Saturday, March 3, 2012

Agnes Martin, Centennial Writings and Observations in Taos

Agnes Martin Centennial b.1912-d.2004
February 25-June 17, 2012
Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, NM
The photo above is from the Vogue Magazine article and has been re-cropped and re-formated.

The Harwood Museum here in Taos has an exhibit of the artwork of Agnes Martin, early work “Before the Grid”, an exhibit of “Works on Paper” and the permanent installation of the “Agnes Martin Room”, which some refer to as the Chapel. This may be the best exhibit the Harwood has ever had, thank you for all the work involved.
The catalogue is terrific, yet $40, (supply & demand). “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid” 2012, 68pp, they will ship it to you, call 575-758-9826 x120, it will go out of print before you blink, so muster up those 4,000 pennies from your penny jar and purchase it.

Rather than re-write history, I prefer to use some key excerpts from articles written about Agnes Martin and her own writing to expand on this story. All articles written by others and writings of Agnes Martin are credited to the writers and are positioned to the left. My own writing is centered and the word Observation is written at the top.

This is my favorite painting in the exhibit a small work on paper "Night and Day" 1958 private collection. A friend here has told me that this was the study for a larger painting that was gifted from Agnes to her Mom (Mildred Tolbert), 
it is long gone sold to a dealer years ago.

Agnes Martin “Writings” Cantz 1991
To progress in life you must give up the things you do not like. Give up doing the things that you do not like to do. You must find the things that you do like. The things that are acceptable to your mind.

This quote reminds me of some things I’ve been struggling with lately, coming to my own conclusion that to do what I love doing is where best to set my priorities.

You can make a lot of comparisons to the Abstract Expressionists that Ms. Martin befriended and so loved, (and should be considered to be a ‘member’ of) her progression follows a similar path of so many of them. The biomorphic/amorphous shapes of early Rothko, Gorky, Gottlieb, and Newman became the AbEx stepping stone to the work which each became known for. The ‘Grid’ format that Agnes eventually developed was preceded by her own biomorphic/amorphous style. It surprises me that the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, had not included her paintings in the 2010 “Abstract Expressionism” survey. This exhibition here in Taos should help to set her among the great group of Abstract Expressionist painters. Yet, Agnes didn’t do herself any favors by moving to New Mexico, then too, there was her propensity for destroying as much of the early work as she could get her hands on. Agnes is included as a member of the Taos Modernist group of abstract painters such as Emil Bisttram, Adeine de la Noe, Robert Ray, Beatrice Mandleman and so many others.
"Untitled" 1952 page from a notebook with similar ink drawing on the reverse, private collection

 Agnes Martin: Drawing the Line, Rosamond Bernier
Vogue Magazine November 1992
The aim of her paintings is "to reproduce completely our most subtle emotions." These emotions are abstract, unprompted, by anything in the world around us. "It's like if you wake up in the morning and are happy for no reason. That's abstract emotion, like the emotion that we feel when we listen to music.

"Most people are so distracted by what's going on around them that they have trouble realizing that they have abstract emotions. But if an artist can depict those emotions, and if people respond to the art, then they realize that they've had those same emotions all the time, without knowing it. I have a hard time getting it across, but I know that abstract feelings are all positive. The more of them people have, the better they are.

"If people have a painting of mine in the house, I like them to put it in the bedroom. If it's the first thing they see when they wake up, they respond to abstract emotions before the stresses of the day can strike."

She was fortyfive when she moved to New York from Taos, New Mexico, singled out by Betty Parsons, one of the best dealers in NYC, Martin had made it on her own, without even trying to sell the paintings on which she had been working for the previous twenty years.

"I'd done every kind of picture; portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, but I didn't want to show them. It wasn't till I found the grid, in New York in 1960, that I felt satisfied with what I was doing," she explains. " When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees, and I thought the grid represented innocence, and I still do. So I painted it, and I've been doing it for thirty years."

In New York, between 1957 and 1967, south of Wall Street, her neighbors and very good friends were Ellsworth Kelly, James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. When she began to show in New York at Betty Parsons Gallery, Barnett Newman came to hang her work for her. "He was much better at it than I was."

