Agnes Martin’s words

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Wednesday 3 October 2010
Ron Brownson


On the night after the Walters Prize 2010 gala dinner, I was out again for another special meal and I was fortunate enough to be able to look at a staggering suite of prints by Agnes Martin. Her works on paper are every bit as ravishing as her paintings. They are both more intimate and more sequential, as you would expect from a suite of small works.

I wondered how many local people knew that Agnes wrote about art. She was certainly one of the great modern American artists. Agnes was not only a mystic painter, she was a writer concerned with transcendence. Few of her writings are well known.
The best source for her Agnes's texts is the impressive anthology Agnes MartinWritings/Schriften edited by Dieter Schwarz for Cantz, on the occasion of Agnes’s show Agnes Martin: Paintings and Works on Paper 1960 – 1989 held at the Kunstmuseum, Winterthur (19 January to March 15 1992).

In 1979, the University of New Mexico invited Agnes to deliver a lecture. It was a knockout presentation. She called it The Current of the River of Life Moves Us. Her text is filled with authoritative aphorisms:


“The art work in the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum does not illustrate ideas.
The great and fateful pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration.”


Later in that lecture she added:
“Dependence on inspiration means dependence on consciousness, a growing consciousness that develops from beauty and happiness.”

Such assurance and self-confidence is quelling. There is no irony or cynicism in Agnes Martin’s words.
Another of her key texts, The Untroubled Mind, is even more effectively skewed towards her art being evidence of self-revelation. This text was first published inFlash Art 41 in June 1973.
The original is too lengthy to quote here, so here is just a sample:

“…I didn’t paint the plane
I just drew this horizontal line
Then I found out about all the other lines
But I realized what I liked was the horizontal line
Then I painted the two rectangles
Correct composition
If they’re just right
You can’t get away from what you have to do
They arrive at an interior balance
Like there shouldn’t need to be anything added.”

Some years back, while she was visiting New Zealand on research, I asked curator Lynn Cooke what she thought of Agnes Martin’s work. In a nanosecond, I saw that Lynn was a committed fan of the artist. In her important essay on Agnes, Lynn quotes the artist:

“I would like my work to be recognized as being in the classical tradition (Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese), as representing the Ideal in the mind. Classical art cannot possibly be eclectic. One must see the ideal in one's own mind. It is like a memory - an awareness -of perfection.”

You can read Lynn’s essay on courtesy of the Dia Art Center at:

In her essay’s conclusion, Lynn presents an important summation about how Agnes’s writings have altered our perception of her art:
“Martin has continued to publish statements, lectures, inspirational homilies, and journal entries, as well as granting many interviews. Widely circulated, often independently of her art, they have made her something of a guru. As her moral and spiritual pursuit of an untroubled mind has gained public attention, the reception of her art has shifted, so that it has increasingly been situated in relation to the abstract sublime and the visual epiphanies and revelations incited by that artistic sensibility.”
For a 1997 video interview with Agnes Martin, I recommend:
The portrait of Agnes Martin reproduced above, circa 1940s, is courtesy of: