Moving Within: An Emerging Artist’s Thoughts on Agnes Martin
Contributed by Alyssa McClenaghan
I begin writing this in the days following the election. A heaviness fills the air. It’s palpable-the collective despair of everyone around me. This weight is something that Agnes Martin dealt with throughout her life. Battling schizophrenia, she found solace and comfort in making art, which is something I think many artists can relate to.
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and the line wrapped around the Guggenheim, tourists and Manhattanites, artists, families, intellects, lovers all gathering to relish in the work of one of the most profound artists of the last century. I go alone. I remember years ago being at the Philadelphia Museum of art, a young artist wandering the halls; there to see the Van Gogh retrospective, and I stumbled into a room of very minimal white paintings. My personal aesthetic has always been one marked with excess, bold pattern, bright color, all of the things Agnes Martin is not and does not do. These minimal white paintings washed over me and grabbed my heart. Martin’s work does that which few artists work can do, whether famous or under recognized. It resonates on an emotionally physical level, something that words cannot describe. Work like this comes deep from within. How can one woman, one canvas, and a handful of muted colors and graphite, create such an overwhelming experience for viewers? As I observed her work again at the Guggenheim, I recalled that day in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, when I had sat in that room, surrounded by the comfort of those white paintings for what seemed like an eternity. I left that day years ago, neither looking nor remembering who had made them.
I came to the Agnes Martin show having never been to the Guggenheim. I eventually made my way inside, purchased my ticket, and began the slow winding trek up the circular interior of the museum. The very first room housed those same paintings, from that day many years ago. The same calm, heart swelling emotion washed over me, and I spent the next three hours making my slow ascent through the exhibition.
The Manhattanites, friends, lovers, artists, intellects, all scurried their way through the museum. Some brushing past the glory of the work before them, snapping a quick photo so we all know they were there, while a few others took their time to sit with, soak in, and ask questions about the show. I was on pace with another viewer. He was only a few steps behind me with each piece I viewed. He was an older gentleman, with glasses, a cane, and a beret. I assumed he was as an artist, but the intent and fervor that he gave to viewing each piece confirmed my suspicions. At first, I was a little annoyed to be one of the few people looking at the intensity of Agnes Martin’s work, and soaking it in in real life, to be buzzed past and cut in front of, so the others could snap a “selfie” in front of their favorite pieces. But as I was approaching a set of two large, grey, graphite and acrylic paintings, I peered over my shoulder and saw the man in the beret begin to tear up at the magnitude of the work before him. He nodded at me, I nodded back, and then soaked in the emotional grandeur of this piece. I felt the water begin to fill the wells of my eyes. Two of the works, (Untitled #3, 1983, Acrylic and Graphite on Canvas, 72×72 inches and Untitled #12, 1984, Acrylic and Graphite on Canvas, 72×72 inches) are dark and somber, expressive and messy, while maintaining a refinement, intention, and control that is incredibly difficult to master, especially within the limits she prescribes to herself. These works in particular felt like the height of a crescendo in a beautiful symphony.
In an era where artists seem to be fueled by what the artist next to them, or over there, or down the street at that gallery is doing, on who’s blog, and in what magazine or art fair, I think we can take a valuable lesson from Agnes Martin and begin to look within at what our hearts, minds, and bodies are telling us to express and stop searching for the next “idea.” All artists steal, great artists make work that comes from within (sometimes mixed with a bit of thievery).
“To be an artist, you look, you perceive, you recognize what is going through your mind. And it is not ideas. Everything you feel and everything you see and everything that your whole life goes through your mind, you know. But you have to recognize it and go with it and really feel it. I believe in living above the line. Above the line is happiness and love, you know. Below the line is all sadness and destruction and unhappiness. And I don’t go down below the line for anything” (Agnes Martin, Courtesy of the Guggenheim)
Alyssa McClenaghan is an artist currently splitting her time between Brooklyn and Upstate New York. She maintains a studio practice out of Troy, NY.
The Agnes Martin exhibition is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from October 7-January 11, 2017.