Book Review: Agnes Martin, “Writings”

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Perhaps it is not quite correct to call this a book review, as I will refrain as much as possible from criticism of the author as a writer, as a theorist, and as a painter, yet this post will be confined to the matters discussed in and my responses to a single book: a collection of writings by twentieth-century American/Canadian painter Agnes Martin. What I hope simply to do is record my own impressions of and bring forth the parts of this book that to me stand out from the rest. If that could be called appropriation rather than review then so be it, but I will not be using her ideas toward any end; I only want to record that they exist and give them some bredth. For biographical information on Ms. Martin, Michael Govan has written a compact summary of her life and work that is available online; it should at least be known that she lived most of her adult life in self-imposed solitude in New Mexico. For examples of her paintings beyond the small images here included, there is an online counterpart to the 2003 retrospective of her work at the Zwirner & Wirth Gallery in New York.

Aside from a short series of “Notes” at the beginning, the book is comprised mainly of the texts from lectures Martin was invited to give at various universities as well as spoken stories written down by critic Ann Wilson, and indeed it is one of the few books I wish to be read out loud. The lines, which are broken and spare, follow like chanted logic. As the editor Dieter Schwarz writes in his introduction, “This is true speech, a monologue in which each new element joins the preceding sentence or idea in a seemingly clumsy pace that allows every sentence to unfold in a uniform way” (6). Uniformity and repetition are perhaps the basic framework of Martin’s art, though neither is truly there in the work. In the short text, “Answer to an Inquiry,” Martin says of her paintings:

My formats are square but the grids never are absolutely square: they are rectangles, a little bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power. (“Answer to an Inquiry,” 29)

In naming repetition, or rather something more like off-repetition, as a method of achieving dissonance and destruction, the image Martin calls up to me is something like natural erosion (repeated affronts of wind and water), a long-lasting temporal process, more so than, say, the once-achieved singularity of an explosion or collapse. It seems she is after a wearing down, a making brittle. The power of the square is destroyed, but the shape of the square isn’t — must, in fact, remain intact.

In a similar form of off-repetition, Martin engages from lecture to lecture a repeated set of ideas — often lines are only minutely changed or examples are referenced, unexplained, from earlier speeches; it is only others who have kept these speeches as written, unchangeable artifacts, and published them in this book. Again, we look to Schwarz in the introduction who says “In re-reading her texts, [Martin] is doubtful when trying to bring back to mind her own thoughts. She is sceptical about the manuscript that has become conclusive by being reproduced” (6). The reader, perhaps, experiences something similar with the text of each essay, but taking the whole of the book into mind, the off-repetition of theme and idea, we might say, lightens the weight of the written manuscript, destroys its power.

The idea of destruction as a wearing down, I believe, is closely related to Martin’s ideas of perfection which circulate throughout her lectures. In this regard, we notice an aspect of “wearing down” that means refinement and purification; this aspect, however, is not strong enough to overwhelm the general meaning of destruction, it is merely a glint of hope. The discourse between these two aspects agrees with Martin’s positioning of herself as detached from feeling but at the same time intrinsically optimistic. In the very beginning of the lecture “The Untroubled Mind,” Martin uses the rather aggressive and destructive epithet “anti-nature” to describe her work. She turns it into a source of lightening.

People think that painting is about color / It’s mostly composition / It’s composition that’s the whole thing / The classic image — / Two late Tang dishes, one with a flower image, / one empty — the empty form goes all the way to heaven / It is the classic form — lighter weight / My work is anti-nature / … You will not think form, space, line, contour / Just a suggestion of nature gives weight / light and heavy / light like a feather / you get light enough and you levitate (“The Untroubled Mind,” 35)

In her logic, Martin places the empty dish after the decorated one, and I think this is an important point. Its emptiness needs to be seen as a refinement of the decoration, of a decorated plate polished and smoothed back into a transcendent emptiness. This is like the “suggestion of nature” which simultaneously lightens and weights, there needs to be a hint, a suggestion, a reminding, so that the square might be powerless yet still have shape. This is Martin’s access to perfection, to expose the composition of things without the burden of color or natural form.

The struggle of existence, non existence is not my struggle. The establishment of the perfect state not mine to do. Being outside that struggle I turn to perfection as I see it in my mind, and as I also see it with my eyes even in the dust.
Although I do not represent it very well in my work, all seeing the work, being already familiar with the subject, are easily reminded of it. (“Notes,” 16)

Having approached Ms. Martin’s themes, I withdraw.

David Feil

Suggested Reading / Viewing:

  • Martin, Agnes, “Writings,” ed. Dieter Schwarz, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1991, ISBN: 3893223266
  • Martin, Agnes, “The Islands,” Richter Verlag, 2005, ISBN: 3937572066
  • Aside from books, there is also a DVD documentary on Martin titled “With My Back to the World” directed by Mary Lance that came out in 2002. It is comprised of interviews with and footage of Martin, alone in her Taos studio, between 1998 and 2002. newdealfilms.
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