The Marginalian
The Marginalian

35 Odd Jobs Celebrated Painter Agnes Martin Held Before She Became an Artist

35 Odd Jobs Celebrated Painter Agnes Martin Held Before She Became an Artist

Beloved Canadian-born artist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) endures as an enchantress of solitude, whose sparse and serene paintings radiate a largehearted devotion to what is best and purest in the human spirit. Out of seeming contradiction she has wrested beautiful complementarity — in her meticulously gridded lines, absolute control unlocks absolute freedom. Even to the most prepared viewer of her paintings, transcendence comes like a sunrise — known yet wholly new, irrepressibly astonishing. “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees,” Martin recalled, and this longing for innocence, for giving shape to happiness, became the animating force of her art and life.

Agnes Martin (public library) — the beautiful companion book to the Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective — celebrates the work and life of the beloved artist, a life more difficult and complex than her tranquil paintings and her composed sagacity belie.

Agnes Martin in her studio, 1954. (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)
Agnes Martin in her studio, 1954. (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)

A formidable swimmer, Martin qualified for the Canadian Olympic swim team at sixteen, but did not attend the games. After graduating high school at the age of twenty-one, she received a swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California. But she soon found herself unable to relate to her peers and dropped out. This sense of outsiderdom — a sense familiar to many artists and central to the genius of Blake and Beethoven, both of whom Martin admired greatly — would never leave her. Homosexual and schizophrenic in an era when both weighed one down with leaden stigma, Martin grew increasingly reclusive as she grew older. But while such peerlessness is a place of great loneliness, it is also a place of great artistic opportunity.

Martin eventually attended Teachers College at New York’s Columbia University and it was there, at the age of thirty, that she decided to become an artist. In the decade she spent in New York, her art began attracting significant attention — a double-edged sword onto which she was unwilling to lacerate herself. After the death of her dear friend and mentor Ad Reinhardt the destruction of the building where she lived and painted, Martin abruptly left New York. In a testament to the nuanced relationship between creativity and mental illness, she had a mental vision of an adobe brick — likely a hallucination induced by her illness — and moved to New Mexico, where she built an adobe herself and disappeared into solitude.

Under the Taoist tenet of egolessness, she considered pride the gravest moral failing. Her exodus from New York was in part a response to her revulsion to celebrity culture and to what she considered the corruption of the artist’s soul by critical acclaim and commercial success — something she had come to fear greatly as her own work was garnering increasing veneration.

Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997
Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997

Unlike other women artists of the era like Frida Kahlo and Giorgia O’Keeffe, whose personal lives were dragged into the spotlight as inseparable from the public interest in their art, Martin led a solitary life away from the public eye. Contrary to certain cynical interpretations, which have argued that Martin wished to hide her homosexuality, I am apt to believe that her deliberate privacy sprang from the same source as her art: A desire to strip away everything unnecessary, of which Martin considered the ego the most unnecessary, and a continual quest for serenity and selfless happiness. She considered her paintings to be “about freedom from the cares of this world, from worldliness,” and she lived her life accordingly.

In her sixtieth year, Martin articulated this ethos beautifully in a set of lecture notes resembling a philosophical prose poem, titled “The Untroubled Mind,” in which she writes:

People get what they need from a painting
The painter need not die because of responsibility
When you have inspiration and represent inspiration
The observer makes the painting
The painter has no responsibility to stimulate his needs
It’s all an enormous process
No suffering is necessary
All of it is only enlightening, this is life

Agnes Martin, Self Portrait, c. 1947. (Collection of Christa Martin)
Agnes Martin, Self Portrait, c. 1947. (Collection of Christa Martin)

But as much as Martin sought to shed the self, she — like all of us — was an incremental accumulation of all her past selves, many of which utterly surprising and utterly endearing in their unexpectedness in the context of her legacy as a revered artist.

Toward the end of her long life, Martin consented, somewhat reluctantly, to a biography. She enlisted the help of her longtime friend and Pace Gallery founder Arnold Glimcher, who represented her and would later assemble her unpublished writings. In a letter to Glimcher about the biographical details of her life, Martin winks at how she feels about the whole project:

I read yesterday [about] a scholar who discovered that a Chinese painter died in 1256 not 1257. I can’t understand scholarship, just didn’t get the point.

Nonetheless, she goes on to provide, under the dictate “Please publish all or none,” a list of thirty-five odd jobs she held in her life before becoming an artist at the age of thirty — a list equal parts amusing and poignant given Martin’s late-life assertion that “doing what you were born to do” is the way to be happy.

The list, untroubled by grammar and punctuation, offers potent encouragement to aspiring artists in deconditioning the myth of a straight upward trajectory along one’s chosen path of purpose — especially since Martin herself liked to say that she painted for twenty years before she made a painting that she liked. It also attests to the complexity and richness of experience animating an artist whose paintings invite meaning through simplicity, and offers an endearing glimpse of Martin’s character — so many of these jobs are devoted to service and social work, so many demand hard menial labor, and so many entail swaths of boredom, that seedbed of creativity.


I have worked:

  1. as a play ground Director
  2. as a tennis coach
  3. started two successful businesses
  4. on a farm — milking
  5. three times at the wheat harvest
  6. managed cherry pickers
  7. for a mining Co. managed Indians horse packing supplies
  8. taught three years in country schools
  9. as a cashier
  10. in a factory
  11. in a hamburger stand
  12. as a receptionist
  13. in a butcher shop
  14. in a nursery
  15. in a cafeteria
  16. as a bakers helper
  17. as a waitress many times
  18. as a dishwasher three times
  19. as a janitor once
  20. as a cook once
  21. during the War

  22. helping Spanish and Indian get in touch with relatives in the Army (Red Cross)
  23. visited spruce logging operation for government
  24. at Swan Island (liberty ships) child care center
  25. running an elevator
  26. in a parking garage
  27. packing ice cream
  28. managed five Hindus, baling straw
  29. As a disciplinarian
    worked with deprived boys
  30. on school buses
  31. with 60 boy waiters
  32. house mother on campus
  33. chaperone traveling University Students
  34. with criminal boys
  35. individual child care
    2 girls and one boy age 4-5-6
  36. also raised rabbits and ducks

Complement the Guggenheim’s Agnes Martin with the beloved artist on art, happiness, pride, and failure and her abiding wisdom on inspiration, interruptions, and how to cultivate a creative atmosphere, then revisit the story of how Van Gogh found his purpose.

Published October 31, 2016




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