"In our minds there is an awareness of perfection and when we look with our eyes we see it" - Agnes Martin
While this show ended on January 11th, the Guggenheim still has up on their website recordings about each of the individual paintings exhibited of the oeuvre of this artist. Widely shown alongside her contemporaries - mostly male - in the mid 20th century, Agnes Martin didn't appear to have a glass ceiling hovering above her head. In video interviews with the Canadian abstract artist, she says about her process that the best days are when she can keep her mind clear all morning. In these short films that were part of the exhibit, Martin says "If I think, I make a mistake. I do not think and I keep my mind empty... paintings painted by the intellect are not artwork... The inspiration is about emotion." I love this open admission of creation being an act that does not originate within us, but instead that we are a conduit for the creative process to happen. When we act with consciousness, but without the limitations of the judgment of our intellect, a transformative process is engaged. It seems that we are not alone in the act of creation, but collaborating with forces outside of our visible landscape. I believe many working artists can relate to this at times euphoric experience. This is what is felt to be taken away by inspiration, is it not? To feel you are merging with something outside of yourself. This is why emotion is scary - it is larger than ourselves, and can be difficult to control. Perhaps this is why Martin worked so much with grids and geometric shapes - to give structure and exacting form to unwieldy emotion.
Her works generated quite a bit of awe in me as I traveled up the circular museum, engaging with almost exclusively square and rectangular paintings. Lines line everywhere, horizontal, vertical, lines within lines. The vertical lines gave me the sense of a door in the wall, or a gateway to that elsewhere where the inspiration comes from. They offered a way through. My notes from my visit are works of poetry in themselves: "Subtlety. Pay attention. Power of difference", they read. A white piece entitled Islands I found to "vibrate and seem active in my gaze, almost twinkling back at me in the form of light." The Untitled #9 had an "arresting use of subtle variation in color to capture nature, uniqueness", and Untitled #16 gave me the "sense that I could dive right into the cool contour of horizontal line, and be forevermore calm, at peace, ephemeral." Her work gives the viewer a much more fantastical experience than one would expect from the formality of line. I am not keen to debate whether work has aura, that often-abused term, but her work certainly seemed to be imbued with a consciousness of some kind. It was alive. It wanted to engage with you at a level beyond the reasoning logic of your mind, and speak to you about the mystery that lies there, one we so often ignore.
In Homage to Life, the vivid emotion Martin speaks of as being her constant inspiration - and indeed the only inspiration she determines as true - was laid bare. There was an almost heavy sadness, but it was for the sake of beauty. The simplicity of her brush strokes expressed the finality of life, and yet an entire lifespan seemed to be packed within the shape of a trapezoid, if only you could imagine it holding every experienced moment. This dark, black shape was staking its claim on the grey canvas, it was declaring its life. Made of fluffy brush strokes, the darkness also suggested a softness which was ended in stark contrast at the harshness of the shape's straight edges.
At the uppermost step in the museum, the final piece is of a rainstorm. To end the show like this, with cloudy skies, and water dripping from the canvas itself - what else is life, it had me asking, if not to feel the drops of rain in the midst of a rainstorm. Is it nothing more than this? Somehow Martin's work was engaging the mystery, and simultaneously giving an answer. Yes, I felt the show said to me, yes this very moment that you are in, this is your life. In this very moment, this is where life is happening. Pay attention. There is nothing more, and nothing less, than this.
There is a wonderful book of essays on her work published by the Dia Art Foundation, titled after the artist. In it, Michael Newman begins his essay with these words: "Agnes Martin's paintings call for a certain kind of attentiveness. The paintings take time, and time seems to slow down in viewing them. Without grabbing our attention, they make us want to spend time with them." This is what I found. I was transported by her meticulous grids and her geometric forms in conversation with the world around them. They seemed to want to speak to me, in a language without words, and I wanted to spend the time to listen until I could ascertain what it was that they had to say.