landscape of Great Cranberry Island, these drawings fall somewhere between representation and abstraction. They are full of evocation, depth, mystery, silence.

From an article about her work in the Free Press (Maine) from 2013:

While there are no direct precedents for Nelligan’s work, she speaks to traditions rising out of late 19th-century tonalism—Whistler’s gentle admonition that paint “…should be like breath on a pane of glass”—as well as the organic abstraction found in early 20th-century American modernism. For instance, Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds, the “Equivalence” series, or Arthur Dove’s glowing orbs in indeterminate space. Nearly dumbstruck, as have been other notable critics in front of Nelligan’s drawings, Maureen Mullarkey can only invoke liturgical metaphor: “If the ancient canonical hours could be observed by images instead of prayers, here they are.” Some drawings convey the impenetrable darkness of dense fog enveloping the island at night. In others, there is a quality of moisture-laden light, of breaking dawns and distant clearing. Littoral immanence. And we cannot help but wonder if the drawings in this exhibition, mostly created after the death in 2005 of her husband of nearly 50 years, aren’t in some measure prayers and homage to their long life together.

That Nelligan-induced altered state spilled over afterwards when I visited with two Portland-based artist friends, Munira Naqui and Rachael Eastman. Both are, like Nelligan, masters of dark effulgence. The emergent is present in their work as it is in Nelligan’s, and experiencing that on a daily basis is a reminder of why I am both an artist and a collector.

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“Moonwave 1”, Rachael Eastman, ink on paper, 2 x 2″

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“Silence”, Munira Naqui, encaustic on wood, 12 x 16″

More about each:

Emily Nelligan
Rachael Eastman
Munira Naqui

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Sleep On It


Installation by Jan Baker, RISD

Kyna Leski is a teacher, architect and artist. Her book, The Storm of Creativity, is a thoughtful journey through the process of bringing something into form that does not yet exist.

Leski does not take an authoritative approach, gratefully, and she leaves lots of room for her “map” to speak to the highly personal nature of creativity. But her categories—which are each a chapter—make for a good list of guide posts:

Creativity as Storm
Unlearning
Problem Making
Gathering and Tracking
Propelling
Perceiving and Conceiving
Seeing Ahead
Connecting
Pausing
Continuing

Here is a sampling from Leski on the subject of pausing:

You can treat your pause as the opposite of other stages of the creative process…Instead of connecting, take a break. Not tracking, but being tracked by the exact idea, answer, insight that you were seeking and tracking. Rather than gathering, let go. Instead of paying attention, be distracted. No propelling, but stopping the current motion of the process. “Sleep on it.”

I see pausing as an opportunity to see external to the frame you have already established, to allow new stimuli to enter the creative process, to prompt another idea. It is a chance to step off the reiterative track of logical decisions. It frees you from the concrete and reintroduces abstraction. It can be the chance to transform what you are working on through connections not previously made. By stopping, for whatever length of time, you weaken your willful grip, and can become more open and more open minded.

That’s good material for my week away from the studio.

Thank you to my friend Jan Baker for sending me this book.

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So many points of light. (From a Kiki Smith installation at the DeYoung Museum, San Francisco)

Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.
–Robert Rubin

In the spirit of “everything is autobiographical,” this blog is a map of the ideas that matter most to me. A quick search here for “uncertainty” brought up hundreds of posts. Clearly it is a primal life theme. And that makes sense. My attraction to the Zen concept of the “don’t know mind” is a reaction to growing up in a culture that considers unwavering religious certainty the highest achievement.

From time to time I get too much of the “I’m right and here’s why” folks in my life. The antidote to that particularly toxin is to revisit the evidence that makes certainty absurd. (I have referenced many writers over the years who unmask that folly, but my most recent find is The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. Highly recommended.)

