Agnes Martin: She painted with her back to the world

Google celebrates abstract impressionist Agnes Martin with a doodle today. What did Agnes Martin say about inspiration, creativity, and the metaphysical influences on her work?

Google screenshot
Google honors Agnes Martin with an abstract representation of its name in the style of an Agnes Martin painting.

Today, Google celebrates the 102th anniversary of the birth of Agnes Martin, an artist famous for her abstract expressionist work.

Agnes Martin is a big name in the world of modern art. Her work has been the subject of more than 85 solo shows and two retrospectives. And the prices for her work reflect that appreciation. In 2012, her "Untitled #7" sold for more than $4 million.

Almost as interesting as the arc of her work, are some of her ideas about how art is created, and how it is experienced. Clearly, some of her ideas were shaped by Taoism and Zen Buddhism, which she reportedly studied while she was a student at Columbia University, where she got her B.S. in education in 1942.

Her "belief in the truth of unfettered inspiration over intellectualism set Martin apart from her contemporaries. The qualities of beauty and perfection evident in Martin’s paintings bear testimony to the artist’s spiritualism and disciplined approach to life. Famously claiming that she ‘painted with her back to the world’," according to artdaily.org.

In this excerpt from a 1995-96 interview with art critic Joan Simon, Martin shared some of her thinking about perfection and beauty.

Joan Simon: In what sense do you consider your work spiritual?
Agnes Martin: I think that our minds respond to things beyond this world. Take beauty: it's a very mysterious thing, isn't it? I think it's a response in our minds to perfection. It's too bad, people not realizing that their minds expand beyond this world.

JS: What enables people to do that?
AM: They do it...
JS: .....without knowing it?
AM: Everybody. My paintings are certainly nonobjective. They're just horizontal lines.
There's not any hint of nature. And still everybody responds, I think.

...
JS: Did your studies of Eastern thought and religions enter into your work in any
specific way?
AM: What I say is that we're capable of a transcendent response, and I think it makes
us happy. And I do think beauty produces a transcendent response.

JS: In your writings and in your lectures the word perfection comes up often.
AM: You can't make a perfect painting. We can see perfection in our minds. But we
can't make a perfect painting.

In an essay accompanying the catalog for a 1992 Agnes Martin retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Barbara Haskell, wrote: “For Agnes Martin, perfection is neither otherworldly – something separate from and transcending the temporal process – nor is it a holiness that inhabits physical matter.  It is the intensity of absolute beauty and happiness experienced when our minds are empty of ego and the distractions of the everyday world.  In these flashes, worries dissolve and we feel enormous exultation and peace, not unlike the state of grace in Christian theology.  However elusive and fleeting these experiences are, they are nevertheless available at every moment to everyone.  The task, as Martin defines it, is to further our potential to see perfection within life.”

In an interview in 1997, Martin elaborates on the idea of clearing one's mind to allow inspiration to flow. She suggests that too many artists are egocentric.

"The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself," she says.

And in his essay about Martin, Washington Post writer Michael Cavna quotes Martin along similar lines: "Artwork is a representation of our devotion to life,” she said. “The enormous pitfall is devotion to oneself instead of to life. All works that are self-devoted are absolutely ineffective.”

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