The Tate Museum in London is showing a large retrospective of the work of American painter Agnes Martin until October 11, 2015. The exhibition will continue to Dusseldorf, New York, and Los Angeles. An exhibition catalog will be published this month.
A new biography was also recently published. (A review from the New York Times is here). Martin lived a very Spartan and difficult life and suffered from schizophrenia. She also contradicted herself often in conversations with friends and writers. That doesn’t take away from the purity of the work.
After leaving New York in 1967, Agnes Martin lived in near isolation in Cuba, New Mexico. She moved to Galisteo, New Mexico, in 1978 and eventually became friends with the many artists who lived nearby, including Bruce Nauman, Jennifer Bartlett, Richard Tuttle, Harmony Hammond, and others. In 1983, my friend Kristina Hagman moved to Galisteo and became friends with her. I asked Kristina to remember the time she spent with Agnes.
Q: How did you meet Agnes Martin?
Kristina Hagman: I had just moved to Galisteo from New York, determined to give up acting and become a full time-painter. I was in my early 20s and had no formal art training except for hearing lectures while I modeled for classes at the San Francisco Academy of Art. With youthful conviction, I woke up very early every morning to paint the landscape. Agnes was an early riser too, and for days she walked past me without saying a word.
One day she stopped and looked at my painting for a long time and said, “You have got it all in there.” That was all. She continued to stop and watch me for weeks and then invited me to her house for tea, where we talked about her early life. She talked about how alone she was as a child and her love for motorboats and how she taught students who did not work hard. She also talked about the people who helped her build a house. I must have reminded her what it was like to be in your 20s.
Q: Did she talk much about art?
KH: She talked about living near the fish market in New York where most of the successful artists were men. And about painting the same painting over and over again till the canvas was so thick with paint and she would have to throw it out and start over again. She told me that her paintings were about the horizon and the ocean and then told me they were about nothing at all.
Q: Was she interested in your work?
KH: She was interested that I was painting and that I worked at it every day, but all she would say was that she was not a realist painter. She never commented on my content. She just reminded me again and again to keep painting, that I would only get better with hard work.
Q: Did she talk about meditating or emptying her mind?
KH: She talked about being alone a lot, liking solitude. But at some point, she saw that she had completely isolated herself and discovered that she really needed other people. One story she told me about living on the mesa in Cuba, New Mexico, one day alone in her house looking out her window she watched some little birds talking to each other and realized that all living creatures need company—they need to talk and Agnes decided to move closer to other humans and begin talking again.
Q: Did you ever see her studio?
KH: Yes, she took me into her studio and showed me some of her large canvases in progress. That was when she told me they were about the ocean and the sky.
Q: Did you ever see her at work? Or was that a truly solitary endeavor?
KH: No, I never saw her at work. In fact I think it was pretty unusual that she let me into her studio.
Q: Did you visit her in Taos after she moved into the retirement home there?
KH: Yes, I went a few times, on one occasion I could not get a babysitter and I had to bring my toddler, and then I was never invited back.
Q: Did she not like children? Or did the fact that you had children break a spell?
KH: I think Agnes had a series of favorite people, people she would have meals with. You were special until one day you weren’t anymore. My daughter was a very normal one-year-old, demanding my attention as we sat in Agnes’s living room. Agnes wanted all your attention. She told me about meeting the children of her dealer, Arne Glimcher. Very pointedly, she told me that those children were very well behaved. When she was a child, she had to do everything for herself—her mother was too busy to do things for her, as I was doing for my child. Agnes needed an operation when she was very young, and she had to take the train to the big city in Canada and go to the hospital all by herself to get the operation. In the telling of the story, I saw a frightened little girl in Agnes’s face and the mother in me reached out to her. She did not like me asking how she had felt as a child, doing all that grown-up stuff alone. I do not think she liked any hint of empathy from me. She liked being Agnes Martin the famous woman artist.
Q: Did she influence your art?
KH: I remember sitting with her in the living room that was pretty bare except for two rocking chairs, looking out the window at the bare landscape in front of her little house, and she told me how important it was to work at your art regularly, and she talked about liking to work with the same size format. I adopted that and will work for years in the same size. It is one variable that can be eliminated among the infinite number of choices ones makes when starting a new work. You learn how to fill a certain size, get familiar with the world that fits in it. I told Agnes that I had always admired abstract art but when I approach the empty canvas or blank paper, representational forms always seem to come out. She sat very still and quietly said, “Well, I don’t know about that, you should ask someone else.”
So, that’s what I did. A few years later, Agnes and our mutual friend from Galisteo, Ramona Scholder, both encouraged me to apply to a master class with Richard Diebenkorn. On my second attempt, I was juried into his class, one of the last classes he ever taught. I asked him the same question, and he told me that in the 1950s, he painted a painting that he was happy with. It started out as a woman in a room with a window. As he worked and reworked it, the woman disappeared, the window disappeared, and the room expanded right off the canvas. He liked the end result and tried to do it again, but couldn’t; he had to start with figures in a room again until, as he worked and reworked, the figurative elements left the canvas. He suggested that maybe I had to stick with figurative work and let it take me where it would.
That is a long way around to say that her discipline inspired me, and by encouraging me, she helped me get to study with Diebenkorn, who perhaps influenced me more directly.
Q: What did her home and studio look like back then?
KH: I remember her place being very bare, with prefab kitchen cupboards that you could buy cheaply at a big box DIY store. There was very little color, but she might have one interesting object within view, a bird’s nest or shell. There were, as I mentioned, two rocking chairs next to a big window. Light streamed into the room. Her body language was symmetrical and somewhat rigid. She never gestured with her hands, which were always either on the arms of the chair or in her lap. She spoke quietly and occasionally interjected her speech with a little tight-lipped chuckle. I think she found my naiveté amusing.
Q: Did she talk about other artists from her time in New York?
KH: The only artists I remember talking about as she reminisced about her New York days were Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. She obviously had some things in common with them, but she insisted that her work was nothing like theirs. I often felt like a philistine because I did not understand their work, I did not know what to say and did not know how to prompt her to talk about her life in those days. Maybe that is why she liked me. I did not know much, and was not trying to get anything from her.