Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Mythos and History: A New Agnes Martin Biography

Agnes Martin, The Tree, 1964. Oil and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 inches.
Agnes Martin, The Tree, 1964. Oil and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 inches.

Throughout her life, Agnes Martin repeated a reticence to, and even rejection of, biography. Her resistance puts Martin’s biographer in a difficult position. In her biography of Martin, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames & Hudson, 2015), Nancy Princenthal masterfully meets the challenge with a sensitive, open and compassionate account. Princenthal presents the confusing and often-contradictory accounts of Martin’s life without judgment. Nonetheless, Princenthal is not ambiguous or dispassionate in her language, and she draws forceful conclusions and opens up rich avenues of inquiry and critical thought about Martin’s art. Martin’s mental illness and sexuality, two tropes that might have easily been sensationalized under less skilled hands, have been thoughtfully written about as a complement to Martin’s work, not a defining presence. Princenthal pulls from a haze of privacy and a smokescreen of mystery someone tangible: Agnes Martin.

Cover of "Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art," 2015, by Nancy Princenthal. Published by Thames & Hudson.
Cover of “Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art,” 2015, by Nancy Princenthal. Published by Thames & Hudson.

Princenthal is upfront in her ever-increasing concerns at writing Martin’s biography, writing that she has “qualms about violating [Martin’s] privacy, which have grown in the writing of this volume.” Martin’s silence, exhorting close friends to guard the details of her life even after her death, was both personal and to protect her art from easy biographical interpretation. Princenthal elucidates: “Martin late in her life elicited pledges from friends that they wouldn’t talk about her after she was gone. Whether or not sworn to secrecy, many have honored her wish—a wish that is also plainly apparent in her deeply reticent work and even more explicit in her writing. Her paramount injunctions, against pride and ego, have continued to shape attempts to bring her life into focus.”

This hesitancy in undertaking the writing of Martin’s biography only increases the tenacity needed to write the book. The roadblocks Princenthal encounters are many and varied, not least is Martin’s injunction to her friends. Martin often and unsentimentally destroyed work that failed her exacting vision. During her first stay in Taos, New Mexico in the 1940s, there was a yearly bonfire: “At Taos I wasn’t satisfied with my paintings and at the end of every year I’d have a big fire and burn them all.” As a result, the evolution of Martin as an artist and painter is difficult, though Princenthal shows, not impossible, to trace.

Among the many forms of protest Martin used against biography, most challenging is her obfuscation of personal history while emphasizing her own mythos. Martin was born in 1912 in frontier Western Canada to Scottish emigrants, Malcolm and Margaret. There are specific confusions concerning Martin’s family, including the circumstances around the departure of Malcolm (when Martin was three years old). Princenthal carefully picks through the evidence of Malcolm Martin’s absence — variously suggested as death in the Boer War or syphilis, or just skipping town — by analyzing court records and Saskatchewan homestead records. Despite this diligence, the “particulars” remain murky.

In another example, the tantalizing yet baffling conflation between biography and myth is seen after Martin’s graduation from high school in Vancouver. For unclear reasons, Martin relocated to Bellingham, WA, arriving south of the border for the first time. Ostensibly, Martin said she had come to Bellingham to help her sister Maribel during a difficult pregnancy, though Princenthal is unconvinced by this reason: “It is an odd explanation, with conspicuous holes. (Where was Glen Sires, whom Maribel married in 1930? How precisely could Agnes, still a teenager, have been of help?)” Moreover, and this is where the story becomes stranger, while in Bellingham, Martin somehow ended up in California:

“At some point in 1930 or 1931, she took a job in Los Angeles offered by an employment agency—in another version of the story, she saw a sign offering a position while on a bus back to Vancouver—as household cook to a woman named Rhea Gore, and she wound up serving as a driver for Gore’s roughly 25-year-old son, John Huston. Soon to become a famous film director, Huston was then a budding screenwriter and miscreant (he’d been arrested for drunk driving a few times). Having been involved in a fatal car accident that was ‘something of a scandal,’ according to his son, Tony Huston—he’d struck a pedestrian—John Huston’s license was suspended, and during the trial that ensued, Martin drove him to court each day.”

Princenthal again and again makes clear discrepancies and ambiguities within Martin’s biography and the difficulties in writing that life. But the potential confusions nevertheless serve to sharpen Princenthal’s portrait. The “shape of myth,” a phrase Princenthal uses, provides scaffolding through which she builds Martin’s life.

Martin was a teacher in small towns throughout the Pacific Northwest and came to New York City to Teacher’s College (though she said Columbia) in 1941. She moved repeatedly during the next 15 years, including stints in Taos, the Pacific Northwest, Delaware and New York City. In 1957, she came back to New York City, and established a studio in Coenties Slip, with neighbors who “included Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and Jasper Johns…” Martin was in her 40s when she began to work with the grids she is so well known for and, more importantly, “that, she felt, represented her true vision.”

Through evocative and spare language, Princenthal skillfully evokes Martin’s paintings, particularly the dependence of the work “on the observer’s response.” Princenthal’s account of viewing The Tree (1964) is the lived experience of one of Martin’s paintings: a symbiotic and mercurial relationship. The Tree was the first Martin painting Princenthal saw, and “has stayed with [her] ever since.” However, when Princenthal returned to the painting as she wrote this biography, she was disappointed to find it “static and coldly white.” “It was a dismaying moment; I sat on a bench with pad and pen in hand and saw nothing but pencil lines and paint.” Princenthal felt she was “failing” the painting. During another visit, her response shifted again:

It was again an image of nature sublimated into the radiance of geometry. Like the majestic pump that a big tree is, sucking water from the earth and moving it toward sunlight, the painting once more seemed to breathe visibly, with its biaxial double-stroke of inspiration and exhalation. A painting can create an updraft and take you with it. It can also be a buffer for the kind of shattering, screaming beauty that may swallow you whole, as I believe Martin often felt her sensorium threatened to do. The business of response is a delicate, willed operation, a deep but unstable joy even when it succeeds.

Princenthal wrote to Martin when she was an undergraduate at Hunter College. Martin’s letter in response exhorts Princenthal to “Write your true response.” Princenthal does just that in her mutating responses to The Tree; a formal description would have been meaningless. Princenthal’s biography of Martin could have had the same tenor as a formal description of one of Martin’s paintings, and would have been as disposable. Instead, Princenthal writes a “true response” to the art and life of Agnes Martin: a whole yet tenuous biography with myths and obscurities, intimacies and challenges. Moreover, it is most crucially that Princenthal’s “true response” aids our own such observations of Martin’s work.

Princenthal, Nancy. Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art. (New York and London: Thames & Hudson, 2015). ISBN-13: 978-0500093900, 320 pages, $39.95

Agnes Martin, Homage to Greece, 1959. Oil, canvas collage, and nails on panel, 12 x 12 inches.
Agnes Martin, Homage to Greece, 1959. Oil, canvas collage, and nails on panel, 12 x 12 inches.