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Agnes Martin: From Manhattan-fame to Disolving into the Desert


The story of Agnes Martin and her exemplary frankness invite us to rethink our priorities in life.

In the 1960s, Agnes Martin was part of a community of artists in Manhattan, among which was Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg. She grew up in Canada, studied to be an art teacher and says that one day she came across the works of the abstract expressionists Rothko and Reinhardt and realized that she could live from her art.

In New York she was in the best place to carve out a successful career: there was an abundance of cultural offerings in the city and she was surrounded by friends and artists that admired and promoted her. But one day in 1967 Martin gave away her paints and canvases, climbed into a truck and abandoned New York. For four years she traveled across the US and Canada. For four years she didn’t paint.

She disappeared when she was at her zenith. She left everything behind, the city, her friends and painting. Perhaps it was the speed, the over abundance, the competition in New York that were suffocating her. One day Martin was hospitalized, when she was found wandering the streets of New York in a kind of trance. Very little is known of that episode. And neither is it known why she left the city: “I decided to try a solitary and simple life to see if I could become wise,” she said.

There is much influence of Oriental philosophy in Martin’s thinking. In her writings one of the most recurring ideas is that of inspiration; for Martin inspiration is always there and it is achieved by calming the mind. “Of course we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last. So we say that inspiration comes and goes but really it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again.” At some point, Martin had a vision: adobe and the desert. And she chased it. She arrived in the desert of New Mexico and moved to Taos, to a huge plateau under Sangre de Cristo mountain, near the Rio Grande. Probably attracted by the landscape, it was also home to Aldous Huxley, Ansel Adams, Carl Jung and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others.

In the middle of the desert, Martin built an adobe house. She constructed it with her own hands, as she had also built all the furniture in her Manhattan apartment, and as she had painted all of her paintings without an assistant. And there, in that absolute isolation, in that house from which she could not come out in winter because of the snow, and sometimes for weeks on end, she began to paint again.

Before giving them all the title of Untitled, Martin’s paintings, of an almost minimalist abstract style, were named after flowers and landscapes. People often see landscapes in them, horizons in those lines that cross the canvas with a subtle vibration. Martin would say that it was not the landscape that she wanted to portray, but the feeling that such a landscape provoked in the viewer: “I was painting the way you feel when you’re looking at the Tundra.”

What you feel when you look at a landscape, or at Martin’s pictures, for many is similar to happiness: “People who look at my painting say that it makes them happy … And happiness is the goal, isn’t it?”

Martin’s quest has something to do with John Cage’s, who also sought plenitude in emptiness and silence. Her idea of not being, in this sense, comes from Oriental thought and is recorded in the infinite minimalism of her paintings.

Martin’s story is one of a woman who rebelled against the conventional route of fame, when she had it so close, and who transformed her life for enigmatic reasons. Her ideas place us on the threshold of madness and mysticism; her paintings, however, are fragments of desert peace.

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