Here are a few quotes that keep me sane, both in the studio and in my life.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.
John K. Galbraith

The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.
Richard Rorty

The universe rearranges itself to accommodate your picture of reality.
–Anonymous

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.
Erich Fromm

The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.
Francis Crick

Our tendency to narrate our “not knowing” in a way that confuses it with knowing. Our instinct is towards narrative in general.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

What we overlook is that underneath the ground of our beliefs, opinions, and concepts is a boundless sea of uncertainty. The concepts we cling to are like tiny boats tossed about in the middle of the vast ocean. We stand on our beliefs and ideas thinking they’re solid, but in fact, they (and we) are on shifting seas.
Steve Hagen

I always work out of uncertainty but when a painting’s finished it becomes a fixed idea, apparently a final statement. In time though, uncertainty returns… your thought process goes on.
Georg Baselitz

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.
Ursula K. Le Guin

Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.
Oliver Burkeman

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“Guardians of the Secret”, collage by Barry Swyers, an artist and friend who passed away earlier this year.

Artist Ben La Rocco in conversation with Craig Olson, on Hyperallergic:

There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. I’ve always had it. I’m left handed, mildly dyslexic as a kid, which I think are physical symptoms of doubt: do I really have to do things the way I’m being shown? I’m not sure I’ve jettisoned any principles in my work because I’ve always felt it was incumbent on me to go beyond whatever understanding I had of what I’ve been taught. So art is always transforming itself, which I guess doesn’t leave much room for formal considerations. And I’m not a formalist. I’ve always believed in the space where painting joins all the other arts—performance for example. To access this space we must always question all of our presuppositions, all of our training.

So the materials that I work with are always a means to this end. I want to know how to respect the nature of an object—to let it be itself—and at the same time allow imaginative transformation to act upon it. I want to see the intertwining of fantasy and reality as it takes place. My will is to remove my will from the situation! I’m glad you see a subversive quality in the work. From my perspective, seeing the work on display, it’s striking how much I’ve imposed myself on the material.

There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. This passage resonates with my rule bending/breaking, transgressively-inclined, “don’t tell me what to do” nature. Of course we all make choices about what to jettison and what to keep, in art making and in our lives. But La Rocco’s honesty is particularly refreshing and reassuring.

Barry Swyers* created work that hovers above that volatile border between the sacred and the profane. A monk who left the monastic life to live in San Francisco, his work explored that intersection with tenacity, intelligence and delight. His collages create images and symbols that invite viewers into an unexpectedly transcendent view. His pieces lift something in me.

My work has a transcendent intention as well, but I am using the language of nonrepresentationalism to explore the relationship between the material and the spiritual. I am interested in how matter transcends sheer physicality and crosses over into the transcendent, into the sacralized. While Barry and I work in very different styles and content, our work shares a kind of outsider sensibility, an interest in creating an alternative sense of this shared reality.

The refrain from a song on Servant of Love, the latest release from the genre-resistant Patty Griffin, keeps playing in my head:

There isn’t one way
There isn’t one way
There’s just your way for you
And that’s the right way.

Going back into the Slow Muse archive, I found a number of posts that touch into a similar theme: art that takes a counter position, works that stays true—stubbornly—to what feels “right” to the artist in the most personal sense. Here are a few additional Slow Muse links if this is a theme that speaks to you too:

Transgressive Women

In the End, You Can’t Tell Me What to Do

Keeping it Fresh

Bruce Conner: Authentic Tomfoolery

Aware, Aware, Aware

Tribeswoman

Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin

*Barry Swyers had a supportive circle of friends and admirers in his life, including my friends Kevin Simmers and Ed Carrigan. But he was not a self promoter. There are very few of his works that can be seen online. In addition to the piece above, I have two others in my collection, viewable here.

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Indian
In praise of the hand (found on a trip to India several years ago)

Laurie Fendrich (painter/writer partnered with painter/writer Peter Plagens,) has written thoughtfully about the concept of a “mature” or “signature” style. “All serious painters, no matter the quality of their work, inevitably end up with a mature style,” she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

She continues:

More than one student has asked me why I don’t ever change my painting style—to which I respond, “It’s not so easy.” My artistic habits—the way I put on paint, construct compositions, and come up with colors—are deeply entrenched at this point, and are as big a part of my style as my temperament. To alter them is not impossible, but there’d have to be a reason beyond anything I can imagine.

