“I once taught art to adults in a night course. I had a woman who painted her back yard, and she said it was the first time she had ever really looked at it. I think everyone sees beauty. Art is a way to respond.”
As a painter, I understand a number of paintings more readily than most museum visitors. Yet there are still some that are challenging to appreciate. I’ll be honest: Agnes Martin’s work is hard for me to access. She paints and draws in a minimalist style, invoking meditation, repetition, and concepts of the infinite. I’ve never been very good at meditation, but I think that we miss something if we dismiss challenging pieces without trying to understand them. So bear with me while I relay to you the results of my grappling with Martin’s painting, ‘Leaf in the Wind‘ (graphite and acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 72″, 1963).
The 1950s-70s were a period in art history steeped in theory. Many artists wrote to explain their theory of art, or to provide a frame of reference for the viewer. While she does not present a robust philosophy of aesthetics, Agnes Martin’s writings and comments are still helpful as a starting point. Her work is clearly non-representational; she means for it to evoke a response, not to image some foreign object or setting. When questioned about her work, Martin explained,
“When people go to the ocean, they like to see it all day. . . . There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience, you become lighter and lighter in weight, and you wouldn’t want anything else. Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like a curtain; you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature– an experience of simple joy. . . the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”
Seeing Leaf in the Wind is a carefully controlled experience. You cannot look at it from across the room: the lines melt away, and all you behold is a blank white square. It is difficult to view it just inches away: you see the ridges of brush marks, the erasures, the unevenness in the pencil lines–but you cannot see the whole image. To actually see the whole piece, you have to stand between one foot and five feet back. Within this narrow window you may move around, examining the workmanship. Seven feet back the image begins to blur; if you have already seen it, you can meditate on the piece from this distance. The piece is difficult to photograph; it demands your physical presence.
Why is it white? Because of the purity and humility of the color. White is unassuming. Why is the grid drawn in with pencil? Because of the shimmering and fragile quality of a graphite line. Why is it a grid? Definitely not because grids are systematic, removed, or in any way mechanistic. Martin clearly uses a ruler, but just as clearly draws every line by hand, leaving them wavering slightly, sometimes not quite straight, sometimes drawn in and erased again where the line would break the pattern of the grid. These erasures are my favorite parts of the painting- traces of the artist’s hand, carefully, thoughtfully, slowly creating the image.
Why name it ‘Leaf in the Wind’? The title certainly recommends a meditative visual experience. Have you ever watched a leaf twisting in the wind? There is a graceful repetition, a motion apparently infinite, a twisting and returning. Martin particularly liked the veins and interwoven lines visible in the back of leaves. She writes:
“The underside of the leaf, cool in shadow, sublimely unemphatic, smiling of innocence. The frailest stems quiver in light, bend and break in silence. … [T]he paintings [are] not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”
Is the painting successful? Perhaps. I do not think it my duty to approve of everything simply because it is in a museum. After you have considered it carefully, after you have done due diligence to understand a piece, after you have seen it in person and grappled with it–if it still fails to move you, then it did not succeed. Painters with lofty aims do at times fail to achieve them. Personally, I am still unsure about Martin’s work. I am inclined to approve, but I need to spend more time in front of the painting before rendering a decision.
If you are interested in reading more about Agnes Martin, the Guggenheim has an excellent introductory page. If you want to read a more sophisticated art-critical discussion of Martin’s approach to drawing/painting, I recommend the book ‘3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing (Hilma of Klint, Emma Kunz, Agnes Martin)‘, edited by Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher. ‘