I built up something by having disturbed something: destruction becomes construction. Action interrupts contemplation, as the means of accepting something among many given alternatives, for accepting nothing becomes chaos. A system became necessary: how else could I in a concentrated way find something of interest which lends itself to continuation? My systems are numerical concepts, which work in terms of progressions and/or reductions akin to musical themes with variations. In my work I try to expand and contract as far as possible between limits known and unknown. Generally, I couldn’t talk about limits I know. I only can say at times I feel closer to them, particularly while doing or after having done some conceptual series…. The most simple means for setting down my ideas and conceptions, numbers and words, are paper and pencil. I like the least pretentious and most humble means, for my ideas depend on themselves and not upon material; it is the very nature of ideas to be non-materialistic. Many variations exist in my work. There is consistent flexibility and changeability, evidencing the relentless flux of events.
Hamburg, 1968, as quoted in “Artists on Their Art,” Art International 12, no.4 (20 April 1968): 55.
photo credit: D. Lasagni
Affection for the land runs deep in us, and its manifestations—from the garden plot to the national parks—encompass a vast range of human actions and choices. At what point in the history of our species, I wonder, did the watchful, anxious regard for our surroundings, on which survival depended, begin to modulate toward love of a particular place? There must be an Other before there can be love; Eden becomes the object of our desire only after we are cast out. The best landscape images, whatever their medium and whatever other emotions they may evoke, are predicated on that loss. They propose the possibility of an intimate connection with a world to which we have access only through our eyes, a promise containing its own denial. In the case of landscape photographs, the paradox is sharpened because the world represented must have existed for the picture to be made, and yet the existence of the photograph attests undeniably to that world’s disappearance.
Culture creates a gulf between people and the world they inhabit. Some human groups experience this rupture as a problem and expend enormous amounts of energy in their attempts to heal it. Americans have been noticeably divided on the necessity, even the desirability, of a harmonious relationship with the natural world; but when we do attempt to establish a connection with larger realities, photographs of unspoiled Nature frequently play a central, almost devotional role. It is an odd choice of tools: the making of a photograph presupposes distance, which accounts, I think, for the elegiac tone, the note of longing that suffuses so many of the finest landscape photographs. I admire those pictures most that acknowledge our predicament without causing us to lose heart, just as I am most touched by those places where damage and grace are inextricably entangled. Photographs bear witness to the facts, be they visible or existential, and it is a fact that our relationship with the natural world is a troubled one that can never be otherwise under the present cultural dispensation.
Approached attentively, any place may persuade us to linger in an attempt to locate the source of its attraction. What we discover often comes to us in the form of a story. Landscapes are collections of stories, only fragments of which are visible at any one time. In linking the fragments, unearthing the connections among them, we create the landscape anew. A landscape whose story is known is harder to dismiss, harder to treat like a neutral matrix of interchangeable parts. For all the obvious, vast differences between ourselves and the aboriginal walker, singing the world into existence at every moment, there is still some sense of kinship. At its best, telling the landscape’s story can still feel like a sacred task.
If the goal of art is Beauty and if we assume that the goal is sometimes reached, even if always imperfectly, how do we judge art? Basically, I think, by whether it reveals to us important Form that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention. Successful art rediscovers Beauty for us.
One standard, then, for the evaluation of art is the degree to which it gives us a fresh intimation of Form. For a picture to be beautiful it does not have to be shocking, but it must in some significant respect be unlike what has preceded it (this is why an artist cannot afford to be ignorant of the tradition within his medium). If the dead end of the romantic vision is incoherence, the failure of classicism, which is the outlook I am defending, is the cliché, the ten thousandth camera-club imitation of a picture by Ansel Adams.
The beauty of a work of art can also be judged by its scope. The greatest beauty tends to encompass most; the artworks of largest importance frequently have within them the widest diversity. A.R. Ammons phrased this well in the poem Sphere, in which he observed that “the shapes nearest shapelessness awe us most, suggest the god.” This is so, I think, Because most of life seems shapeless most of the time, and the art that squares with this powerful impression seems most convincingly to confront disagreeable fact.
Beauty in Photograph, pg. 27
A line has direction—a point of origin and a point of termination. A line is also a discrete entity which exists altogether at the same time.
There isn’t any program in my work. No going from worse to better or simpler to more complicated. On the other hand it’s always different. So instead of saying I’ve made something new, I’ll say I’ve made something more.
Over the years I have preferred the title “sculptor.” I like the groundedness of it, referring back to my early love for the sculpture of Michelangelo, Rodin, and Henry Moore, for example.
Early on, though, I left the model of such discrete sculptural volumes for a sculpture which became less of a thing-in-itself, more of a diffuse interface between myself, my environment, and others peopling that environment, built of thin lines that left enough room to move through and around. Still sculpture, though less dense, with an ambivalence between exterior and interior. A drawing that is habitable.
The above remarks indicate only the “stage,” of course, the general shape of the medium I have chosen, not to be confused with that which is expressed therewith or therein. This content, because of its nature resists verbal explication.
Whatever philosophical, historical, or literary artillery I bring to the workplace, it is of no assistance in the art of trying to stretch a line between two points. In that I am alone and voiceless.
Agnes Martin was born in Macklin, a town in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912. She grew up in Vancouver, then moved to Bellingham, Washington, in 1932. Martin gained a bachelor of science degree in 1942 and a master of arts degree in 1952 from Teachers College at Columbia University, while living intermittently in New Mexico. In 1957 she relocated to Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan. She had her first one-person exhibition in 1958 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. Surveys of her work have been presented at venues including the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1973), the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1991), and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1992). She was awarded a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennial in 1997 and a National Endowment for the Arts National Medal of Arts in 1998, among other honors. From the late sixties until her death on December 16, 2004, Martin lived and worked in rural New Mexico.