Drawing the Line
The ultimate minimalist, Agnes Martin has pursued a life as spare and rigourous as her famous gridded canvasses. On the occasion of the artist’s eightieth birthday and her first major retrospective, Rosamond Bernier talks with her about her quest for “abstract emotion.”
November 1992

Portrait of the artist: Agnes Martin, in her natural surroundings near Santa Fe.

On a country road not far from Santa Fe, a white BMW sedan came flying along. Not more than six inches above the steering wheel, the piercing face of one of the most remarkable heads of our time was fixed upon the road ahead. There was a glimpse of close‑cut gray hair, a strong jaw, cheeks the color of a McIntosh apple, a face for all weathers.

Hardly had the vision passed than a friend said, "Who on earth was that? She looked like Beethoven's sister."

"Not at all," I replied. "That is Agnes Martin, the painter."

"Agnes Martin?" he said. "The celebrated recluse? The painter of abstract altarpieces? The one who breathes air too fine and too thin for the rest of us? Didn't you see those formidable forearms? This had to be someone else."

What he said was both true and untrue. Agnes Martin is, indeed, a celebrated artist, the subject of a full‑scale retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York from November 6 through January 31, 1993. For many years she has aimed in her paintings at an absolute abstraction, in which nothing is described and nothing is alluded to.

The paintings ‑every one of them exactly six feet square- glow with an inner light that has been called "otherworldly." But Miss Martin won't buy "otherworldly," and she won't buy "altarpiece," either.

The aim of her paintings, with their gentle, persistent distillations of color and their floating rectangles of form, is "to reproduce completely our most subtle emotions." These emotions are abstract ‑unprompted, that is to say, by anything in the world around us. "It's like if you wake up in the morning and are happy for no reason. That's abstract emotion, like the emotion that we feel when we listen to music.

"Most people are so distracted by what's going on around them that they have trouble realizing that they have abstract emotions. But if an artist can depict those emotions, and if people respond to the art, then they realize that they've had those same emotions all the time, without knowing it. I have a hard time getting it across, but I know that abstract feelings are all positive. The more of them people have, the better they are.

"If people have a painting of mine in the house, I like them to put it in the bedroom. If it's the first thing they see when they wake up, they respond to abstract emotions before the stresses of the day can strike."

To make her paintings, Agnes Martin lives alone in a tiny town in New Mexico, leading what she once called "her own original life" and not a copy or an imitation of someone else's. From that life all inessentials are excluded, just as they are excluded from her paintings. "The one thing you have to be able to do, if you're an artist, is to be able to be alone."

Thus far, she might sound like St. Jerome in the desert, minus his lion. She does not have a TV. She enjoys music ‑Beethoven symphonies, above all‑ but rarely listens to it. "Too stimulating," she says. Does she read, on evenings alone? "I don't read nonfiction. Big thinkers stick to your mind, prey upon you, and bring destruction. I prefer detective stories. " Which ones? "The same as everyone else. Agatha Christie."

A new completed painting hangs in Martin’s vast studio.

Martin priming a canvas.

But "a recluse" really won't do. It is not the act of a recluse to teach a class of illiterate and delinquent boys, as she once did in Albuquerque, and get them to act out stories that she made up for them. Later they made up stories of their own, in one of which a donkey had a major role. She built them a donkey's head, which brought the house down ‑so much so that the entire audience wanted to ride the donkey. And what happened? "I didn't let them. My mother was a great disciplinarian ‑she could stop a riot by raising her eyebrow half an inch‑ and I may have inherited some of that."

What is true is that her life, from its outset, has been that of a sturdy, downright resourceful, fearless, and immensely private human being. The granddaughter, on both sides, of covered-wagon men and women of Scottish extraction who knew their way around vast American spaces, she could never afford, and did not aspire, to sit at home thinking elevated thoughts. She had pioneers' blood in her, and it gave her quite other ideas.

Born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, in March 1912, she was a natural athlete who was eligible one year for the Canadian Olympic swimming team. (Her parents thought she was too young to go.) But she made up her mind to get herself an education. Not just "an education," either, but the best there was. Moving to the United States border, she studied from 1935 to 1938 at a college in Washington State. In 1941 she got to New York, where for the first time she had great works of art on every hand.

In 1942 she graduated with a bachelor of science degree from Teachers College at Columbia University. She went to study, or to teach, or both, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in Washington State, and later back to Columbia, where she took a master of fine arts degree in 1952.

To support herself she did a bit of everything. She worked as a playground supervisor, as a baker's helper, as a tennis coach ("it was not competitive tennis"), as a matron of a summer school in Taos, and as a schoolteacher in Washington State, New Mexico, and Oregon. "Whenever I was really starving, I washed dishes. That way you were closer to the food." But more to the point is her mastery of the highly unreclusive arts of logging and house construction.

She has always been a builder, a logger, a tireless physical worker. She does not disdain help with building, and at one time even persuaded her students that they needed to learn how to lay adobe brick. ("We built a house in four weekends.") But she takes it for granted that, in building a house or a studio, which she has done more than once, she can shift adobe bricks that weigh thirty‑six pounds apiece. She can also cut everything from roof beams to firewood, using a chain saw that ‑with inexpert handling‑ would have cut right through her wrist and left her hand on the floor.