What does signatory actually mean in an artistic sense? What is the power of the hand, our hand? Willem De Kooning famously suffered from Alzheimers but still produced over 300 paintings during that last period of his life. Those late works are, in spite of his compromised mental capacity, essentially De Kooningian. The way he put on paint, constructed his compositions, came up with colors—all those entrenched proclivities that Fendrich identifies as the fundamentals of a personal style—were operative regardless of his cognitive degeneration.

All painters, no matter their style, start off as whales going through plankton—soaking up as much as they can from their teachers and from the history of art and all the art going on around them, and playing around trying out this or that way of painting a picture. Gradually, however, they evolve into horses with blinders—painters trotting along at a rapid clip, mostly focused on their own art, but occasionally looking to the right or left and seeing something that affects their gait. In their mature years, painters turn pigheaded. It’s the time of their lives when they can’t help themselves from stubbornly pursuing their one painting idea, whatever it is.

I’d rather stay a whale than be a blinkered horse. But is it really a choice? It is a fine line we walk, that is for certain. To find our way between gestures that are elementally ours and embracing the new and foreign; between repeated deep dives into that secret self—a cenote of complexity we continue to plumb for hidden treasure—and those breathtaking opportunities to throw everything overboard and start fresh.

How quickly I find myself right back in the paradox, the territory of the both/and, a place that is multi-dimensional and uncharted. This is navigation without a map (which is code for “I don’t have a clue.”)

But mapless and pathless travel is not without its own rewards. From the poet Kazim Ali:

You can search alongside others, but I don’t think others can help you understand your own nature…I’ve always been on my own, a single person in the field of physical matter, on his back looking up into oblivion…I’d rather be wandering in a trance through the streets of a busy city, peeling an orange and whispering to the universe than sitting in a pew listening to a sermon or kneeling on a rug reciting chapters.

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Tezoom
“Tezoom”, from a new series that seems to have a mind of its own

In an interview with the artist Claerwen James, she was asked about what useful advice she received while she was a student:

One was from Bernard Cohen who was director of the Slade at the time. During a lecture he said, “Don’t have an abstract idea or an agenda that you’re trying to communicate through a painting: make it because you want to make it, because you want to know what it will look like, and this is the only way to find out”…You need to paint to some extent with your guts rather than your head.

(More about James here.)

James’ words came back to me this morning when I saw the post below by Linn Myers on Facebook. (Her recent show at Sandra Gering Gallery in Manhattan was so fresh and inspiring.) I resonate deeply with her embrace of the mystery and the surprise that is part of the making:

Just finished this one – 41.5 x 34″. I like the puddle/lake/pool/whatever thing, where it opens up in the lower right quadrant.
I don’t think I’ll ever really understand my own work…

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To continue in this theme of being willing to not know, these final lines from a favorite song by Iris Dement are right in line:

But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

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snowicev
Porthole glimpses into the complexity of layers under the surface of the ice and snow

Megan Hustad‘s memoir of a childhood as the daughter of evangelical missionaries, More Than Conquerors, brings her insightful mind to bear on more than Christian theology and the usual themes found in a Bildungsroman. In a conversation recounted near the end of the book, Hustad’s father shares his belief that the universe privileges incarnation. “Ask a creative person and they will tell you: those paintings needed to be made. They all but demanded, Make me.”

Hustad expands on that notion by quoting the writer Dorothy Sayers:

The creature [has a] violent urge to be created…That a work of creation struggles and insistently demands to be brought into being is a fact that no genuine artists would think of denying…you will know what you have to do. You won’t choose it: it will choose you.

