Art as a prayer

Art as a prayer

Art as a prayer

Art as a prayer

Lots of painters paint about painting,” said American artist Agnes Martin. “But my painting is about meaning.” Martin, whose meticulously rendered abstracts with tight, orderly forms are hailed as studies in contemplation and meditation, believed that beauty was the mystery of life. “When I think of art, I think of beauty,” she wrote. “It is not in the eye, it is in the mind.”

Martin died in 2004 at the age of 92. She started showing her paintings only after she was 45. Her art exemplified a deep spiritual connect and purity of creative vision. She is said to have attended the lectures by Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar D T Suzuki (1870-1966). Duly inspired, she developed her own code of ethics and discipline, which reflected in her signature grids and minimalist drawings.

Art critic Hilton Kramer sums up her work by saying that Martin’s art “had the quality of a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer.”

A lonely life

Martin chose to live alone her entire adult life. Her approach to both life and work was as austere as it was vivid. She confessed that she regularly heard a ‘voice’, which directed almost all aspects of her life. “The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone; all of the revelations,” she would say. “I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for.”

Martin lived frugally, and never got married. In Taos, New Mexico where she built herself a simple house and studio, she kept no pets, radio, television, music stereo or newspapers. Only one work of art was put on display: a poster by her friend and fellow New Mexico artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. Her sole indulgence was a white Mercedes-Benz which she drove even in her 90s.

When it came to her paintings, Martin worked on large canvases — 6 feet by 6 feet in size — on which she meticulously drew her trademark grid of horizontal and vertical lines. She kept her paintings deceptively simple; and her lines seemed to hold subtle evocations and sensations. Only occasionally did she feature softly shaded colour bands in her work; they too portrayed soft feelings. If she did not like the result, she would not hesitate destroying her canvases.

Martin was known to work daily in her studio. She stuck to a daily routine of rising early; driving to the studio; and working alone from 8.30 to 11.30 am. She never hired an assistant; and the last of her masterpieces was produced just a few months before her death. The last 13 years of her life was spent in the solitude of a retirement community in Taos. “Her years in New Mexico were marked by a profound withdrawal from worldly things,” wrote art critic Olivia Laing (The Telegraph / May 22, 2015), “a life of renunciation and restriction that often sounds punishingly masochistic, though Martin insisted the intention was spiritual, an ongoing war against the sin of pride.”

Another art critic and columnist Adrian Searle explains how Martin set herself extreme limits; how her paintings were born out of solitude and quiet; and how in a lifetime’s work she probably used not much more than a single box of pencils, a few rolls of masking tape and less paint than some artists ladle on to a single canvas in a day.

“Championship swimmer, teacher, car nut, lesbian, writer, painter: in her long and sometimes troubled life Agnes Martin was all these things,” wrote Searle (The Guardian/ June 1, 2015). “She also heard voices in her head and suffered debilitating periods of psychosis. Her schizophrenia, though never entirely a secret, seems at odds with her art, which is marked by its clarity and rigour, and an exactitude that never excludes human qualities, and has within it a sense of immanence.”

Expressive words

Martin was an artist who expressed herself clearly in her own words. “All great artwork attempts to represent our joy in moments of clarity and vision,” she wrote in a letter to a friend. “The artist responds, the observer responds. If no one responds, the work does not exist. Please study your response to art very carefully (and to everything else) as it is the road to self knowledge and truth about life.”

She was often called a mystic of minimalism, but Martin preferred to be see herself as an abstract expressionist. “I’m not any different from anybody. You’re not a mystic when you respond to beauty… My paintings are about merging, about formlessness... a world without objects, without interruption.”

Although she never possessed a music system or records, her interest in classical music was immense. “Art is responded to with emotion… and the best art is music — that’s the highest form of art. It’s completely abstract, and we make about eight times as much response to music than any of the other arts… Art work that is completely abstract — free from any expression of the environment, is like music and can be responded to in the same way. Our response to line and tone and colour is the same as our response to sounds. And like music, abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning for us that is beyond expression in words.”

Besides Beethoven’s music, Martin loved Agatha Christie’s novels. She also adored Mark Rothko’s haunting images of saturated colour. She once famously commented that Rothko (who was nine years senior to her) had “reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth.”

Martin’s work is held in high esteem and continues to inspire generations of artists and art lovers. Her paintings are highly sought after, and feature regularly in international auctions, and sold for millions of dollars. Her popularity did not diminish with her death. In 2007, her ‘Loving Love’ (2000) got $2.95 million at Christies, New York. Eight years later in 2015, her white acrylic painting with geometric pencil lines ‘Untitled #7’ (1984), sold for $4.2 million at Phillips in New York.

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