In 1967 she lost her studio, left New York, roamed in a camper for a year and a half, finally choosing to settle in New Mexico. "I'd had a vision of an adobe brick, it somehow convinced me that New Mexico was the place where I had to live."

She found some land, built a house with her own hands, lived in it, it turned out she didn't own the land after all, she lost the house.

She loved it in Taos. "I would have starved to death, and I very nearly did. But the painters had wonderful parties. They really were what people think about when they imagine artists having a good time together."

"I'm going to show you a failure," before destroying it. It was very seductive. "Yes, but it suggests the sea. That's what's wrong with it." Direct or specific echoes of landscape are taboo in this studio.
"The Blue Bird" 1954 Roswell Museum Collection 
I've tried to raise the contrast on this to reveal the subtle drawing aspects of this beautiful painting.

The destroyed canvas was occasionally given to local Taos “struggling” artists after Agnes would slash it from corner to corner effectively “killing” the artwork. (Note* “Killing” a pot before placing it into a human burial was common with Mimbres and other Anasazi Pueblo pottery of the southwest.)
The slashed canvas would then be a much smaller piece then it’s original 72” x 72” size, usually an artist could stretch up to a 16” x 20” or smaller format from these discards. Lately a few 12” x 12” “Agnes Martin” paintings have been turning up around Taos. Some are obvious rejects, with paint splatters or obvious ‘mistakes’ on them. Framed they are actually quite lovely, BUT are they and can they be considered “Agnes Martin” paintings?
One in particular gives an illusion of tear or rain drops beginning to drip from a pastel rainbow line, it’s a knockout eye-dazzling small painting, but again can it and should it be considered the ‘real deal’?
I do admire Agnes and her work ethic, she kept very regular studio hours, and she was hard on herself about what she released from her studio, not everything was good enough to be an Agnes Martin!
"Grey Painting" ca. 1980's private collection 
The soft horizontal lines are enhanced with pencil lines drawn onto the lighter bands.

New Yorker Magazine July 14, 2003
“Every now and then, I get to have lunch with Agnes,” Tony Huston said. “There’s such solidity in her presence. She’s not wobbly. She occupies all the space given to her. She spends a lot of time just sitting, painting in her head.
“She finds serenity and power in the Taos Mountain, as so many of us here do,” he went on. “Either the mountain likes you or it doesn’t, and I’m sure the mountain likes Agnes.”
Huston and Martin started talking about painting,
“I paint to myself,” she said. “It comes from outside. I don’t believe in that inner stuff. You sit and wait. I’m always painting in my imagination. They go so quickly in your imagination. Painting is hard work. It’s very hard to paint straight. You paint vertically, but the paintings hang horizontally, there are no drips that way.”
I was friends with Barnet Newman. He’d say about painting, ‘It’s transcendent.’ People didn’t believe him. But I did. It has to be about life. Barney and the other Abstract Expressionists gave up defined space, and they gave up forms. They all liked my paintings.
I feel as though I owe them a debt.
On our bedroom ceiling, the shadows of the morning sun through the blinds.

The “Grid” paintings are difficult for most people to admire, perceive or grasp. Typically they are of pencil lines drawn across the surface of a 72” x 72” primed canvas, color is added, or not, between these lines.
Unlike the paintings of Mark Rothko which can either create a vortex and envelop you, or completely push you out in his later work, Martin’s (almost always but not exclusively) horizontal lines hum, float and waver.
Each time she draws her pencil across the canvas it is left to chance whether she hits a ‘glitch’ or not, the touch of the pencil in her strong hand make a mark unique to Agnes Martin. These lines can be compared to the Pueblo potters of the Southwest, each time they draw a line using a yucca leaf as their brush, imperfections and variations of line happen spontaneously. With Agnes it’s more a ‘happy accident’. A few years ago Agnes Martin paintings and Pueblo Pottery were exhibited together the obvious comparison was enlightening.  This was my first encounter with a better understanding of her artwork. Then a few years ago I awoke to see the pattern of the blinds on the ceiling above me, creating repeating light and dark grey lines. Every sunny morning since, I awake to my own “Agnes Martin”.
Small work on paper, with variation of lines.

