Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 60” x 60″, 1997. Courtesy of MoMA.
Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 60” x 60″, 1997. Courtesy of MoMA.

Agnes Martin Exhibition
Tate Modern: Exhibition, June 3 – October 11, 2015

After having discovered that Tate Modern in London is holding a retrospective of the seminal American painter Agnes Martin–the first since her death in 2004–I was compelled to revisit one of the most important books in my inner archaeology: Writings (1992), her collection of letters, journals, and lectures–now unfortunately out of print. If you have $300 and willing to make a worthy investment, you can grab a copy here. For a revealing and intimate portrait of the artist, I highly recommend watching this interview from 1997 available here.

Martin’s writings are highly contemplative and display an active engagement in Eastern philosophies–especially Zen Buddhism and Taoism–and muse on her lifelong themes: sensibility, responsiveness, beauty, truth, inspiration, humility, and perfection.  In her essay “Beauty Is the Mystery of Life,” Martin wrote: “When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.” She devoted her life to living beyond the incessant pull of worldly goals, to the “inspiration [that] is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not.”

Agnes Martin in her studio on Ledoux Street, Taos, New Mexico, (1953) (photo by Mildred Tolbert)
Agnes Martin in her studio on Ledoux Street, Taos, New Mexico, 1953 (photo by Mildred Tolbert)

Martin was also renowned for her subtle, evocative canvases–often 6 feet square, Martin favored this size, she said, for its ‘bodily’ address–marked out in subtle pencil grids and pale color washes which suggest tranquility and offer an invitation to the experience of transcendence. (For some fine examples of her work, check out the Guggenheim’ s online collection.) When I first encountered a painting by Martin, I realized that in order to actually “see” it, I needed to prepare myself–to let go of the busyness and turmoil on the surface of the mind and settle into that quiet space between thoughts–the more I let go of, and the quieter I became inside, the more the artwork opened up.  Slowly it revealed its mysterious power, vividly and almost unconsciously, through a direct perception and not through any web of conceptual constructs.

In line with that experience, Martin wrote: “My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything. A world without objects, without interruption, making a work without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of the simple direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.” The Agnes Martin retrospective opens at Tate Modern in London, June 3rd and runs to October 2015.