Artist Agnes Martin on Inspiration, Interruptions, Cultivating a Creative Atmosphere, and the Only Type of Person You Should Allow Into Your Studio
By Maria Popova
During my annual surrender to a week of forced extroversion, I was acutely reminded of the perils of interruption in creative work. Although studies of the psychology of the optimal creative environment indicate that some artists and writers thrive when surrounded by stimulation, most creative work requires unburdened space and uninterrupted time for what Mary Oliver calls “that wild, silky part of ourselves” — also known by its commonplace name, inspiration — to reveal itself.
The nature of that wild, silky part and the conditions that best coax it forth is what the great artist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) examines with uncommon insight in her handwritten notes for a student lecture, included in the magnificent monograph Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (public library), edited by Martin’s longtime friend and Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher.
Martin begins with the often troublesome relationship between the artist’s ego and the artist’s art:
I have sometimes, in my mind, put myself ahead of my work and have suffered in consequence. I thought me, me and I suffered and the work suffered and for that I suffered more. I thought I was important. I was taught to think that. I looked very big and the work small. But now I see it quite differently. To think I am big and the work big, the position of pride, is not possible and to think I am small and the work small, the position of modesty, is not possible.
The only possible position for creative work, Martin suggests, is the position of inspiration, which she considers “the beginning and end of all art work.” For this notoriously elusive grab-bag concept she offers the crispest yet most expansive definition I have yet encountered:
An inspiration is a happy moment that takes us by surprise.
Many people are so startled by an inspiration or a condition of inspiration, which is so different from daily care, that they think that they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inspiration is there all the time for anyone whose mind is not covered over with thoughts and concerns, and [it is] used by everyone whether they realize it or not.
It is an untroubled state of mind. Of course, we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last, so we say that inspiration comes and goes, but it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again. We can therefore say that it is pervasive.
In a sentiment that echoes and adds dimension to Picasso’s famous proclamation that every child is an artist, Martin considers how our relationship with inspiration evolves over the course of a lifetime:
Young children have more time in which they are untroubled than adults. They have therefore more inspirations than adults. The moments of inspiration added together make what we refer to as sensibility — defined in the dictionary as “response to higher feelings.” The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children.
But inspiration, Martin argues, cannot be controlled or willed — it can only be surrendered to. She illustrates this by way of the child:
What is the experience of the small child in the dirt? He suddenly feels happy, rolls in the dirt probably, feels free, laughs and runs and falls. His face is shining… “The light was extraordinary, the feeling was extraordinary” is the way in which many adults describe moments of inspiration. Although they have had them all their lives they never really recall them and are always taken by surprise. Adults are very busy, taught to run all the time. You cannot run and be very aware of your inspirations.
It’s a sentiment that pierces our modern condition and calls Kierkegaard to mind — as he contemplated our greatest source of unhappiness more than a century earlier, the Danish philosopher lamented: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” To counter this ridiculousness, Martin urges artists to create a sanctuary for inspiration — a space devoid of busyness and dedicated to unburdened clarity of mind, with “no telephone,” where one is “to be disturbed only if the house is burning.” A century and a half after Delacroix admonished against social distractions in creative work, she counsels aspiring artists:
A studio is not a place in which to talk to friends. You will hate your friends if they destroy the atmosphere of your studio. As an artist you will have to try and live with inspiration. You are not like the little boy in the dirt free and open. The whole world which you now know intrudes. It is almost hopeless to expect clarity of mind. It is hopeless if your studio atmosphere cannot be preserved.
But there is one kind of person who should be allowed, even invited, into the artist’s studio — the kind that calls to mind Patti Smith’s notion of those who magnify your spirit. Martin writes:
There are some people to be allowed into the studio, however, who will not destroy the atmosphere but will bring encouragement and who are an absolute necessity in the field of art. They are not personal friends. Personal friends are a different thing entirely and should be met in cafés. They are Friends of Art.
Friends of art are people with very highly developed sensibilities whose inspiration leads them to devote their lives to the promotion of art work and to bringing it before the public.
Such “friends of art,” Martin argues, bring with them a highly attuned intuition — intuition being, of course, merely the accretion of experience-encoded discernment — which can help guide the artist closer to his or her own truth:
When they come to see the work it is not to judge it but to enjoy it… When these friends of art come to your studio they should be treated as honored guests, otherwise you will destroy the atmosphere of your studio yourself. If you are not ready to do this, be sure to wait till you are ready. The premature showing of work when you are perhaps struggling and even fighting is an unnecessary suffering. You will know when you are really ready.
Because the studio should be a sacred space for the untroubled mind, Martin recommends avoiding physical clutter in order to prevent mental clutter:
You must clean and arrange your studio in a way that will forward a quiet state of mind. This cautious care of atmosphere is really needed to show respect for the work. Respect for art work and everything connected with it, one’s own and that of everyone else, must be maintained and forwarded. No disrespect, carelessness or ego [and] selfishness must be allowed to interfere if it can be prevented. Indifference and antagonism are easily detected — you should take such people out immediately. Just turning the paintings to the wall is not enough. You yourself should not go to your studio in an indifferent or fighting mood.
Couple the beautiful and revelatory Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, which features gorgeous reproductions of her most celebrated artwork alongside previously unpublished interviews, essays, and meditations, with Martin on art, pride, failure, and happiness, then revisit Tchaikovsky on work ethic vs. inspiration and Bob Dylan on the ideal conditions for creative work.
Published February 23, 2016