“I’ll bet this looks easy” Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim Museum

Oct 7-Jan 11, 2017

The Islands oil and graphite on canvas 1961



I don’t like Agnes Martin. Do you have a problem with that?

How can we have a dialogue if we only think and talk about what we like?

I didn’t like her, but I wanted to, circa ’77, when on the advice of a painting teacher, I looked at one of her paintings for an hour waiting for it to move and move me. Funny that Martin herself suggested “a minute” and thought a minute was a long time. That was in perfect conditions by the way, a bench directly opposite, in an empty museum gallery, not like The Gugg where gravity pulls you downhill and where I hoped to, but didn’t like her again. The paintings seem compulsive, the variations predictable, the craftsmanship good-but not-great.

A short film shows Martin painting (at 89!) dragging a yellow glaze vertically between some pencil lines and she says, “I’ll bet this looks easy” (pause while I think “Yeah it does.’) She continues, “The hard part is not making a mistake.”


Untitled Number 5 1975


And that’s true—the way her surfaces are prepared, it would show if she had to erase a pencil line or touch up a glaze that wandered where it shouldn’t. But isn’t there a kind of horror lurking behind that surface? Namely, the fear of making a mistake? Also disturbing that it fits so neatly into a clean corporate world, where emotions are heavily controlled.

I didn’t realize until I saw this exhibition that it is public knowledge that she suffered from schizophrenia. Now I begin to see her effort as trying to produce some order in the world using a self-soothing repetition that takes just enough concentration that it banishes other thoughts. The other thoughts must have been very bad if she had to make for herself such a rigorous discipline. Her biographer, Nancy Princenthal, denies that the illness had anything to do with her work, but it gives me more sympathy for the paintings and doesn’t, in itself, discount her work at all. They make more sense—particularly the early grids where the touch is questioning and experimental. See The Islands above.


A lot of people that suffer mental illness come up with repetitive motions; the wonder of Agnes Martin is that she offers her serenity, her perfect moments and her happiness to others in her paintings. One of the reasons I’ve thought about her so often is that I do realize her work does something for other people.


Falling Blue 1963, oil and graphite on linen

In 1977, a couple of Martin’s paintings came to Cincinnati where I studied art and other things. A female fellow student was so taken with her, she immediately started painting grids in grays and continued to do so for the next year and a half until she graduated and I lost sight of her. I saw then that it inhibits discussion when the variations are so slight and the practice is “spiritual.” There was also a great deal of interest in Martin’s life as it was presented at the time—the whole Jesus in the desert purity of it. That was a real artist alone with her art! And there was O’Keefe as well, also in the desert and there weren’t so many other prominent women artists. Confusing at the time because I love the temperate forests of the eastern seaboard and find that even in New York there is time to be alone, more than I really need—are those disqualifying traits?

Martin was interested in Zen Buddhism and so am I. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, Alan Watts was influential in bringing a wider understanding of Zen to the US —artists talked about it a lot. I have a very imperfect understanding, of course, but it seems to offer many interpretations, only some of which Martin incorporated. Rachel Spence called her work an “essay in discretion, inwardness and silence.” It seems to me that quieting internal repetitive thoughts in order to live in the moment might open a person to the world in many ways, even completely opposite ones to the ones she chose.

Here are notes from a speech she gave. I don’t care for her puritanical pronouncements, but I do have some knowledge of that dragon she talks about. It really is a horror.


And here is an essay by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker. He is very sensitive to Martin’s work and sympathetic to her personally, he almost convinced me. Also intriguing because he climbs the slope instead of sliding down it.



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