How did she learn? "People in the store showed me. And then I had a friend who logged way up on the mesa where I lived, and he showed me how to sharpen it, and clean it, and everything." She sums up by saying, "I've cut a lot of wood," and we'd better believe it.

That easy, lifelong physicality can be sensed in everything that she does, and not least in the paintings, for all their apparent delicacy and fragility. "Painting takes a lot of energy," she will say, with her habitual lack of emphasis.

She was forty‑five when she moved to New York from Taos, New Mexico, a painter already singled out by Betty Parsons, one of the best dealers in the city, and she had made it on her own, without even trying to sell the paintings on which she had been working for the previous twenty years.

"I'd done every kind of picture ‑portraits, landscapes, still lifes‑ but I didn't want to show them. It wasn't till I found the grid, in New York in 1960, that I felt satisfied with what I was doing," she explains. " When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees, and I thought the grid represented innocence, and I still do. So I painted it, and I've been doing it for thirty years."

The entry to the artist’s compound near Santa Fe.

In New York, between 1957 and 1967, in the former sailmaker's loft where she lived on Coenties Slip, south of Wall Street, hers was not a lonely life. Her neighbors and very good friends were Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana, and Delphine Seyrig, the French actress who will never be forgotten for her role in Last Year at Marienbad. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were round the corner. And when she began to show in New York at the Betty Parsons Gallery, Barnett Newman came to hang her work for her. "He was much better at it than I was." And in New Mexico today, almost within hailing distance, she has as neighbors three of the best artists of their generation -Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg, and Richard Tuttle.

Not a hermit, therefore. But her life had, even on Coenties Slip, a nuance all her own. "We were very friendly, but we didn't hang out together. When you finish a painting, you have to do something else to get it off your mind. But though we went to the same places ‑and the best thing in the world is to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge‑ we didn't go there at the same time. Besides, if you're really seriously moving ahead in art, it's better not to get involved and talk and argue about it."

In 1967 she lost her studio, left New York, roamed the country in a camper for a year and a half, and finally chose to settle in New Mexico. "I'd had a vision of an adobe brick ‑just one big one- and it somehow convinced me that New Mexico was the place where I had to live."

She found some land, built a house with her own hands, lived in it, and liked it. Then it turned out that she didn't own the land after all. She lost the land, and she lost the house.

Undeterred, she looked elsewhere and picked the small town not far from Santa Fe, where she now lives. Once there, she unhooked her camper and set it fast in adobe bricks. ("That's one trailer that'll never move again," she says.) One building followed another. And now, at the entrance to an apparently ramshackle property at the end of a winding, lengthy, dead‑end country lane, the name "Martin" is pricked out in capital letters. It serves to inform, but not to welcome, the uninvited enthusiast who shows up during painting hours. (Though born eighty years ago, Agnes Martin still works from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. every day.)

Visitors who come in awe, and almost in terror, are surprised to find that in the right company she likes to party. She loved it when she was in Taos. "I would have starved to death to get there, and I very nearly did. But the painters had wonderful parties there. They really were what people think about when they imagine artists having a good time together."

But it is also true that there are few people who can use a single syllable to greater effect. Did she have any memorable experiences with fellow students or teachers when she was a student at Columbia? No. Has she kept up with her friends from Coenties Slip? No. Or with her friends from Taos? No. It is the apotheosis of negation, that little uninflected sound. Almost inaudibly brought out in the flat Canadian accent that she has never quite lost, it is often accompanied by an abrupt sideways motion of her well‑trimmed hand, as if she were brushing a fly away.

On the other hand, she is a great listener. She turns her head toward the speaker. Half thinker, half seer, she focuses her all‑seeing gaze upon eyes and lips. A deep silence, born of attention, envelops her. It could be disconcerting, but the speaker ‑old friend or new acquaintance- feels drawn into a magic space in which anything can be said without hesitation and will be heard without prejudice.

For the visitor who has heard of her near‑Olympic achievement, her stocky and powerful frame, still upright at eighty, takes on a new significance. So does the ease with which she picks up her paintings, each exactly seventy‑two inches square, and carries them back and forth across her studio. (Unlike most painters, she positions them in an ungrateful and uneven light and leaves it to them to speak for themselves.)

She is not boastful. "I'm going to show you a failure," she will say, before destroying it. Pale blue rectangles did a duet with palest yellow ones. It was very seductive. "Yes, but it suggests the sea. That's what's wrong with it." Direct or specific echoes of landscape are taboo in this studio.

The format took some finding. "But it's as big as everybody. You can just feel like slipping into it. It's the full size of the human body. Besides, everything divides into seventy‑two‑three and four, two and six, everything."

Other paintings passed her scrutiny. The unvarying square format was softened, not to say teased, by subtle variations of touch and tone. Here and there a drawn line spoke for a human intervention, as against the rigors of the format. "There's something aggressive about a square."

How does she feel about her new show at the Whitney? "I guess you could call it stage fright." A retrospective prompts some to go all out for a big bang. But most of the new paintings destined for the show are very quiet, as if marked quadruple pianissimo. At eighty, Agnes Martin is not going to send out for a bass drum. But then she has never needed to. As the late Lawrence Alloway, an early admirer, said in 1973, "An artist like Martin can fill the house with a whisper."

The Agnes Martin retrospective will travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Center for the Fine Arts in Miami, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and the Centro Reina Sofia in Madrid.