 Agnes Martin Letter 1981
“We live a short time in this life and then we are gone from it without a trace, like last summer’s leaves.”
Southwest Pottery of Acoma Pueblo with variation of lines in a grid.

 Letter to Arnold Glimcher Pace Gallery from Agnes Martin
I have only one worry in the world!
It is that my paintings will show downtown and fail there. They will fail because they are non-aggressive, they are not even outgoing.

The “art scene” is really a lot of words. With its changing trends it bears very little relation to ART defined as part of the structure of social human life. I particularly do not want to be on the art scene. If you come on with the scene you go off with the scene. I want to stay away from it.

What I want is (to exhibit) just a few paintings contemplated quietly. Unaggressive paintings, unaggressive showings, for unaggressive collectors, hoping you agree with me.
Small work on paper with variation of pencil lines, the hand and touch of Agnes Martin.

This exhibit of the early paintings would have put her in quite a state had it been during her lifetime! It was hard enough for the Harwood to honor her with a birthday party each year. She would stay for a bit, allow people to wish her a ‘happy birthday’, and get out as soon as she could. My birthday is around the same time, so I’d go to hers rather than my own. A couple of times I asked her to sign my copy of one of her books, she’d look at me and say, “No”, then one of her caretakers would tell her they knew me and that it would be alright to sign a book for me, that I was “OK”.
Above and below is my copy of the book "Agnes Martin" Barbara Haskell 1993, Whitney Museum of Art 188pp w/60 color & 40 B&W plates, signed by Agnes Martin, it is available for $2,500. through my contact information here or through It is currently the ONLY signed Agnes Martin book available anywhere. This particular book was signed by Agnes and given to a dear friend.
The other book I have to offer is "Agnes Martin Writings" 1991 Cantz 176pp available at $250. it is out of print and in New condition, if you wish to purchase this volume please use my Gallery contact information provided on this blog.

Two other editions to look for, the first one is extremely valuable & rare, worthwhile if you can find it, complete with a set of Martin prints, (these prints are in the Harwood exhibit if you want to see them before tracking down the book set). 
The other book I've listed here is new from Dia Art Foundation, I think it's worth purchasing. 

“Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1974-1990”
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 160 pp, 16 color and 55 B&W illus. w/suite of 10 loose prints laid-in w/slipcase, as issued 1992
"Agnes Martin" Dia Art Foundation, Lynne Cook & Karen Kelly 2012 Yale University Press , 268pp
Lastly, I'd like to say congratulations on this true Labour of Love to the Harwood Museum staff, the exhibit is a knockout, may it be a BLOCKBUSTER. To everyone of you who may stumble upon this story please visit Taos to see this incredible exhibition. It is not my intention to offend any of the people that do have an "Agnes" from her slashed discarded canvases, merely to ask the questions which I've asked here. You just never know what (or who) will turn up here in Taos, New Mexico.
A couple things I forgot to mention here, not all that important but, there are a few photos of Agnes through the years sitting in a rocking chair, this chair was in the possession of a local art dealer who had told me he was offering it to one of the Museum charity auctions. If I learn more about this, I'll add it here. The other thing is that Agnes Martin was very, very good to Taos, she donated funds to pay for a few projects around Taos such as the Youth & Family Center swimming pool, the restoration of the Taos Community Auditorium, and the Agnes Martin Chapel at the Harwood. These are just a few of the MANY community minded projects that Agnes helped with. People also tell me that she loved children, I know from her writings that she loved nature. When we worked at Villa Fontana (Holly waiting tables, I in the kitchen), Agnes was a frequent luncheon guest, she'd sit in the outside flower garden and have lunch. I imagine that's where Tony Huston and the New Yorker writer had lunch with her during the interview I've posted above. On occasion an Agnes Martin artwork appears with one of the major auction houses Christie's & Sotheby's along with the others, recently a work on paper sold at 5Million, and a large painting sold at 6Million. To see more of her artwork go to the Pace Gallery & Zwirner and Wirth Gallery websites.