The Tug of the Earth and the Tug of the Sky: The Writhing Stillness of Agnes Martin

Ask yourself, What kind of happiness do I feel with this music or this picture? 

– Agnes Martin, “Beauty is the Mystery of Life” (1989)


In the hard grids I find a quivering line.

In the pure color I catch a fade.

With My Back to the World (1997): Cool washes of neverland blue band with creamed vanilla, salmon pink whispers, and a swathe of dusty cloud. Wider and thinner, one striped sky leads to another, six windows in one chamber, each peering onto another prairie. Do you feel their intense calm, the delicate wrist that crafted each atmosphere? Regular in their geometry but inconstant in their color, the planes cutting the light like a window’s louvered panes. With my back to the world, they are not windows out but windows in. Stare at the wall long enough, with severe meditation, and any wall will crack and score, warp and weave, and out of the nothing, color can be coaxed. The perfection of hue manifested with human imperfection, stained with pigment to make semi-permanent (nothing lasts long but the earth and the mountains, says Red Antelope), but this long moment found after years of solitude and presence, silence and contemplation, this work, six paintings spread across a room and made into one vision, just one, that attempts at reflecting the perfection of the world back on itself, with her back to the world.

As ice-creamy as Agnes Martin’s paintings can get, I never want to lick them as much as I want them to lick me. I want some spectral tongue, rough and gentle, to reach and pacify my anxieties with its kindness, take all the storm out of my stormy soul. Perhaps her paintings do this, already.

Horizon lines for still seas on winter days.

Bricked up, her grids can look so much like undried walls at a glance. They are lines that do not limit; these are not slats or bricks but bands of light. You almost feel you can move your hand through them. The netting of lines shapes vision without limiting movement.

Sand and Harbors. Desert Rain and Heather. The Heavenly Race (Running) like shingles on the side of a galactic breeze.

These are just a few titles, most of them stand naked of names, the date more important than a repetition of Untitled. Here at the LACMA for this traveling retrospective, the information is ticked on the side, easy to ignore. It gives a date and material, an acknowledgement of ownership, a list for me to hang a thought on if my mind needs a hook. But the paintings don’t want a hook. They don’t care when they were made, the titles, when they have them, are just little koans to see if they can’t trick you through language into the emotion of their making.

“Beauty illustrates happiness: the wind in the grass, the glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds – all speak of happiness.” – Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin came from the Canadian Prairies (born in 1912) and went into the New Mexican desert (died 2004) both places filled with a writhing stillness. Rippling grass and naked earth, they are weighted on a clear day with the heavy emptiness of purest blue, the kind of blue that ripples with silence. Looking at an Agnes Martin painting is as close as I can ever get to being Agnes Martin, watching the prairie grass shiver, mirages rising out of the dust.

Between the Prairies and New Mexico, Martin lingered for a time in New York. Then she wandered. She stopped making paintings. When she landed in the desert, she built a little adobe house and tried to discover the depth of real solitude. An ascetic intensity. After some years, she started making paintings again. These were similar to the ones before, but lighter. Less defined, more unencumbered. A hard clarity won.

Both the earlier and the later work are beautiful to me, but in the first I feel the tug of the earth and in the second the tug of the sky. After six years away from art, Martin called her return in 1973, a portfolio of screen prints, On a Clear Day. I read that one of her favorite songs was Blue Skies written by Irving Berlin. Arne Glimcher related the story in his memoirs: on her deathbed, aged 92, after working until nearly the end, he held her hand and sang a few bars.

Blue days, all of them gone

Nothin’ but blue skies from now on

At the end, Homage to Life. A black square in flat sands perspectively narrowing in the distance or a matte trapezoid or a Bedouin’s midnight tent. The distant movements of a strange shivering energy wave through the flatness of the surrounding gray. An infinite void of black, shaped or shaping, the infinite gray around it. It was made a year before her death in 2003.

The first time I walked through Agnes Martin’s retrospective, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. Hardly sentimental or personal, but a feeling of an elusive, sublime connection to people, landscapes, all the things. It’s hard to feel communion with others, environments, objects, to all that happens outside our immediate perception and much of what’s within, but sometimes I can find a connection and these paintings let me glimpse, through their lines and colors, a bit of the infinite. Surrounded by mountains, adrift on oceans beyond sight of land, waist deep in a field that stretches to the edge of all horizons, I feel small. These paintings are not mountains or prairies or oceans, but they are awfully close, about as close as any of us can get.

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