After two weeks in Prague where I was spending a semester as an exchange student, I took a train ride to Vienna with the purpose of exploring the art work by some of my heroes: Klimt, Schiele, Hundertwasser, and the German Expressionist painters. On one of my museum visits I came across a group of ink drawings on paper by Agnes Martin. They were simple grids drawn using a straight edge. At the time I had no interest in this type of work. I spent a few minutes with her pieces before I went off to explore the emotionally charged figurative work that I had come to see.
I forgot about this experience until six months later when I was back in California visiting the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley. Without any prior knowledge, I found myself in a room with a group of square paintings. The paintings were horizontal bands of different shades of gray with pencil lines defining the edges at regular intervals. The work was by Agnes Martin.
A seed that had been planted in me during my trip to Vienna started to germinate in Berkeley. The simplicity and the directness of her paintings affected me profoundly. The way the graphite was deposited on the canvas as the pencil moved and hit the high points of the weave made me see the artist as a human being, much more so than any other artist I had come across. It was as if everything in the painting was put there only for one reason: it was the artist’s experience. They had a quality which might be found in a sketchbook, something not meant to be seen by others.
This philosophy of artmaking was already very close to my own not very successful approach to figurative work. My primary concern for my art was honesty. I was trying to bring to it a sense of reality, a reality that I could find in an Andrea Tarkovsky film or in Japanese Haiku poetry.
The first step was to remove everything that was unnecessary and that had nothing to do with me. This put me face to face with the whole reason for image-making. It became clear that all image-making was basically mark-making, and perhaps the person making the marks wanted to say, “I existed.” From this point forward, my work stopped its story-telling format and became a process of mark-making. Only one story was important: it was the story of the human experience, the one that used a different thread everyday, but wove the same fabric.
I believe that by limiting myself, in a way, I freed myself from obligation and was allowed to explore my own personal experience. My reason for creating became the active participation in the making and the knowledge attained from first-hand experience. This method for working became an activity not separate from my day-to-day life; I had stopped reacting to what was outside.
About a year ago, on a whim, I decided to send a small painting to Agnes Martin; I found it important to make a physical connection with her. To my surprise, a few days later, I received a phone call from a woman with a deep voice who had difficulty pronouncing my name. It was Agnes Martin. She thanked me for the gift and told me she was inspired by its perfection. She also told me that if I was ever in Taos, New Mexico, we could meet.
August 30, 2004, almost ten years from the introduction in Vienna, I am in a motel room in Taos waiting for the clock to strike 9:00 a.m. before I call Agnes. I am calling to see if our 11:00 a.m. meeting is still possible, since lately she has not been feeling well. She is almost 93 years old. I am anxious and nervous at the same time. I talk to her assistant on the phone. Agnes is not feeling well, but agrees to keep our appointment. I drive to her place, arriving three minutes early. I am greeted by her assistant into a very modest apartment. Agnes is sitting in a chair, facing the door. At first she is not very welcoming. From what I had heard, she does not get overly excited about things. As I take a seat next to her I notice my painting on her wall. I tell her that the painting is my work. She smiles and opens up with motherly warmth. She tells me that she has enjoyed the painting ever since she received it.
We spend the next 45 minutes talking about perfection, beauty, and reality. I ask her if the three are perhaps one and the same. She is quiet for a while and then tells me, “No.” They are different, but there is a place where they all come together. She also talks about cave paintings and about the fact that they are images of hunts and battles. At first it is not clear to me as to what she is getting at, but later I realize that perhaps art has always been an arena for battle: a battleground for our egos, our desires and for our fears.
I find Agnes Martin’s work a call to end all battles. As she herself says, “The absolute trick in life is to find rest.”*
Postscript. December 16, 2004, I received an email from a friend in New York titled “sad news.” It was to inform me of Agnes Martin’s passing earlier that morning. Reading it, my spirit sagged as if I had lost a close family member. I had only spoken to her three times on the phone and met with her once in person, yet I felt very close to her.
In a documentary by Mary Lance titled “Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World,” Agnes talks about her practice of painting with her back to the world. Perhaps a more appropriate title would have been “with my back to the art world.” Even though she refused to be distracted by the art world, she embraced the world and never turned her back to it. Agnes spent over forty years of her life in search for meaning and the expression of what she called “innocence.”
After the composer John Cage passed away, he was referred to as “the giant who sat amongst us so quietly.” Agnes Martin was such a giant. ∆
Hadi Tabatabai is an artist living in San Francisco.
*This article first appeared in Likovne Besede/Artwords 69, 70 Winter 2004.
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