Art ‘Requires a Relaxation of Control’: How Agnes Martin Gave Up Intellectualism to Harness Her Inspiration

An excerpt from Nancy Princenthal's biography on the artist 'Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art.'

Agnes Martin. Courtesy of the estate of Agnes Martin and Pace Gallery.

The question of how Agnes Martin arrived at the grid, and what she drew from those around her, seems easy to answer: several pioneers of pared down, rectilinear abstraction were near at hand, and ideas were exchanged freely. But to get at the particular quality of Martin’s paintings from the 1960s on, it is necessary to look beyond her neighbors at the seaport—and, at the same time, more deeply at what they shared.

Martin’s work compels attention because it reflects impulses that were as irresistible to her as her paintings are to so many viewers. She said she composed her work following the dictates of inner visions, which arrived as complete images that she executed just as she saw them, but bigger. To take her at her word is to call her creative process a kind of psychic automatism—that is, to see a link between the kind of geometric abstraction she developed and the Surrealism with which so many of her Abstract Expressionist peers (and Martin herself) wrestled early on. Seeing a connection between Martin’s creative process and earlier literary as well as visual stream-of-consciousness production helps us see, as well, that the hand drawn lines in her paintings are tied to handwriting and to verbal language. The grids and later works do not so much represent conditions in the material world—light, shape, form—as states of mind or, more precisely, lines of thought. Various spiritual teachings shaped Martin’s thinking, and her immersion in both Eastern spiritual teachings and mystical Christianity deepened when she was in New York. They significantly affected the way she approached painting and also how she conducted her life (though she would sometimes later deny these influences). But mostly, she tuned in to the harmonics of an inner voice and to the visions appearing before her mind’s eye.

In the many accounts she gave of her working process, Martin invariably used the word “inspiration.” She had visions of paintings, which appeared to her fully formed and exactingly precise in composition and, in later works, in color. At first, they were a challenge and a surprise: “When I had the inspiration for the grids, I was thinking of innocence and the image was a grid. That was it. I thought, ‘My god, am I supposed to paint that?’” While her transcriptions sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, the visions themselves were unerring in every detail, requiring no internal adjustments. As she explained it, “I have a vision in my mind about what I’m going to paint before I start…. When I make a mistake, I make a mistake in scale, then it’s no good at all…. See, I have a little picture in my mind and I have to make it into a six-foot canvas.”

Often she referred to inspiration as a gentle spirit: “That which takes us by surprise—moments of happiness—that is inspiration.” At other times, she experienced it as more peremptory: “Inspiration is a command. While you have choice that is not inspiration. If a decision is required that is not inspiration and you should not do anything by decision. It is simply a waste of time.” Infallible though the visions were, they didn’t always arrive punctually. “I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three the afternoon, without any breakfast. You see, I have a visual image. But then to actually accurately put it down, is a long, long ways from just knowing what you’re going to do…. First, I have the experience of happiness and innocence. Then, if I can keep from being distracted, I will have an image to paint,” she reported.

Discriminating visions from wayward thoughts wasn’t always easy. “When you look in your mind you find it covered with a lot of rubbishy thoughts. You have to penetrate these and hear what your mind is telling you to do.” At the same time, inspiration required a certain relaxation of control. “At night the intellect goes to sleep and gives inspiration a chance. When people have a decision to make, they say they will sleep on it; that is the part of the mind that’s responsible for artwork. It’s not an intellectual process,” Martin told Irving Sandler. When he noted that she often discarded paintings, she continued, using one of her more homespun analogies, “Well, inspiration doesn’t always turn out because, even if inspiration is the black corn in the bottom forty, the weather has a lot to do with it!”

Finally, inspiration, as Martin saw it, is not unique to gifted artists; on the contrary, it is a universal faculty:

Inspiration is there all the time.

For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts, whether they realize it or not…

Inspiration is pervasive but not a power.

It is a peaceful thing.

It is a consolation even to plants and animals.

