In the documentary Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, Martin describes how her childhood hometown in Saskatchewan was located on a prairie so flat that you could watch a train approach the town, or leave the town, for hours. I'm trying to understand the effect she said she wanted her paintings to have, the effect others say they get from the paintings: a feeling of happiness, peaceful happiness. I certainly felt that when listening to her talk in the documentary, filmed toward the end of her life, when she was around 90 years old, I felt very soothed indeed -- but I look at her paintings, and I just think, "Whaaaat...?" Honestly, all I feel is puzzled. But I am looking for clues. Over and over again in the course of my life, I have looked at the work of an artist whom others have highly praised, and the objects of art in question have held no appeal for me -- until I've looked at them for a while, and then they have. No luck so far with Agnes Martin's paintings -- but maybe that prairie train-track is an important clue to the mystery of all of those paintings with horizontal stripes in pale earth-tones. Maybe they signified for Martin, subconsciously or however, the prairie horizon, the horizontal stripe of that train track, the colors of the land, fields sun-bleached in summer.
Maybe I'm starting to get it now about Martin's paintings. Right now, as I write this, looking at a picture of Martin's painting Happy Holidays in another window, on the website of the National Galleries of Scotland.
I don't know. I've never taken this approach before, examining an artist's biography or his or her statements for help in understanding his or her work. On the contrary, in fact, sometimes I have deliberately ignored what an artist had to say about his own work, as in the cases of Martin's fellow Abstract Expressionists Pollock and Rothko, both very gloomy fellows. I don't tend to feel gloomy at all when I look at a Pollock or a Rothko, on the contrary. If my reactions are "wrong," I don't really care, I'd rather feel exhilarated than depressed. I can do depressed all on my own, I don't tend to need much help there.
When it comes to exhilaration, joy, calm and the like, however, I will gladly take all the help I can get. Then again, if I find very different things in the work of Rothko and Pollock than what is usually described as their effects, if some critics would describe my reactions as "wrong," who's to say that looking for happiness in Martin's paintings might not be a futile quest for me?
I'm looking at Happy Holidays again in the other browser window, and... naaah, I don't really get it yet. Although I do now like the pictures made by Martin's former roommate Ellsworth Kelly. I've been discussing art with some people, and in the last few days Kelly's name came up -- that's why I started thinking about Martin again, I knew they and others had once shared a living and working space -- and I kept looking at Kelly's stuff, and, suddenly, as has happened with so many other artists before, bingo, I got it -- or if not "it," then I got something at least, something I wasn't getting before. Something quite nice, something I'm very glad I have.
As with Ellsworth Kelly, so with many other artists. Although some, like Martin, remain thoroughly enigmatic to me, I feel I am becoming more and more receptive to the beauty of art in generally -- more open, more... I can't think of a more accurate word here than "open."
21. May 2015: I'm finally starting to get it! The powerful soothing effect in her voice which I mentioned -- her paintings have it too! You just have to be open to it.