Agnes Martin on Art, Happiness, Pride, and Failure: A Rare Vintage Interview with the Reclusive Artist
“We all have the same inner life. The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.”
By Maria Popova
“Her art has the quality of a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer,” a New York critic once remarked of legendary abstract-expressionist painter and reconstructionist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004), as known for the transcendent power of her signature minimalist paintings as she is for being an incredibly reclusive, reticent, and media-shy artist, yet remarkably eloquent on the rare occasions she gave an interview, at once poetic and philosophical. Arguably the best of those was conducted by the prominent music, dance and art critic John Gruen in 1976, when Martin was sixty-four, and is found in Gruen’s The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists (public library) — an altogether magnificent out-of-print volume fifteen years in the making, featuring conversations with such creative legends as Saul Steinberg, Francis Bacon, and Roy Lichtenstein.
Gruen prefaces the conversation with a backdrop of what it’s like to be in Martin’s singular presence:
To meet Agnes Martin in person is to be in the presence of an austere and primitive sensibility — a presence that yields a slight sense of apprehension. Her appearance recalls photographs of Gertrude Stein at her most reserved and diffident.
Once they engaged in conversation, Gruen found her to be an artist who “rarely answered direct questions, but spoke in oracle fashion on matters that seemed applicable to the life of the artist” — all the while “nervously twisting and retwisting a white paper napkin.” Indeed, Martin’s meditation on the spirit of art exudes extraordinary timelessness and insight:
Toward freedom is the direction that the artist takes. Art work comes straight through a free mind — an open mind. Absolute freedom is possible. We gradually give up things that disturb us and cover our mind. And with each relinquishment, we feel better.
Martin, who was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, echoes Alan Watts’s admonition about the ego and continues:
You think it would be easy to discover what is blinding you, but it isn’t so easy. It’s pride and fear that covers the mind. Pride blinds you. It destroys everything on the way in. Pride is completely destructive. It never leaves anything untouched. First it takes one way … telling you that you’re all right … boosting up your ego, making all kinds of excuses for you… It takes a long time for us to turn against pride and get rid of it entirely. And, of course, with every little downfall of pride, we feel a tremendous step up in freedom and in joy. Of course, most people don’t really have to come to grips with pride and fear. But artists do, because as soon as they’re alone and solitary, they feel fear. Most people don’t believe they have pride and fear, because they’ve been conditioned on pride and fear. But all of us have it. If we don’t think we have it, then that’s a deceit of pride. Pride practices all kinds of deceits. It’s very, very tricky. To recognize and overcome fear and pride, in order to have freedom of mind, is a long process.
Martin revisits the notion of solitude as the cleansing ground of the mind when she considers what separates artists from other people:
If you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take. … When you’re with other people, your mind isn’t your own.
Possession of one’s own mind, Martin argues, is the heart of the creative spirit, so she rebels against the notion of influence:
I don’t believe in influence. I think that in order to be an artist, you have to move. When you stop moving, then you’re no longer an artist. And if you move from somebody else’s position, you simply cannot know the next step. I think that everyone is on his own line. I think that after you’ve made one step, the next step reveals itself. I believe that you were born on this line. I don’t say that the actual footsteps were marked before you get to them, and I don’t say that change isn’t possible in your course. But I do believe we unfold out of ourselves, and we do what we are born to do sooner or later, anyway.
In a testament to the power of grit and repeated failure as the path to creative success, Martin reflects on her own painting process with an insight that applies to just about any field of creative endeavor:
You’re permanently derailed. It’s through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure that you arrive at what it is you must paint.
For months, the first paintings don’t mean anything — nothing. But you have to keep going, despite all kinds of disappointments.
When Gruen inquiries about how Martin spends her days, she reveals herself to be an outlier on the spectrum of famous creators’ sleep habits and contributes to the eccentric daily routines of artists:
I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three in the afternoon, without any breakfast. You see, I have a visual image. But then to actually accurately put it down is a long, long way from just knowing what you’re going to do. Because the image comes into your mind after what it is. The image comes only to help you to know what it is. You’re really feeling what your real response is. And so, if you put down this image, you know it’s going to remind other people of the same experience.
First, I have the experience of happiness and innocence. Then, if I can keep from being distracted, I will have an image to paint.
It is Martin’s absolute conviction in creating out of happiness and with joy — a culturally necessary antidote to the toxic “tortured genius” myth of creativity, and a conviction shared by other such heartening creators as Ray Bradbury, Alice Walker, and Anna Quindlen — that leads her to share her curious conspiracy theory about Mark Rothko’s suicide, which she considers incompatible with the exuberant transcendence of his art:
Mark Rothko’s painting is pure devotion to reality. That’s what it is! I wish you could publish that I don’t believe for a minute that Rothko committed suicide. Nobody in that state of mind could. He was murdered, obviously… by the people who have profited or have tried to profit. Why, Rothko might have been the happiest man in this world, because his devotion was without mark or stain. He just poured it out, right from his heels!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vision for her own most iconic paintings — her ethereal geometric line-grids — sprang out of a similar “pure devotion to reality,” right out of her own heels, as it were. She recounts, in near-synesthetic terms:
One time, I was coming out of the mountains, and having painted the mountains, I came out on this plain, and I thought, “Ah! What a relief!” (This was just outside of Tulsa.) I thought, “This is for me!” The expansiveness of it. I sort of surrendered. This plain … it was just like a straight line. It was a horizontal line. And I thought there wasn’t a line that affected me like a horizontal line. Then, I found that the more I drew that line, the happier I got. First I thought it was like the sea … then, I thought it was like singing! Well, I just went to town on this horizontal line.
She adds an admonition to those who interpret — and thus misinterpret — her work to be about structure rather than about this underlying feeling of expansive happiness:
I’ve been doing those grids for years, but I never thought “Structure.” Structure is not the process of composition. Why, even musical compositions, which are very formally structured, are not about structure. Because the musical composer listens all the time. He doesn’t think about structure. So you must say that my work is not about structure.
Martin returns to the essential question of what defines the artist:
We all have the same inner life. The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.
The artist lives by perception. So that what we make is what we feel. The making of something is not just construction. It’s all about feeling… everything, everything is about feeling…. feeling and recognition!
Complement with this rare 1997 video interview with Martin, then treat yourself to The Artist Observed, which is an absolute treasure, should you be so lucky to find a surviving used copy.
Published March 31, 2014