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From the Archive: Agnes Martin reconsidered

“I’m interested in how art and writing have relationships with each other,” Becky Hunter says.

Oh! I think. Me, too.
Miranda: Agnes Martin, Untitled

Miranda: Agnes Martin, Untitled

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon on the ICA mezzanine, and Becky is talking about Agnes Martin, a painter whose first museum retrospective was held at ICA in 1973.

Becky is a young art critic, book reviewer, and fiction writer who moved to Philadelphia from London not long ago. Her presentation is part of ICA’s new Excursus series, a platform for more intimate programming than you’ll find on Wednesday nights in our auditorium: a conversation over a cup of tea, a pop-up bookstore, a dramatic reading, or a game of chess with a Wharton Esherick chess set.
Miranda: Becky with book

Miranda: Becky with book

Another aspect of Excursus is that it engages ICA’s archive. Becky spent time in the archive researching Agnes Martin, and part of what she’s doing today—as we sit around the table passing images of her paintings from hand to hand—is bringing to us what she unearthed there. Also she is telling a personal story about her own engagement with the artist, whose work she once knew only through two paintings hung in the Tate: bright white, plain grid paintings—some of the only work of Martin’s on permanent view in Britain. Because it was so hard to see the work, Becky, like many people, found herself engaging with Martin largely through her writings. These, often aphoristic and contemplative, concern her spiritual quest. Her lectures, such as “An Untroubled Mind” and “On The Perfection Underlying Life” helped cement some of the myth that grew up around the artist, who abandoned a budding New York career in 1967, driving around the country in a camp van until she found herself in New Mexico. There in the desert she built an adobe house in which to live and work alone.
Miranda: Photo of Agnes

Miranda: Photo of Agnes

The stories of artists that come down to us are irresistible: The shepherd boy Giotto, discovered drawing in the fields by 13th century master Cimabue; Van Gogh never selling anything; Andy Warhol going home from the blaze of his silver Factory to the quiet house he shared with his mother. The narrative of the artist as hermit, the artist alone in nature, the artist repudiating worldly success is compellingly romantic. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live like that, alone with the Muse and silence, maybe a dog? Is it perhaps the integrity of renunciation that brings acclaim in the long run? Oh, how pretty to think so.

Becky told us that the prevailing view of Martin’s often stark paintings is to see them as controlled, passive, modest: quintessentially a woman’s work. But, as Becky spent more time with the work, she began to develop different ideas. This happened in 2009 when she took a trip to Edinburgh to see Agnes Martin: Artists Rooms. When she got to the museum, having had a fight with someone just before getting aboard the train, Becky was in a bad mood. Contrary to her expectations, the paintings—darker and grayer than the ones she had seen at the Tate—seemed to reflect her state of mind. “All the paintings seemed to me to have an element of anxiety or aggression,” she said. “There was a real tension between these thick, horizontal gesso brushstrokes and these vertical spaces.”

Was what she had seen real? Or was she so steeped in her own mood that she saw the paintings through that scrim? What to make of an experience of Martin’s work so at odds with the conventional wisdom, so antithetical to the myth of the zen-like desert denizen from whose lips koans calmly dropped?

It was this question that led Becky to ICA’s archive. Were there writings to be unearthed that would support her alternative view? Would she find some objective truth to back up her instincts and feelings?

When she got to this point in her presentation, Becky stopped to ask us—the audience—what we thought. Was research born of an emotional response valid? What an unexpected, brave, truly intimate moment this was: offering her approach up to us to judge!
Miranda: Becket talking

Miranda: Becket talking

This is what I think: we all have personal, emotional responses to art, and this is good—it’s indispensable. I want an art critic or scholar who has an open mind and an open heart, one aware of her own prejudices so that she will not be in thrall to them, not one who approaches art or artists blind to her own preconceptions, or with the intellect only.

And anyway, are there fixed answers when it comes to questions like these about Martin? In her research, Becky found an essay she believes is by Frank Kolbert in which he discusses Martin’s grid as a “two-dimensional prison.” Becky spoke to a woman who knew the painter at the end of her life and asserted that her use of line was an attempt to hold onto control. Are the paintings prisons, or are they airy meditations? Are they exercises in self-discipline, or are they Taoist paths?

Or—more plausibly—do they partake of both modes, and likely many more besides? Doesn’t Martin’s work—doesn’t any art—take its energy from contradiction, from the complexity that allows for multiple interpretations? From the submerged, intricate, fragmented tumult of a whole life.

Image credits: Agnes Martin, “Untitled #1,” 1989, acrylic and graphite on linen, 72″ x 72″ (182.9 cm x 182.9 cm). Photo by: G. R. Christmas / Courtesy The Pace Gallery.

Excursus event photos by Tiala Glabau.

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