Q&A

What the world misunderstands about artist Agnes Martin and how her biographer unearthed her story

Look at an Agnes Martin painting from a distance and you might see a simple block of blue or a sequence of stripes in eggshell shades. Step in closely, however, and these minimalist patterns unfold into a universe of wobbly grids and subtle shifts in tone and texture like some sort of cosmic map. (Photographs never do the work justice.)

Behind these cool canvases was an artist with a singular life story. Born on the austere prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912, Martin led a somewhat itinerant life that took her from the art hubs of New York and Taos, N.M., to the less settled corners of the Pacific Northwest. For a brief period in the early 1930s, she even lived in Los Angeles, where she served as a driver to John Huston, the not-yet-famous film director who'd had his license suspended after hitting a pedestrian.

Martin became known in the 1950s and '60s, when a decade-long sojourn in New York cemented her reputation as a singular, slightly unclassifiable painter. Martin was a minimalist before minimalism was in vogue; a low-key, rather spiritual figure who nonetheless identified with the hard-charging, hard-drinking Abstract Expressionists.

Though the artist's works are highly regarded — critically celebrated and held in the permanent collections of museums around the world — getting a handle on her life has been a difficult enterprise. Martin was fiercely private. She destroyed early works, actively discouraged the publication of monographs about her art and made friends swear that they wouldn't talk about her after her death. (She died in 2004.)

This presented some serious challenges to her biographer, writer and critic Nancy Princenthal, who published the first full-length biography on the artist last year. 

"Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art" nonetheless tells a compelling, nuanced story about an artist of modest means dedicated to fulfilling her artistic vision — one who also had to contend with mental illness (she was diagnosed with schizophrenia) and retrograde attitudes toward her sexuality (she was a lesbian). Last month, Princenthal was awarded the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography for the book.

In advance of a full-blown retrospective of Martin's work scheduled to land at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art later this month, the author took time to chat about Martin's life and work. In this lightly edited conversation, she discusses the painter's wanderings, her relationships with esteemed art world figures such as Ellsworth Kelly and why she shouldn't be dismissed as some simple desert mystic.

Given Martin's penchant for maintaining a low profile, what were the challenges of writing her biography?

It was daunting. [Martin] was born in 1912, so people who knew her in the late '50s and '60s were either quite old or gone by the time I undertook this project. One wonderful woman who was close to [Martin] late in life was eager to talk to me about Agnes. But when I finally met her, she said, "I think I know what you want to talk about and I just can't do it. Agnes wouldn’t want it." Some people weren’t so gracious.

Luckily, some people did talk to me. At the same time, there was a fair amount of material available in published interviews and recorded talks and a wonderful documentary that was made about her life. And there were her own writings, her published writings, which was information about her life hiding in plain sight.

From the late 1950s to late 1960s, Martin lived at Coenties Slip by the seaport in downtown Manhattan, with a community of artists who included Ellsworth Kelly and Ad Reinhardt. This place often seems to get overshadowed in the history books in favor of the whole Abstract Expressionists scene up on 10th Street.

The 10th Street scene slightly predated but overlapped with Coenties Slip. With Coenties, partly it was a social thing, partly it was a stylistic thing. People who settled at the Slip wanted to be away from the socializing, the drinking and the brawling that went on and around the Cedar Bar. Tenth Street was also extremely male and very straight. 

Just like Taos, in New Mexico, Coenties Slip was very welcoming to gay men and lesbian women at a time when it was very dangerous and career-ending to be openly out. And it was a community that allowed people to strike out in new directions. There was no real consistency to the art of Coenties Slip. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were there, Ellsworth Kelly — these were all men working in very different ways.

They weren't all best friends. They had a kind of distance and they had a shared commitment to independence.

Yet Martin nonetheless had some important relationships with fellow artists while she lived there. How did those affect her career?

These relationships were pretty important. She’d been painting for a good 20 years by the time she moved East — when [gallerist] Betty Parsons insisted she move East. But when she did arrive in ’57, those were years of incredible growth. She was in her mid-forties when she arrived. She was talking to artists who were, by and large, younger that she was. And she was talking to artists who were really on the cusp of developing their mature work. The benefit of all of those conversations was mutual.

