With My Back To the World

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.



Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

August 31, 2015 at 9:45 am

Thank you ☼

Holly Friesenreply
August 31, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Agnes Martin is one of my all time favourite painters Luke. How I wish I could make it to London to see this show. I first encountered her work when I walked into a room full of her paintings at the Dia Art Foundation. I was bowled over, I had to sit down as tears streamed from my eyes. I was taken by surprise as I had never seen her work in real life before (and it’s subtle beauty doesn’t translate well into print or film) I was moved to my core. Those paintings emanated a deep, deep calm and spirituality that was palpable in the room. I could have sat there forever, it felt as if something deep inside of me was rising up to meet them. It was almost as if I was “shocked” into a meditative state by their very presence. It is an experience I will never forget. Thank-you for this post Luke, a timely reminder of a powerful painter and profound human being.

Luke Stormsreply
September 7, 2015 at 11:11 pm
– In reply to: Holly Friesen

Hello Holly,

Thank you for describing so vividly your encounter with her work. For myself, I found out about her through John Zorn, an avant-garde composer who wrote a minimal composition in tribute to her. Inside the CD was a small essay that contained quotations from her writings. It resonated with me very strongly. I was lucky and managed to find a collection of her writings at my local book store. This was 20 years ago or so. That book is a treasure. I love how she describes the inner life so simply. I’ve only seen two of her large canvases here in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). They are breath-taking, but unfortunately seldom on display.

Judy gardnerreply
September 1, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Thank you Luke for your lovely article. I first heard of Agnes Martin when I watched Charlie Rose interview Arne Glimcher. His book Agnes Martin, Paintings, Writings, Remembrances had just been published by Phaidon. Quite pricey but I bought it…a treasure for sure. I’m going to print your essay to add to the book. I enjoy your writings very much
Thank you.

Luke Stormsreply
September 7, 2015 at 11:13 pm
– In reply to: Judy gardner

Hello Judy,

Thank you very much. I’m going to have to seek out that Charlie Rose interview, and that book. Thanks for the heads-up.



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