Such statements may sound uncomfortably mystical. But Martin also spoke of inspiration as an altogether pragmatic tool, handy in avoiding the trap of overthinking a problem. To a student audience, she offered this advice: “I used to be pretty intellectual…. But I think I’ve got it out of my system. You don’t have to worry about your inner eye. It is working. It’s on the job.”

These descriptions of her work’s source, which she began to offer in the mid-1970s, leave much unaccounted for and not a little that invites skepticism (as do most artists’ accounts of their work’s development): her reported experience acknowledges no connection with other artists pursuing similar goals with similar means. Considering Martin’s “inspirations” to be a kind of automatism—a channeling of an impulse over which she ceded (or suppressed) conscious control—helps place them in an art-historical lineage. It could be said that she did so herself by finding merit in Pollock’s work, which she deemed “terrific. I think he freed himself of all kinds of worry about this world” and “managed to express ecstasy.” (For de Kooning, on the other hand, she had no use at all.) But to invoke automatism is also to introduce associations Martin rejected. In fact, there is a sharp distinction between the extra-conscious mental states that produced her visions and the personal, subjective experiences most automatists sought to express. “Personal emotions are emotions that apply to a person—like the soap opera,” she responded to a question from the audience following a 1989 lecture. “They are anti-art…. I hope that’s clear—personal emotions as against other kinds of emotions…. Happiness is not a personal emotion, it is a universal.” Martin’s subjects are states that transcend the particular conditions of an individual life.

The cover of Nancy Princenthal’s book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

On the face of it, no simple connection can be made between Martin’s painstakingly ruled penciled lines and automatism as it is commonly understood: a kind of cursive, meandering script that has served, in the hands of such artists as André Masson, Henri Michaux, Roberto Matta, and (most famously) Pollock as a visualization of the term “stream of consciousness.” This liquid metaphor for the spontaneous expression of mental activity that originates unconsciously, coined in 1890 by the American psychologist William James, is strongly associated with the literature first written with its assistance, including that of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. Also undertaken in its name are the departures from narrative logic sought in literary exercises by the Surrealists André Breton and Philippe Soupault, who made “pure psychic automatism” the cornerstone of the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. (Under the influence of Freud, they expected the unconscious creative voices thus liberated to speak largely of sex.) Automatism is strongly associated as well with the irrational figuration and dreamlike narrative that Surrealist visual artists produced.


Martin continued to channel geometry as inspiration—and resist the appeals of landscape—throughout the period when she was distilling her vision of a grid from the entirety of the visible world. But however appealing Martin may have been found Ellsworth Kelly’s reconciliation of plane geometry with spontaneous mark-making, and despite her early work’s wealth of Surrealist-influenced imagery, automatism was not a term she embraced. It was freighted with what seemed to her self-indulgent introspection.

In her effort to enforce boundaries between art and personal expression—to maintain a firm line between art and everything else—she could have found no better guide than Ad Reinhardt. Like Kelly, Reinhardt (born in 1907 and thus closer in age to Martin) was a bridge between the generation of the Abstract Expressionists and the younger Minimalists who drew so much from his example. Reinhardt was not a Coenties Slip resident, but he was a gallery mate of Martin’s at Betty Parsons, first showing there in 1947 and every year thereafter until 1960, with a final show in 1965.

There are other points of biographical connection with Martin: Reinhardt attended Columbia University, on a scholarship, from 1932 to 1935; he, too was from a working-class background, a circumstance that helped to shape his deep and abiding political commitments. While at Columbia, Reinhardt enrolled in painting classes at Teachers College and, as noted above, both he and Martin—who arrived five years after Reinhardt left—studied with Elise Ruffini. Among Reinhardt’s first exhibitions were two at the Teachers College gallery, in 1943 and ’44, by which time Martin was in New Mexico, where they met briefly in 1951. When asked whether she was good friends with him during her seaport years, Martin replied, “Yes,” adding that they didn’t talk about painting together, but they “supported each other…. He thought I was a good painter, and I thought he was a good painter.”

