Agnes Martin: Pioneer, Painter, Icon
by Henry Martin
Schaffner Press, 2018
352 Pages, $15.45
Review by Torin Jensen
The biography Agnes Martin: Pioneer, Painter, Icon, Released earlier this year from Schaffner Press, offers a heartfelt examination of the enigmatic artist, thoughtfully tying together the complex person and her abstract, singular art. Written by Henry Martin (no relation), the book admirably places Agnes’ powerful personality, complex sexuality, towering ambition, and difficult relationships in a shifting context of environment and time, never letting the better known stories, such as the postwar New York City coterie of Abstract Expressionists, steal the limelight. Martin’s work convincingly sketches out an artist largely as abstract as her art.
Born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, in 1912 to Scottish immigrant parents, Agnes grew up in Vancouver a few years before her father’s early death. Though sources are limited, Martin builds the early development of Agnes’ fierce independence (to Agnes’ mind, due to her mother’s emotional distance) and love of teaching while recounting her time in Washington and Oregon, where her lifelong penchant for meaningful but difficult relationships with women began. By the time readers find Agnes in New York, where she enrolled in the Columbia Teachers College (one of the few academic offerings for women at the time), Martin has laid the groundwork for the themes he’ll return to throughout the book: Agnes’ delicate threading of contemporary attitudes towards artists and women, her struggles with mental health, and her latent but fiery ambition to be an artist.
That ambition and simple but scrappy existence follows her everywhere; from her goat-shack studio in Albuquerque to her unheated loft in Coenties Slip, New York, and back again to dirt-floored housing in New Mexico where, in leaving the hallowed ground of New York City just as she was gaining recognition, she cemented her status as a legendary artist. Martin recognizes early the importance of environment on Agnes’ well-being and her productive output, and uses places as a way to divide the book. It wasn’t until late in life that the commercial art world’s notice and its money-making prestige arrived for Agnes, though the eponymous Betty Parsons Gallery was an early and longtime supporter.
Tracking her slow development into a twentieth and twenty-first century legend, Martin deftly unpacks the many conflicting attributes of Agnes’ life and person. He relies on the testimony of several of Agnes’ very close friends, who, until recently, had remained fairly tight-lipped about the artist, partly out of respect for her privacy and partly out of a lack of scholarly attention. She was always very private and the interviews the artist granted throughout the years were enigmatic and frequently contradictory. He analyzes her sinister framing of early family life with the help of the wicked mother character in fairy tales, and later connects her mental breakdowns, which Agnes attributed to romantic breakups, with her latent schizophrenia. And though his conclusions can, at times, ring hollow, Martin gamely interprets the interviews’ varying levels of intimacy and how her friends’ recollections square with Agnes’ own statements. What emerges is a sensitive portrait of a woman largely at odds with contemporary attitudes towards artists, non-binary sexual orientations, and those struggling with mental illness.
But for serious followers of Agnes’ artistic trajectory, the main draw to the biography is Martin’s in-depth examination of the evolution of Agnes’ practice, from her early experiments in abstraction to her late attraction to filmmaking. He even tries to pin down the moment she zeroed in on what became her famous grid paintings, made all the more difficult due to the artist’s perfectionist zeal in destroying work she considered inferior. No matter the time period, though, Martin has an attuned eye that zooms in on the detail while placing the work in larger contexts:
Even in glowing work like Untitled #10 (1975), or sparse work like The Islands I-XII (1979) — and more obviously in Untitled #3 (1983) or Untitled (2004), her last painting — the work is anything other than “perfect.” When you stand up close to the work it is often lumpy, splotchy, or grainy, with flicks of paint splashed accidentally beyond the border of quavering pencil lines. The human failure in the attempt to achieve a kind of ‘all over’ visual balances exposes a mortal fallibility that is very heartening to witness.
The final chapters culminate in some truly moving testimony from some of Agnes’ closest friends and lovers, further illuminating her lifelong struggle with schizophrenia and intimacy and the small triumphs she made at finding “inner peace” through her art. Fans of Agnes will have their understanding of the artist and her work pleasurably expanded, and for those who felt a distance from her paintings or are unfamiliar with them, Martin tells a story that’s hard to resist drawing you into the nearest museum (with an Agnes work) or monograph.