The idea that a life force drives a work of art—aligned with Dylan Thomas‘ famous line, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”—is an ancient one that still compels and intrigues. I find author Philip Pullman‘s metaphor particularly useful:

For me, the most important responsibility is to serve the story, to serve my imagination, and not expect the story or my imagination to serve me, or my principles, or my opinions. This is the point where responsibility takes the form of service, freely and fairly entered into. When I say I am the servant of the story, I say it with pride. I honour the contract between us.

And as the servant, I have to do what a good servant should. I have to be ready to attend to my work at regular hours. I have to anticipate or guess where the story wants to go, and find out what can make the progress easier—by doing research, that is to say: by spending time in libraries, by going to talk to people, by finding things out…

And I have to be prepared for a certain willfulness and eccentricity in my employer—all the classic master-and-servant stories, after all, depict the master as the crazy one who’s blown here and there by the winds of impulse or passion, and the servant as the matter-of-fact anchor of common sense; and I wouldn’t want to change a pattern as successful as that. So, as I say, I have to expect a degree of craziness in the story…

No matter how foolish it seems, the story—the imagination—knows best.

Theologian and poet Rowan Williams adds to these ideas:

The ‘presence’ in art is not some looming romantic genius in the background, but a presence within what is made which generates difference, self-questioning, in the perceiving subject. It makes us present to ourselves in a fresh way, and so engages us in dialogue with ourselves as well as with the object and with the artist and with what the artist is responding to…

You have to find what you must obey, artistically…Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control.

My friend Linda Crawford refers to this generative force field as the through line. A concept first introduced by Constantin Stanislavski as a way for actors to approach characterization throughout a play, the through line is also a term that addresses the essence of the generating imagination, the envisioning process. It is mysterious, and yes, it is as close to mystical as our contemporary world can graze. But what a ride when we are chosen, when we are in service to something tirelessly chaotic, uncertain and engaging.

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Lori Ellison: Untitled, ink on paper, 8.5 x 11″, 2006 (Photo: McKenzie Fine Art)
Lori Ellison: Untitled, ink on paper, 8.5 x 11″, 2012 (Photo: McKenzie Fine Art)

Over the nine years of writing this blog, I have returned frequently to the theme of staying open, vulnerable and accessible in the art making process. The Zen tradition has an apt phrase, the “don’t-know mind.” There is also a quiet word for this particular kind of receptivity: modesty.

Artists and modesty, in the same sentence? Some would say that isn’t a likely pairing. And some would say it isn’t a desirable quality for an artist anyway.

But it is for me. And that is in spite of a long history of artists perceived as anything but modest. From an essay by Eric Gibson, Can Artists Ever Truly Be Modest? on In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues:

Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can confidently be said, is not to be found. In their professional capacity, painters and sculptors may be described as “visionary,” “innovative,” and the like. As human beings, however, they are almost always spoken of in pejorative terms. As Rudolf and Margot Wittkower observe in their 1963 book, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, “There is an almost unanimous belief among [laymen] that artists are, and always have been, egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with”…

A robust ego is necessary to a successful artist.

Gibson goes deeper into these stereotypical perceptions, and he gets to the heart of a dichotomy: “Artists lead two lives, one outside the studio, and one in it. And it is in the life within what one writer describes as ‘imagination’s chamber’—with the blank canvas, the bucket of cold clay, or the virgin block of stone—that ego falls away.”

That is an essential tension that most artists confront: Receptivity and vulnerability are needed in the studio. But outside that space, confidence and clarity are essential for navigating in the external world.

It is easy to spot those artists who are very good at one end of the spectrum but fall short at the other. We’ve all known “atelier” artists—the ones who only want to make their art and leave all the external demands to someone else. Then of course there are those high visibility strutters, the ones who are gifted at self promotion and treat art making as secondary (or as is often the case now, turn it over to others to do.)

Like most artists, I would like to be good at the making and the merchandising. It is a balancing act, and there are seasons when I have to focus on one at the expense of the other. Meanwhile modesty isn’t a quality that gets advocated all that much. It is often equated with size, as in small.

