Agnes Martin’s Writings

February 4, 2009

Agnes Martin’s Writings read like art torah, striving towards an inner perfection and finding a place of honesty in one’s efforts. In my work I am at a crisis and wish I could spend more time wrapped in her process. Her ideas are profound, yet resonate with the dailiness of life, as she seeks an underlying awareness of perfection. I found myself wishing I had some Agnes Martin chip I could have installed in my head (keeping these ways of thinking at the forefront of my thoughts about art and writing). She is wise in exactly the way I am not.

At the center of her ideas are notions of Truth and perfection, concepts that historically were at the center of art, but nowadays seem sidelined as old-fashioned or outdated, maybe just too big. Art has become mired in a network of relativism, but Martin’s ideas elucidate a path of engagement, hinting at universal guiding truths that acknowledge the uniqueness of experience and individual consciousness. She warns that other “people’s lives will look better to us than our own, more interesting and more rewarding” (113), but that this leads away from the truth of our own work. “To correct this state of mind you must say to yourself: I want to live a true life” (113).

At work in Martin’s writings and lectures on art is a very Platonic notion that our world is an approximation of an idealized perfection. At its heart is the idea that creating art is a process of translating ideas from our minds into an imperfect world that mirrors this Platonic model. Martin states that happiness is found in the brief instances when one becomes aware of this perfection, moments of insight. It comes through courting inspiration in our work, but our vocation is in the striving to perceive.

We must surrender the idea that this perfection that we see in the mind or before our eyes is obtainable or attainable. It is really far from us. We are no more capable of having it than the infant that tries to eat it. But our happiness lies in our moments of awareness of it. (69)

Perceiving for Martin is of the utmost importance, and in this perceiving one must be vigilant in the truthfulness of how one sees. Engaged in the moment and open to inspiration, this isn’t an intellectual pursuit, but one of seeing.

Thinking; we consider that which we perceived. It is a secondary experience. Thinking compares everything that we have perceived with everything that we are perceiving at the moment. (89)

As someone who is frequently accused of thinking too much and over thinking everything I work on, Martin’s ideas are a useful balm. I need more engagement in the process of perceiving the truthfulness of the work I create, while cutting loose intellectual prattle and constant second-guessing. I am enamored with her statement that all true art needs to fail in order to succeed, because through this collapse, honest work emerges. Illustrating the tug of fear and pride on the validity of creating, Agnes Martin leaves us with this image:

For those who are visual minded I will say: there seems to be a fine ship at anchor. Fear is the anchor, convention is the chain, ghosts stalk the decks, the sails are filled with Pride and the ship does now move. (74)

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