Thursday, June 10, 2010

A friend from LA who comments often on this blog sent an article I've long since misplaced but still recall comparing Agnes Martin to Georgia O'Keeffe and coming down squarely in favor of Martin (feeling that O'Keefe was too kitschy).

Her work is always spare and often based on clean, geometric grids or simple lines across the canvas.

Here's Stars. Although it looks like a graph at first glance, I like the fact that the color is not uniform but shifts subtly throughout. The edges looking almost like fabric, and the tiny grid pattern and border are not uniform either. Looks like small stitches across the bottom near her signature. All those human touches to alter and soften an image that might have looked machine-made reveal the hand of the maker.

Trolling for information about her, I came upon a video created in 1997. Even if you only watch the first two minutes, you get a sense of her clear and simple approach to painting: get out of your own way, be still and wait for inspiration to come to you, and then paint. She shuns anything that seems to be too intellectual, preferring an emotional response. (Her hair is pretty no-nonsense as well). She died in Taos in 2004. I was surprised to learn she started her college career at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, my husband's hometown and the city where "my" gallery is. Not a ton of artists jump from Bellingham to Columbia University, and not too much later, a solo show at the Whitney.

Here's another, entitled Falling Blue (1963). Have you seen her work in person? Somehow I don't think the feeling of harmony and ability to be mesmerized can really come thru on a tiny computer screen. With Falling Blue, you get a tiny sense of the shimmer and beauty of this; like the other, it looks like fabric. (Some of hers are silk screen, but the SFMOMA website does not describe the medium for this, so I can't tell.)

In the video interview, she talks about having given up meditation once she mastered the ability to empty her mind. To me, it looks the work of an uncluttered mind. (No plastic Barbie toys underfoot on her floor.)

Finally, while reading about her I stumbled on a photo of Bernar Venet's sculpture Indeterminate Lines, rolled steel, 2003. Why do I like this so much? Seems a two-person show of Martin and Venet would be just the thing - hers so uniform and controlled, his so bent and moving and weighty.


  1. Terry Castle has a tendency to bluster and exggerate, which is part of her shtick, I suppose. If there's something kitschy about Georgia O'Keeffe, it's the mass-production of her work, which began at around the time Dali and Monet reproductions were flooding the market (Remember the all ads for "Lincoln in Dalivision" in the Times Calendar section in the late Seventies?). But the work itself isn't kitschy, as I think Castle herself admits -- if grudgingly.

    And yet, when you compare Georgia O'Keeffe the living artist with Agnes Martin the living artist, the former comes off all the more as someone who was deeply invested in constructing and maintaining her own legend -- with help from Stieglitz at the beginning and Juan Hamilton at the end. Agnes Martin doesn't appear to have had such help (or asked for it) unless you count Betty Parsons. And while O'Keeffe famously lived in desert isolation, Martin one-upped her by building her own house in desert isolation! She strikes me as the ultimate artist, though reclusiveness and advanced meditation skills certainly aren't required to make great art.

  2. I think your distinction is important - between the mass production being kitschy rather than the work - also didn't know about Martin's building of her own house. It does seem that Martin took the reclusiveness to the limit, more than once saying she was painting "with her back to the world." I did feel she had something valuable to say when she talked about the importance of waiting, really waiting maybe for weeks, for inspiration to come rather than just pushing the paint around.