"Artwork is a representation of our devotion to life," Agnes Martin once wrote. "The enormous pitfall is devotion to oneself instead of to life. All works that are self-devoted are absolutely ineffective." Born March 22, 1912, Martin’s paintings, such as White Flower (above, 1960), don’t fit neatly into the narrative of modern American painting, just like the artist herself. A contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, Martin didn’t connect with that group, devoting herself to life itself rather than herself, which she saw as the “pitfall” of the self-involved, often self-destructive art of Jackson Pollock and others. Like the pencil marks comprising the grid of White Flower, Martin herself floated in a realm of her own making, never really making any connection with the world around her or the currents of culture, content instead to exist in a Zen–like state of being.
Martin called herself a minimalist, but even her minimalism strikes a different chord than that of most artists in that movement. Like a great pianist who knows how to work the silences as much as the notes, she expresses a great deal with little detail, as in her painting Friendship (above, from 1963). Through these grids, Martin longed to create an artistic correlative with the spiritual truths she felt were timeless, such as the value of friendship. Grids hint at geometry and the cold rationality of mathematics and science, but they also speak of the order of the universe, the pattern of reality beneath the surface that we somehow “know” is there but cannot put into words. Wordsworth called them “intimations of immortality.” It’s hard to look at reproductions of her work in a book or on a screen and think that they can address you emotionally or spiritually (it’s just a grid, right?), but in person, these works have a peaceful, calming effect akin to a koan or Japanese rock garden.
Originally trained as a teacher, Martin longed to teach through her art. In the spare beauty of Taos, New Mexico, Martin, like many artists, found her subject. The art business required her to live in New York City for a time, but she soon found herself drawn back to the desert. Like some kind of shaman, Martin grew reclusive, but continued to write books on her theories of the true meaning of art. The grids themselves grew even more evocative of natural beauty, such as the untitled watercolor above (from 1978). Martin wanted her paintings to be open, calling the experience of opening yourself up to them "the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean." She never owned a television or radio and reportedly didn’t read a newspaper for the last 50 years of her life, which stretched into her nineties. Maybe that’s a lesson to us all to stop listening to all the trivial traffic of our daily lives and to take the time to “cross that empty beach” of serenity and gaze upon the “ocean” of Martin’s significance.