Agnes Martin, 1988. Photograph by Donald Woodman © 2015 Agnes Martin Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkDACS, London

Agnes Martin: Philosopher, artist, pioneer, recluse

In conjunction with a 2015 retrospective at Tate Modern, Agnes Martin is remembered by Arne Glimcher, her biographer and the founder of Pace Gallery. Interview by Jack Castle

Have you had much to do with the Tate Modern show?

Arne Glimcher: I’ve had a great deal to do with it. As her friend and biographer I’ve been very involved with the selection of the paintings and getting loans from the museum that they need. It’s been a long time coming too, about five years in planning. 

The paintings are very hard to prise away from people, they become a part of their lives. They are almost more like mantras than paintings — they have such a calming effect.

Was Agnes Martin very methodical in her work?

AG: Definitely, and she waited for inspiration. There would be periods of months that she wouldn’t paint; she'd be waiting. Although the paintings look similar to a lot of people they are not, and when you see the Tate retrospective you will see the enormous variety in the work. 

She’d call me and she’d say, ‘This is a series about happiness’ or ‘These paintings are about innocence, the innocence of children’, and she was quite sincere about it — there was a subject the paintings had that came from within.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Friendship, 1963. Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015 Agnes Martin  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkDACS, London
Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Friendship, 1963. Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

There is something in your book — a note — where she says that because everyone knows what beauty is, all she needs to do is ‘bring the subject up’ rather than make it herself?

AG: Exactly. These paintings should extend your perception to the awareness of beauty around you, but more than anything else to the recognition of beauty within you. 

Agnes had a tiny little garden of roses in front of her door in this community of old people that she lived in — her studio was down the street in a little adobe building. I remember once there was a very beautiful rose in a bud vase and my granddaughter Isabel was looking at it. Agnes took the rose out of the vase and she said to Isabel, ‘Is this rose beautiful?’ And then Agnes put the rose behind her back and said, ‘Is the rose still beautiful?’ 

So the beauty is not the rose, the beauty is within you and the rose just makes you recognise that beauty. She was a great philosopher, but not a mystic as people like to say. There was nothing mystical about the work; it was, in its own way, practical. She was very down to earth, really a pioneering woman.

‘She had a mission and the mission was her art. When we started working together she said to me, “Remember this: we are not friends, we are toilers in the art world together’’’

How did you come to meet her?

AG: It was 1963, she lived in a loft building with Jack Youngerman on one floor, Robert Indiana on another floor, Lenore Tawney, Agnes, and Ellsworth Kelly. It was quite a building! It was deserted, they inhabited the building illegally. There was no running water, they had to go to the Seamen’s Union across the street to take a shower. 

I met her at a party in Jack Youngerman’s loft. I knew her painting — she had started painting the grids three years previously. Those in the inner, inner circle of the art world thought they were marvellous; the world in general thought they were ridiculous, like graph paper. They didn’t understand the power of these paintings. In some ways, painting had exhausted itself and almost finished with Ad Reinhardt. Agnes Martin’s painting was its rebirth; the new options, painting that didn’t look like painting. 

So we met at the party and we liked each other a lot. I had a business partner who was able to buy one of her pictures — they were about $3,000 at that time. We became great friends in as much as one could be with Agnes — she lectured at me really, you couldn’t get a word in edgeways! But you didn’t want to; it was wonderful to listen to her. She had a mission and the mission was her art. When we first started working together she said to me, ‘Remember this: we are not friends, we are toilers in the art world together’!

What is her early work like, before the grids?

AG: It is very beautiful work, kind of influenced by Gorky and Rothko — floating amorphic shapes on very pale grounds. You can see she is coming out of the kind of Surrealist mindset of the Abstract Expressionists. Then there are some paintings, just before the grids, that are divided into two blocks of colour, very much presaging Brice Marden and really quite interesting. She could have made a career out of that, but then the grids happened.

What was the art world like back then?

