I learnt of Agnes Martin through my partner’s mother, a wonderful artist herself. Martin’s works are very literary, I think. Aside from the fact that she was a voracious essayist and diarist (many of her catalogues include pages from her notebooks), her works visually represent the way I wish to write. Spare, block by block, detailed, neat, idiosyncratic. It is through order and tidiness that she achieves such personal, intimate art. Her paintings are often named for feelings of love and varieties of personal connection. I am not an art writer, so I can’t provide you with a detailed critical analysis of Martin’s work. Instead, I will tell you how she makes me feel. Calm and thoughtful: even and capable. Here, I will show you some of her work.
First, Little Sister. It was finished in 1962. Martin’s Guggenheim webpage tells us that it is made of ‘oil, ink, and brass nails on canvas and wood’. “Little” and “sister” are two very beautiful words. They sound good; they have the best number of syllables. They mean something intimate and universal; they are loric, rather than historic. I have little sisters; three. Aside from the similarity in fabric and skin colours, this painting doesn’t remind me of them as individuals. I think that this artwork is about giving advice. I give my sisters advice all the time. They do not usually enjoy it. However, when I give them advice, it is because I can see the events and emotions of my own life, so confusing and inarticulate while experienced, lining up to present me with at least some answers. Try this, but please don’t try this. Be careful here. Just be careful, please. I often give it badly. Little Sister knows this. It wants me to think before I speak.
Untitled #3, 1974. I thought it might be nice for you to see the range of materials Martin makes use of. This is ‘acrylic, graphite, and gesso on canvas’ (Tate). It is a very stylish and elegant painting. That’s all I can say. It’s beautiful. I wonder if Millennial Pink, while they sit in their plush velvet pouf in the evening, knows how much they owe to Martin for her exploration of their uses and aspects.
I don’t have much to say about this painting, except that if it were on my study wall I think I would get a lot more work done. Untitled gives me the space to think. I keep looking and looking at this painting, and the blue starts to move gently in waves off the border of the paper to the left, while ever washing in from the right. This painting is a film.
I hope you can see what makes these works so beautiful and gentle. I hope you had different associations, and that you enjoyed reading my own unprofessional thoughts. I’m going to leave you now with this still from a film of the artist at work in 1960 by Alexander Liberman. You can view the film at the Guggenheim’s Agnes Martin webpage, as well as see other works, and listen to interviews with the artist.
Words by Pema Monaghan
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 4 GIRL