Although Reinhardt’s work of the 1940s was calligraphic, grid-like armatures structured its allover weave, and he was scathing in his judgment of Surrealist automatism. “Artists who peddle wiggly lines and colors as representing emotion,” he said in 1960, “should be run off the streets.” In 1943 Reinhardt wrote, “the main current of Surrealism is chaos, confusion, individual anguish, terror, horror… an abstract painting stands as a challenge to disorder and disintegration.” Later he revisited this judgment in more colloquial terms, claiming that the Surrealists “were anti-art. They were involved in, I don’t know, life or love or sex or I don’t know what…. Well, the abstract painters were always dull in that sense.” It was a dullness—and also, implicitly, a devotion to higher, better things—that he endorsed.

Some of Reinhardt’s antipathy to Surrealism was simply a symptom of the widespread resistance, among postwar American painters, to European influence. As Dore Ashton writes, in connection with Rothko, “For most artists who would become New York School abstract painters, the Surrealist lunge into the unconscious was somehow shameless;” instead, they pursued grand, trans-personal themes. Martin’s 1957 Wurlitzer Foundation application had reflected the same anti-European, universalizing enthusiasms. While Reinhardt deplored the “sublime,” he too embraced—in what is arguably a hair-splitting distinction—the conception of art as an expression of absolute emotions. Martin made the same distinction when she wrote, “I think that personal feelings, sentimentality and those sorts of emotions, are not art but… universal emotions like happiness are art.”

Equally close in spirit to Martin’s thinking was much of the aesthetic program that was so forcefully defined by Reinhardt. In the spring of 1958, in It Is, he wrote a “Statement” called “25 Lines of Words on Art.” Written entirely in capitals, it included these pronouncements: “1. Art is art. Everything else is everything else. / 2. Art-as-art. Art from art. Art on art. Art for art. Art beyond art. / … / 6. Painting as ‘not as a likeness of anything on earth.’ / … / 10. Painting as absolute symmetry, pure reason, rightness. 11. Painting as central, frontal, regular, repetitive. 12. Preformulation, preformalization, formalism, repainting.” In her newly symmetrical, frontal, regular, repetitive, preformulated, and purified painting, Martin subscribed to—or possibly helped shape—many of Reinhardt’s tenets.

Ideology aside, their work also shared formal features. By the late 1950s Reinhardt was making monochrome paintings, including entirely white ones which, Thomas Hess wrote, had an effect like “the sound snow makes falling on snow.” The description would perfectly suit much of Martin’s work of the late 1950s. And by 1960 Reinhardt had committed himself conclusively to what are generally called his “black” paintings: the square canvases, five feet on a side, trisected into nine squares of close-valued, very dark gray. “No other American painter was interested in a combination of invisibility, purity, and the end of painting until at least 1960,” Lucy Lippard claimed. Similarly, Michael Corris writes, “In Reinhardt’s post-historic universe, 1960 symbolizes year zero of the project to construct an artistic practice that embodies the performance of negation in modern art.”

The timing is almost exactly coincident with Martin’s commitment to her own unvarying format, the six-foot square canvas organized by horizontal and vertical lines, and to her own pursuit of near invisibility. Reinhardt described his black paintings in 1966 as “squares of time, colorless intersection [between] memory, forgetfulness; signals from the void, grid-lines between future [and] past.” Achieving these voided images required that Reinhardt make ruthless denials—of subjects, of subjectivity, of visibility itself: “Only a standardized, prescribed form can be imageless, only a stereotyped image can be formless, only a formulaized art can be formula-less…. Everything into irreducibility, unreproducibility, imperceptibility.”

Like Reinhardt’s black squares, the lineaments of Martin’s grids are only visible at close range and can disappear entirely when photographed. And their execution requires similar feats of patience and care. “The work of producing a ‘black’ painting was painstaking, delicate and, above all, tedious,” writes Corris, who also says, “Reinhardt favored labor-intensive studio methods, which he described in various manifestos as a kind of ritual.” This involvement in process, in repetitive and demanding—or, it could also be said, meditative — work for its own sake, characterizes Martin’s paintings as well.