AG: In 1960, we were a very small art community and people were very collegial — dealers and artists; it was not the kind of cut-throat atmosphere that the younger generation practices! We were a very different community because there was no real audience. There was a handful of collectors, and the art was not expensive. We were selling Warhol paintings for $250 and Oldenbergs for $150, but it was very personal. Agnes and I would see each other on weekends and at parties.

And then she just stopped painting? What happened?

AG: So in 1968 she called me one day and she said, ‘You’re a young gallery and you have a lot of young artists and I’d like to give you my brushes and my paints and you can give them to young people, and I have some rolls of canvas.’ So she put them in her truck, brought them to the gallery, and took off for New Mexico. She said, ‘I’ve finished painting. I’m never painting again.’ I didn’t see her for five years.

‘New York was not good for her. I don’t think she could cope with the notoriety she was starting to gain’

What was the catalyst for this?

AG: She had a very bad psychotic episode, and was in the hospital for a while. She felt that she had painted everything that she could paint. And I think she needed to go back to New Mexico, to that kind of space and solitude. New York was not good for her. I don’t think she could cope with it, and more than anything I don’t think she could cope with the notoriety that she was starting to gain. 

One of the things that she always said was that one of the worst sins — not in a religious sense — was the sin of pride, and I think she became slightly prideful, of the community embracing her, and she couldn’t cope with it.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Untitled #1, 2003. Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris © 2015 Agnes Martin  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkDACS, London
Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Untitled #1, 2003. Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

How did you manage to reconnect?

AG: Well, five years later I was in my office, and I looked out of the open door and there was Agnes Martin! I was so surprised, I didn’t think I’d ever see her again! She said, ‘I’m painting. Will you show my paintings?’ By then her work was celebrated and as expensive as $35,000 a painting. 

About two weeks later, I got a phone call from Agnes. She didn’t have a phone, she had to go to the phone booth. She said, ‘There’s a plane tomorrow morning to Albuquerque, the house is about an hour away. Be on that plane and I’ll pick you up.’ That was the notice I had, about 10 hours! Again, she lectured the entire day. She had no one to talk to, so if she did invite someone there was so much for her to say.

Where was she living at the time?

AG: In Taos, New Mexico. She was living on a mesa by herself. In the winter it flooded all around so she would be in for two to three months unable to get anywhere because the river was raging. She would grow tomatoes and preserve them, and would have shelves full of them. She would only eat one thing while she was painting so that nothing distracted her. 

She said, ‘I can’t have any distractions, I can’t even have a cat. I don’t have any chickens either.’ It was a life in art, and it was a very serious endeavour. She was almost a preacher for the beauty within oneself, the order of perfection that she said did not exist in the real world. It was a very intense life. Towards the end she became much more outgoing and personable, but in the early years she was very much a recluse.

‘She was the greatest editor of her own work of any artist I’ve ever seen. There isn’t a single bad painting because she edited them out’

Would she work on one painting for a long period of time, or did they happen quickly?

AG: The paintings were made quite quickly, but she would work on the inspiration for the paintings for weeks, and would repaint the picture as many as 10 times. She painted a lot but it is not a huge body of work for an artist to have created in such a long lifetime because, for her, the paintings had to be perfection. 

I’d come into the studio sometimes and say, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful painting.’ She’d say, ‘No, no, it’s too aggressive, I’m going to repaint it’, and she’d take the painting and slash it with a mat knife, cut the painting up, and paint the next version. Sometimes there were 10 versions of the painting until she got it tonally to what she wanted. 

She destroyed a lot of paintings; many more than she kept. She was the greatest editor of her own work of any artist I’ve ever seen. Some Agnes Martin paintings are more desirable than others but there isn’t a single bad painting because she edited them out.

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How did she compose her paintings?

AG: She did all kinds of sums and mathematical calculations for the divisions in the works. Those lines are not just randomly reached, they are the results of very careful calculations. That was also something that she would work on, reject one, and work on another, so the paintings are not as simple as they look.

She was incredibly dedicated, clearly.

AG: I think she is one of the greatest artists of the century, certainly. In the history of abstraction, the history of reductionism, she really does begin painting again after it had been exhausted. Reinhardt is the summary of everything that came before, and Agnes is the beginning of the new painting.