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