Mira Schor breaks that open with an essay she wrote 15 years ago, Modest Painting:

Enormous size certainly intends to call attention to itself, but modest paintings are not necessarily small, and small paintings are not necessarily modest…modesty is not synonymous with a lack of rigor or ambition for painting. In fact, modesty may emerge from an artist’s emphasis on rigor or ambition for painting itself rather than for his or her career.

Schor’s words bring to mind several artists I admire. One is Lori Ellison. A painter as well as a poet, Lori was well known for both her exceptionally compelling work as well as her consistent and thoughtful advocacy for the importance of staying humble. After her untimely death in September, I have been going back to reread her words.

She shares her wisdom in an interview with Ashley Garrett from 2014 on Figure/Ground: An open-source, para-academic, inter-disciplinary collaboration:

[Ashley Garrett:] A lot has been said by you and others about the concept of scale and the effect it has on the making of your work. Can you talk a little bit more about your attraction to what you’ve called the humble scale and how you discovered that a smaller intimate scale is right for your work?

[Lori Ellison:] To best answer this, I will share an essay I wrote on humility and making small work:

In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled “Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.”

If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale – in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artists need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.

To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship.

Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard—I can just hear the screeching.

If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind—we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone—I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.

Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic—that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet—not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room. A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.

That, that is what I am looking for.

As am I, Lori. As am I.

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Ghostly: ‘Untitled’, 1977, is on show in Agnes Martin’s Tate Modern retrospective Photo: Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society

Some would say there has been enough written about Agnes Martin to last us for a while. Her show at the Tate Modern (up through October 11) has produced many reviews, plus two new books about her life and work were released this summer: Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal (and written about here), plus Agnes Martin, by Briony Fer and Tiffany Bell. It was, finally, the Summer of Agnes.

But I’m not tired of thinking about her work, contemplating her story or navigating her complexities. I haven’t finished either book yet—nonfiction ended up at the bottom of my book stack this summer once I fell hopelessly in love with Elena Ferrante‘s four novel series, the Neapolitan Novels*—but read on I will.

Even with all that has been written about her and her work, Martin is elusive and hard to grasp. Princenthal, who began a correspondence with Martin while she was still a college student, addresses her complexity directly:

I first wrote about her when I was in college; at that time, we exchanged letters, and hers to me, a long handwritten note in which she firmly encouraged me to dismiss “intellect” and “ideas” in favor of “true feelings,” was a puzzle that I worked at for years. It wasn’t what I wanted—I was writing an academic paper and had asked for her opinions of various critical responses—but its deep generosity provided a story I’ve told students more than once. The more I’ve come to know about her life and work, the more I’ve come to respect her essential unknowability and to beware of her many inconsistencies.

The more I’ve come to know about her life and work, the more I’ve come to respect her essential unknowability and to beware of her many inconsistencies. There’s graciousness in this statement, giving Agnes the leeway she needs—and deserves—to be squirrelly and hard to nail down. It brings to mind the famous line by D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”

Princenthal extends that gracious unknowing to Agnes’ work as well:

Her paintings require discriminating attention and a fair amount of time. They are notoriously difficult to reproduce; as with live performance, you have to be there. Like the horizon between the sea and sky, the drawn lines that organize her work are both firm and fluid, and they seem to change with our changing perspective on them; so do the contours of her life.

For some who study Martin’s work, her essential unknowability is frustrating. I am in awe of the space Agnes demanded for herself, the requisite space she needed to do her work on her terms. And when I enter into that inchoate space, she shares the mystery and the wonder. Those are experiences that, for me, exist beyond language and remind me why visual language is so powerful. Princenthal is exceptional in her respect for that alternate zone.

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*Ferrante’s books are highly recommended for anyone who has loved Jane Austen and/or the 6 hour, exquisite cinematic epic, Best of Youth.

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