With Her Back To the World

The first time I saw a painting by Agnes Martin (or at least it was the first time I paid attention) was at the Dia:Beacon in 2007. The quotation on the wall appealed to me then and has ever since:

I want to draw a certain response. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature—an experience of simple joy. . . . the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.

It was at about the same time that I became aware of a film about Agnes Martin, “With My Back to the World,” so when I came across a photograph of Agnes Martin with her back to the camera, I wanted to do something with it.

Agnes Martin once wrote

I want to repeat: there are no valid thoughts about art. If your sensibilities are awake you will respond. It will be a pleasant experience recalling happy times. You must see that no talking will help and that no defence is necessary and that you must not answer your critics. But most important you must have no contact with them. [Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal, p.261]

In 1997, however, she did have a conversation by telephone with New York Times art critic Holland Cotter. In the mornings, she told him, she works in her studio. After lunch, she reads at her home. “I don’t read nonfiction because it sticks in the mind. I have to keep my mind free for painting. I read mystery stories. In one ear and out the other.” [Princenthal, p. 238]

The writer and cultural critic Jill Johnston became a friend. She wrote of her first encounter with Martin:

looking at agnes’s paintings with agnes was a quiet concentrated ceremonious ritual . . . she traversed from the point in her loft where the paintings were stashed to the spot right next to the door where she showed them . . . when she reached the showing place next to the door there would be a certain gesture of hiking the work with her foot under the canvas up into position on the nails sticking out of the wall. then she would sit down next to you and contemplate the work with you and wait. [Princenthal, p. 130]

Martin’s method for grid paintings never varied:

Two tapes would be measured off in the increments separating the lines to be drawn, and they would be attached vertically to the canvas. Then she would use a short—generally eighteen-inch–T-square ruler or other straight-edge, placed across the marked tapes, to guide her pencil or brush; on her 6-foot-square canvases a longer line would be impossible to control . . . because the pressure of the drawing tool would cause the fabric to give a little and hence cause the line to curve. [Princenthal, p. 85]

Martin’s work is said to be irreproducible in photographs, and perhaps the same can be said of the pale yellow paper I chose for the collage which, no matter how carefully I place it to catch the natural light, doesn’t have quite the luminescence I see with my own eyes.

Listening List

Sibelius, Impromptus, Op. 5, No. 6 (1893) (performed by Leif Ove Andsnes)

Sibelius, 13 Pieces, Op. 76, No. 10, Elegiaco (1911-19) (performed by Oli Mustonen)




16 thoughts on “With Her Back To the World

  1. Dylan Mattingly

    I find Martin’s writing as well to be wondrous. There’s something in the simplicity, this radical acceptance of an almost naïve connection to the world — one which feels particularly meaningful and intentional knowing the difficulty of much of her life — that I find to be endlessly generous, like the experience people often describe of being in a room with her paintings.

    “When we see life we call it beauty. It is magnificent—wonderful.
    We may be looking at the ocean when we are aware of beauty but it is not the ocean. We may be in the desert and we say that we are aware of the “living desert” but it is not the desert.
    Life is ever present in the desert and everywhere, forever.
    By awareness of life we are inspired to live.
    Life is consciousness of life itself.
    The measure of your life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which you are aware.”

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    Love the collage, Susan. Last time we talked about grids. Here you have a very fine, delicate composition. The eye roves delightfully from point to point without rest.

    Like Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, I don’t think Martin’s paintings can be appreciated in photos. They have to be seen in person, and you have to be willing to take your time with them.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Your observations are always so thoughtful. Until you stated it, I wasn’t conscious of the eye-roving aspect of this collage effort, even though, I see now, it was present in the choices I was making. I had in mind in some vague way to express both contemplation and movement–a painting in progress–but quietly, as seemed a proper homage to Martin’s work.

  3. newleafsite

    Sue, long a fan of your eloquent prose, I am still caught off guard. “Perhaps the same can be said of the pale yellow paper I chose for the collage which, no matter how carefully I place it to catch the natural light, doesn’t have quite the luminescence I see with my own eyes” is arguably the loveliest phrase I have ever read from you. Trying to explain why would be treading with muddy boots over its delicacy, so I’ll leave it at that.

    Wonderful collage, an excellent appreciation of Martin. And, perfect pairing with music – the Impromptu Op. 5/6 is my favorite Sibelius ever! — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: I’m fairly fond of your follow-up phrase as well: “Trying to explain why would be treading with muddy boots over its delicacy.” I’m pleased, too, that you enjoyed the Sibelius, which I also find quite lovely.

  4. shoreacres

    As so often happens with your posts, one thing led to another. One of those ‘other things’ I found was the photo that inspired your collage, but I must say there were a number of photos of Martin that were compelling.

    Your collage certainly does reflect the spirit of her work. I was amused by the ending of the lines: two by buttons, and one by Martin’s image. Perhaps it’s a sly way of saying that she lived a fairly well buttoned-up life — at least, in her reclusive years? After reading some of her writings, and a bit by Donald Woods, my sense of things is that I wouldn’t want to live with one of her paintings in my home (even if I had the wall space) but her thoughts are congenial and interesting. This, particularly, caught my attention:

    ““I once taught art to adults in a night course. I had a woman who painted her back yard, and she said it was the first time she had ever really looked at it. I think everyone sees beauty. Art is a way to respond.”

    I thought immediately of the appeal photography has for me; it’s a way of looking at the world, and responding to the beauty there. I certainly experience the kind of self-lessness she spoke of when I’m in nature: perhaps not always, but often enough that I can recognize it.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I love how you roam through a post and where you land. As far as living with one of her paintings, this causes me to realize that one of my favorite things, when I go to Dia:Beacon, is to be able to sit in one of the three rooms devoted to her work. That way, I am in a complete Agnes Martin environment every where I look. The experience is, for me, very much like standing on a beach and watching the waves lap against the shore.

  5. David N

    So that’s your collage, clever and artistic you. I see you’ve taken the pale yellow from the one Agnes Martin that seemed reproducable on your Dia:Beacon post. I’m intrigued. In the meanwhile, I was very struck by a Stockholm-born Norwegian artist, Anna Bergman, whose semi-abstract mountain shapes looked wonderful on the top floor of Leipzig’s new(ish) main art gallery last week. I’ll share some images anon.

    Do you have any direct connection between the wonderful Sibelius works and her work?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I’m pleased you connected the yellow to Martin’s work. I’d hoped I might give a whiff of the sense of her delicate yellows, as they appeal to me particularly when viewing her work “live.” The only Sibelius connection is that the piano works were such fine companions while working on the collage. It is to you, by the way, that credit must be given for noting the Andsnes recording in a recent post. In my past perusals of Sibelius, I’d overlooked his works for piano, so many thanks for pointing me in their direction.

      1. David N

        I can’t recommend too strongly the complete sets of later ‘tree’ and ‘flower’ pieces. The only snag about Andsnes’ wonderful collection is that he extracts – decidedly ‘The Spruce’ is my favourite, but they all work as a sequence.


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