She was talking to Ellsworth Kelly and she was having an impact on him as well as the other way around — even though he’d already arrived at a commitment to pure abstraction. They were lively discussions. The influence of [composer John] Cage, which came to the artists at the Slip through Rauschenberg and Johns, that was important too. There was a lot of ferment even though the artists all took it in different directions.

[Martin] was also being shown, going to other artists' shows. [The fiber artist] Lenore Tawney and also Chryssa [who would become known for her work in neon] were also very influential. It’s easy to see visually the connections between her work and Tawney’s — but in the license to be ambitious, Chryssa had an impact on her career as well. Chryssa is not an artist who is well remembered now, but in the '60s she really had a moment. She had a very commanding personality.

How did Martin's mental illness affect her work?

I think it affected her work in ways both positive and negative. She had a number of psychotic breaks. She did hear voices — she had aural hallucinations — and she was subject to them throughout her life. She took medications. She undertook talk therapy. These were constraints. She was very clear to the few people she talked to about her illness that the illness had nothing to do with her work.

But at the same time, the way she describes the way her paintings developed is very idiosyncratic. She talks about her paintings coming to her one-by-one fully formed, as these inspirations. She has these famous quotes about how they came to her postage-stamp size and her job was to blow them up to the six-foot-square size that she favored.

I think — and this is subjective — that the nature of the work she did reflected a way to establish a sense of order in her visual world and her perceptual world and her emotional world. It was urgent to her to establish, one after another, to establish these experiences of transcendent calm. 

Despite this period of important artistic breakthroughs, she left New York in 1967 — first to wander around the Pacific Northwest, then to settle in New Mexico. Why do you think that is?

That move has become mythic and the period of wandering has become mythic. There are a number of explanations for it. She got a grant from the [National Endowment for the Arts] and it allowed her to buy a truck and so she left. She also lost her loft. The building she was in was torn down and it’s always traumatizing for an artist to [lose] their space, especially when their finances are precarious. She’d had a break before she left, too, and she'd broken up with Chryssa.

There hasn’t been a lot of definitive evidence about why exactly she left. But wandering was something that she needed to do. She loved to travel. She was restless and she loved to drive. And she went back to the area of her childhood and early adulthood, to the Pacific Northwest. [Martin lived in Washington State after leaving Canada.]

It was mostly solitary, though not completely. And ultimately she said she had a vision that led her back to New Mexico. That had been a really congenial place for her. Both the solitude and the degree of social life were good for her. Her first home was on the Portales Mesa near Cuba, which is very isolated. It was a big deal to post a letter. She had no electricity, no running water. It was all very rudimentary. But after about 10 years, she moved to Galisteo.

What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about Agnes Martin?

I would like to somewhat dispel this impression that she was some ascetic saint of the desert. She was more complicated than that and more sophisticated than that. I'm leery of sweeping her up in this celebration of artists, these artists who are self-trained or outsider, or beyond the pale of cosmopolitan art and life, and that’s their merit. I think her mental illness is liable to enforce that impulse and I think that would be a mistake. It’s not who she was. It was part of her life, but it didn’t define her.

As someone who has spent a lot of time looking at her work, what advice do you have for the viewer?

I'd say spend some time and keep an open mind. Don't be intimidated. It looks like work that is austere and cerebral, but it’s really quite sensuous.

There is a famous Agnes Martin-ism: She was having a conversation with someone about spending time in front of work and how you really need to be in front of it face-to-face and spend some time. And the critic said, "How much time?" And she said, "Oh, a minute." And he said, "A minute?" And she said, "A minute is quite a long time."

Most museum goers stand in front of a painting as long as it takes to snap a selfie. So a minute is a long time.

"Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art" ($39.95) is available from Thames & Hudson. The retrospective, "Agnes Martin," opens April 24 at LACMA and runs through Sept. 11. 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles, lacma.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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