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
Criticism isn’t a form of poetic writing, but the form I plan to use for my text on Agnes Martin, the essay, might be. On can write a lyrical essay. It will be difficult, but I believe it is possible if one let’s the art one writes about seep into the text.
In a wonderful text on Edward Hopper the late Mark Strand demonstrated what is possible. Here are some excerpts:
… But what is it that determines the success of the final work? The coincidence of vision—his idea, vague at first, of what the painting might be—and the brute fact of the subject, its plain obdurate existence, just “out there” with an absolutely insular existence.
Edward Hopper: Reclining Female Nude, Rear View, 1900–1906
Until, that is, Edward Hopper sees something about it as a possible subject for a painting and this image with its possibilities lodges itself in Hopper’s imagination and the formation of the painting’s content begins—content being, of course, what the artist brings to his subject, that quality that makes it unmistakably his, so when we look at the painting of a building or an office or a gas station, we say it’s a Hopper. We don’t say it’s a gas station. By the time the gas station appears on canvas in its final form it has ceased being just a gas station. It has become Hopperized.
It possesses something it never had before Hopper saw it as a possible subject for his painting. And for the artist, the painting exists, in part, as a mode of encountering himself. Although the encountered self may not correspond to the vision of possibility that a particular subject seemed to offer up. When Hopper said, in an interview with Brian O’Doherty, “I’m after ME,” this is undoubtedly what he meant.
Edward Hopper: Automat, 1927
Something lifts the paintings beyond the representational registers of realism into the suggestive, quasi-mystical realm of meditation. Moments of the real world, the one we all experience, seem mysteriously taken out of time. The way the world glimpsed in passing from a train, say, or a car, will reveal a piece of a narrative whose completion we may or may not attempt, but whose suggestiveness will move us, making us conscious of the fragmentary, even fugitive nature of our own lives.
This may account for the emotional weight that so many Hopper paintings possess. And why we lapse lazily into triteness when trying to explain their particular power. Again and again, words like “loneliness” or “alienation” are used to describe the emotional character of his paintings.
—Mark Strand, On Edward Hopper
Strand is making an important point in this text: one can not grasp the artness of art through/in everyday language. Art is per definition a transgression of the ordinary. Art is something else – somewhere else, always. We can write towards it, but not transform it into words. Here is how Strand ends his text, writing on women in Hopper’s world:
Edward Hopper: Morning Sun, 1952
His women do not seem to have lives apart from the rooms in which we find them. They peer out into a world, the one the rest of us occupy—and it may be with a degree of longing—but it is not their world. And it is this detachment from our world that compromises their erotic presence. They are unavailable. We feel it as certainly as we do the assertive geometrical character of the rooms they occupy. This spatial solidity is what lends the paintings an air of permanence and fixes the woman in place, as in Morning Sun (1952).
So much so that imagining them in any other context represents only a form of escape on the viewer’s part from the imprisoning resolution of the painting. The tendency to create narratives around the works of Hopper only sentimentalizes and trivializes them. The women in Hopper’s rooms do not have a future or a past. They have come into existence with the rooms we see them in. And yet, on some level, these paintings do invite our narrative participation—as if to show how inadequate it is. No, the paintings are each a self-enclosed universe in which its mysteriousness remains intact, and for many of us this is intolerable. To have no future, no past would mean suspension, not resolution—the unpleasant erasure of narrative, or any formal structure that would help normalize the uncanny as an unexplainable element in our own lives.
—Mark Strand, On Edward Hopper
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
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
– spending my morning mulling over:
Musée des Beaux Arts
by W.H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Icarus might be difficult to spot at first, but here he is, down in the right hand corner of the canvas
Auden’s poem is a perfect example of ekphrasis, it is also a poem which plays an important role in an art-work I’m reviewing;
which reminds me of
… oh no!
not yet –
– back to work!