Notes From The Archive: Jonathan Katz on Agnes Martin

Jonathan Katz Portrait

Jonathan Katz

Scholar, curator, and activist Jonathan D. Katz works at the intersection of art history and queer history, one of the busiest exchanges in American culture. Katz is the founder and chair of the Harvey Milk Institute, the largest queer studies institute in the world, and the Director of the Doctoral Program in Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo. His research and writing has focused on composer John Cage and painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Katz co-curated Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, 2010–11, at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, which included an early painting by Agnes Martin. He is now co-curating Aids/Art/America, a major 2014 international touring exhibition.

Katz visited ICA’s archive to conduct research for the chapter “Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction,” published in Agnes Martin (Dia Art Foundation and Yale University Press, 2012). Martin’s first museum solo exhibition, curated at ICA in 1973 by Suzanne Delehanty, was pivotal in the development of the abstract painter’s stellar art world reputation.
Agnes Martin Galleries

Agnes Martin, Galleries, 1961. © 2014 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In a phone call, Katz shared memories of his experience in our archive…

I was interested in ICA’s role as, essentially, the founding institution of Agnes Martin in the museum world. The striking thing about ICA is its role as the premier museum exhibition for a number of well-known figures. Her 1973 retrospective at ICA was her first museum show, so it was very important to grasp how Martin understood this exhibition. I was looking for the kind of correspondence that would suggest what Martin—who was never known for passivity in the face of curatorial direction—would want in this first exhibition, and I found loads of it.

There are people who feel that reading archival material generates a frame of reference that informs their work­­—I’m not one of them.I’ve never understood the idea of theory without history—or history without theory—so I try to think theoretically through the historical material. I read the secondary literature, come up with a series of questions, and then read through the archive to find out if my framing or assumptions are correct. I’ve never been able to do it the other way round. It allows one to test one’s theses; it confirms or denies your approach. I found the archive loquacious in answering my questions.

For one thing, I discovered that Martin is not so Zen as she might appear to be. There was in evidence nothing Zen-like in her approach to her own exhibition—she was looking at and thinking through the ramifications of every decision, with a real insistence. There were gems in the archive: The titles that we associate with works, she disavowed in her letters. She said, “I don’t want the titles to be used with the names as supplied because they are romantic and my work is not romantic.” We don’t know whether the titles were changed in accordance with her directives or not.

ICA’s archival material is extremely strong, it has the original, handwritten texts for some of Martin’s most celebrated writings—a talk, for example, that she gave at ICA shortly after the exhibition opened, titled “The Perfection Underlying Life.” It was really interesting to watch the editorial process in some of Martin’s public remarks­­—how she corrects herself, how she changes what she’s going to say. Ostensibly, Martin’s approach is aesthetic as opposed to a fully embraced conceptual system, but she really is a contemporary artist in her desire to contextualize her work her way.

This is the striking thing: Suzanne, whom I’m never met but adore, put herself out for Martin—and, remember, this was before Martin was a major figure. In many respects this was the show that made her a major figure.I was struck by both her accommodation of Martin and her very highly developed diplomatic skills to make sure that the exhibition she had envisaged would go off accordingly. What I understand—in a way that I didn’t before I visited the archive—was how little developed Martin’s career was before the show. We are so used to her at a certain, eminent level in the art world. In the archive, we see her as kind of a novice. You get—even though she’s not terribly young at this point—a young artist’s sense of, “Oh, wow, it’s finally happening.”