Agnes Martin, Untitled (1979), pencil and ink on paper, 105 x 105 in.
Recently I have found writings on poetry to be much more relevant for visual art, than specialized visual art writing, such as reviews, catalogue texts or research papers. Writings on poetry, and especially texts on poetry written by poets, seem to grasp art more directly, even if the poet’s language are poetic -and by definition – less specific than ordinary, everyday language. I have found texts on poetry to be much better at transmitting the sensation of art; what art feels like, what it’s like to be experiencing art.
Regarding art writing I have started to wonder: has the viewers’ point of view been overlooked? Has the professional art milieu, the trendsetting magazines and galleries – the art writing establishment – reduced the art audience to a handful of specialists? And if so: isn’t this in art’s disinterest? A disservice to art?
Well, sometimes poems aren’t literal representations of anything. Sometimes a poem just exists as something else in the universe that you haven’t encountered before. If you want a poem to say what it means, right away, clearly—and of course the poet who writes that kind of poem is usually talking about his or her own experiences—well, what happens when you read that kind of poem is that it puts you back in the world that you know. The poem makes that world seem a little more comfortable, because here is somebody else who has had an experience like yours. But you see, these little anecdotes that we read in these poems and that we like to believe are true, are in fact fictions. They represent a reduction of the real world. There’s so much in our experience that we take for granted—we don’t need to read poems that help us to take those things even more for granted. People like John Ashbery or Stevens do just the opposite—they try to explode those reductions. There’s a desire in Ashbery, for example, to create perfect non sequiturs, to continually take us off guard. He creates a world that is fractured. It doesn’t imitate reality. But, looking at it from another point of view, you could say that it’s simply a world that is as fractured and as unpredictable as the world in which we move every day. So there’s an element of delight in these people who rearrange reality. We usually hang on to the predictability of our experiences to such an extent . . . and there’s nowhere else where one can escape that as thoroughly as one can in certain poets’ work. When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger . . . in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive—not as routinely there.
One can easily swap from poem/poetry to art, and Mark Strand’s ideas still make perfect sense
Agnes Martin, Homage to Greece (1959). Oil, canvas collage and nails laid on panel
I write and underline in every interesting book I read. Making notes in beautiful art-books is obviously rather foolish, but if I’m to engage with what I read, I need to have a pen in hand, to scribble. This is also why I much prefer paper to digital books.
The text above is an excerpt of what I read this morning, a short cut from a lecture given by Agnes Martin in 1979. How is one to understand what she is saying here?
I read a sentence, stop to think, underline, read again, turn the words around in my mind. What is she trying to tell us? What does it all mean? Can I relate? Do I agree?
Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.
– Agnes Martin
So, this is the situation: yesterday I presented you for an ON-GOING READING LIST, today I have extended it. If this is how its gonna be, I’m heading towards a seriously busy summer – .
I started my morning reading a chapter of Christian McEwen’s inspirational book World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. It is the kind of book which speaks directly to writers and makers – like a poetic resource-book. If you are interested in knowing more, you should have a look at Michelle Aldredge’s great presentation of McEwen over at Gwarlingo:
Writer and poet Christian McEwen understands the relationship between time and imagination better than anyone. Her new book World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down makes a potent plea for us to live deeper, more deliberate lives. McEwen shows us that making art isn’t about squeezing yet another activity into an already overflowing schedule. It’s about making time for play and scheduling fewer activities and slowing down—creating what McEwen so eloquently describes as “a rich sufficiency of time.”
Agnes Martin and Arne Glimcher in New Mexico, March 5, 1979
Then I went on to read Arne Glimcher’s Agnes Martin—Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, (which I must hasten to add to my list, it is a MUST for every student of Martin’s work). In addition to Glimcher’s own story about his long lasting friendship with Martin, this very-very beautiful book also consist of Martin’s own notes, handwritten text reprinted in small leaflets added to the main book.
Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, by Pace Gallery owner Arne Glimcher, contains all the elements necessary to turn the tide. Glimcher gathers Martin’s images and manuscripts in sufficient quantity to recalibrate her oeuvre. He arranges them in fresh groupings and juxtapositions, using his curatorial finesse to craft many illuminating encounters. He also bares details of his experiences with Martin, via numerous Polaroids, a poetic chronicle of her somewhat illegal burial, and accounts of his studio visits in New Mexico. Many of the book’s materials were previously kept private, we learn, because Martin requested his biographical silence while she was alive.
So her I go, adding books to my list as if I had all the time in the world …
Agnes Martin is currently (3 June – 11 October 2015) on show at Tate Modern, London. Following the presentation at Tate Modern, the retrospective will travel to Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Due to … life … I will not get to see the London exhibition until September, but I have seen some of Martin’s work before. The first time at Documenta 12 in Kassel, 2007.
I’m deeply moved by her work. I think of her paintings and drawings not primarily as pictures, but more like meditations. Like timeless events of serene tranquility.
I recently learned that Martin was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in early adulthood. Those of you who have been reading this blog for years, might remember that I – a decade ago – worked on a research project studying language in psychosis. Trying to find out more about how being psychotic affected one’s language skills. I have since abandoned both research and the field of psychiatry.
Discovering Martin’s situation triggered my old interest. Martin’s symptoms included auditory hallucinations, spells of depression and catatonic trances. Some say her voices directed almost every aspect of her life, sometimes punitive and sometimes protective. But there are different ways of understanding how the disease affected her work.
This is from Princenthal’s biography Agnes Martin. Her Life & Work (2015):
Although the voices didn’t tell her what to paint – they seemed to steer clear of her work – the images that came to her through inspirations were fixed and articulate enough to suggest a relationship between visions and voices: she heard and saw things that others didn’t
Martin’s mental health will not be the main focus of my text. But I must say this: I find it really very impressive how she managed to work, making the most beautiful art, having to struggle with such a severe disability. It makes my respect for her – if possible – even greater.
And so, dear reader, be warned: there will definitively be more on Martin in the weeks to come …
Agnes Martin (b. 1912, Maklin, Saskatchewan, Canada; d. 2004 Taos, New Mexico) studied at Western Washington College of Education, Bellingham, WA, prior to receiving her B.S. (1942) from Teachers College, Columbia University. A few years following graduation, Martin matriculated at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where she also taught art courses before returning to Columbia University to earn her M.A. (1952)
plans for a never-ending summer
Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art
The Folded Clock: A Diary
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
World Enough & Time
Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy
A detail from Untitled #1 2003 by Agnes Martin. Photographs courtesy of the Estate of Agnes Martin