AGNES MARTIN, MINDFULNESS AND BOXES
Think of a painter. A modern one.
I bet what you are imagining is a stereotypical dude, frenzied over a canvas, possibly drunk or angry. That's an Abstract expressionist, yo. You know them because they are very dramatic and make for good biopics.
Today I want to tell you about one of them, but not quite like that. Agnes Martin was a beautiful, beautiful abstract painter. But see, Agnes was between two major movements, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalist Abstraction. And that's... well, that's complicated.
Abstract Expressionists get their name from their desire to find the ultimate creative freedom in their work. They didn't plan their pieces, they just went at them. Like "aagaghhg", yup. Minimalists came later and, duh, decided to oppose their predecessors and search for a form of expression that was practically industrial, meticulous, clean, without any trace of the person who made it. Drama was so passé for them. I bet you've seen tons of minimalist work (it's how most of us immediately imagine "contemporary art"), but it's harder to name them. After all, minimalist would make much more boring films, I am afraid ("A straight, grey line. The End.").
Let me put images to all of this before I go any further:
This is by Agnes:
This is a representative piece* of Abstract Expressionism, a painting by Pollock (*Abstract Expressionism is a wide label that includes different artists, but let's just use this one):
Now this is a typically Minimalist piece, by Frank Stella:
At first glimpse, it's easy to aesthetically pair Martin with the Minimalist current. But that's only the surface. At heart, she is more of an Expressionist. The thing with Agnes is, her work and her style was not very "macho", at all. She was extremely sensitive and spiritual, and quite a hermit. She hated attention and praise. She worked slowly. She destroyed the work she didn't consider worthy. And, fun fact, she only started working as an artist at 30. Her story doesn't match the main expressionist narrative, even if her true desire was to paint happiness.
Her work is very spiritual, and that makes it very human. Yes, you see grids on her canvases, but they are carefully hand-drawn in pencil. They are not industrial, they are crafted. Her gallerist defined them as "mantras".
Her work is pure mindfulness.
The repetition is there not to banish the person, but to embrace her. She was ego-less, but she was real- she stated her work was about the viewer (high five, Agnes).
Why on Earth am I explaining all of this?
We don't all fit into boxes.
All my life I've been obsessed with famous Art cliques of painters or writers that all just happened to live in a specific neighborhood at a specific time (side note, Agnes did form part of something like this, but she left because she couldn't bear to see her fame grow). History would name them a "generation", a "movement" and I've always longed for something like that. I don't know it that will ever happen again in a globalized, multidisciplinary scene; or if I'll ever find it if it does. But that's OK. Do the work. Know why you do it. Go inside. Do it every damn day.
If you are lucky, you'll be put in a box of sorts.
But then we all end up in another sort of box, don't we? One that goes up in flames or down in the ground. So before either box find your flow. In Martin's words:
When you find out what you like, you're really finding out about yourself. Beethoven's music is joyous. If you like his music, you know that you like to be joyful. People who look at my painting say that it makes them happy, like the feeling when you wake up in the morning. And happiness is the goal, isn't it?
There you go, true story.
If you dig it when I put on my Art Historian hat, let me know and I can put more of these articles together. And if you are in London, get your ass down to Tate Modern before Oct. 11th to see her retrospective. I went and I cried.