Even equating the scale of the painting and the artist is an interest Reinhardt and Martin shared. The “black” paintings, it is often said, conformed to the span of Reinhardt’s outstretched arms—limbs that are implicit in the equal-armed cross that divides each canvas—and had the advantage as well of being easily moved around the studio. The same is true of Martin’s paintings (although, until near the end of her life, they were a foot bigger than Reinhardt’s; her physical strength was considerable and her rejection of assistants adamant). For her part, Martin said of the scale she committed to at this time, “It’s a good size [when] you can just feel like stepping into it. It has to do with being the full size of the human body.”

Agnes Martin in her studio on Ledoux Street, Taos, New Mexico, 1953.
Photo: Mildred Tolbert. Courtesy of the Harwood Museum of Art, Gift of Mildred Tolbert. ©Mildred Tolbert Family.

Martin’s paintings differ from Reinhardt’s in essential ways. The distinction is not mainly between paintings that tend more often to fade to white than black—in 1955 Reinhardt, like several of his peers, including Newman and Kelly, and also Robert Rauschenberg, had made white-on-white paintings, and Martin’s paintings could be quite dark—but between Reinhardt’s many renunciations and Martin’s abiding spirit of affirmation; he chose not to promote the universal emotions of joy and innocence that she celebrated. Just as important, Martin parted company with Reinhardt on the issue of political engagement. (Reinhardt, who had been a member of the Communist party in the 1930s, remained a lifelong activist—perhaps surprisingly, he was Vice President of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1963, a group associated with student protests of the sixties. These affiliations had led early on to FBI surveillance and to habits of wariness that conformed with Martin’s own.)

But the differences between Martin and Reinhardt are outweighed by shared commitments, primary among them the defeat of ego. While Martin did not faithfully practice any organized religion (“I quote from the Bible because it’s so poetic, though I’m not a Christian,” she once said), she, like Reinhardt, was drawn to several varieties of quietism. While at Columbia, Reinhardt began a lifelong friendship with Thomas Merton, who would become a Trappist monk and scholar of both Buddhism and Christian mysticism; Merton encouraged these interests in his friend and called Reinhardt the “dean of the Great Quiet.” In something of the same spirit, Lippard calls Reinhardt a moralizing art-for-art Protestant. The Protestant ethos that Martin shared with Betty Parsons has already been noted, although the character of Parsons’s religious identity was more social than spiritual. On the other hand, both Lenore Tawney and Ann Wilson encouraged in Martin a searching interest in Christian mysticism. Like Tawney, Wilson, who in 1977 would produce an operatic performance based in part on Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, read the eighteenth-century volume with Martin during their seaport years, along with the life and teachings of Saint Teresa of Avila.

Saint Teresa’s appeal to Martin was manifold, and the artist would have had no trouble heeding her advice, “The necessities of the body should be disregarded,” and at times she accepted (if only by necessity) “the good that comes from poverty.” Even Teresa’s praise of “the great blessing that shunning their relatives brings to those who have left the world” would have resonated with Martin, whose relations with her family were strained at best. But it was Teresa’s visions that must have attracted Martin most, both as a model for her own inspiration and, perhaps, for affirming psychological experiences that could be isolating and frightening. The sixteenth-century Teresa, by her own description “too giddy and careless to be trusted at home,” was sent to be educated by Augustinian nuns, but she challenged Church authority by embracing the visions that began visiting her in early adulthood. In “The Prayer of God,” Teresa’s most influential writing, she explained to her “daughters” that there is “a supernatural state” in which “all the faculties are stilled.” Those who achieve this state, doing so by grace rather than by effort, “seem not to be in the world, and have no wish to see or hear anything but their God; nothing distresses them, nor does it seem that anything can possibly do so.”

Parallels have often been noted between such mystical states and the internal experiences of individuals who, like Martin, have a history of breaking from reality. And Teresa used a striking metaphor for this state of sublimity: “The soul is like an infant still at its mother’s breast: such is the mother’s care for it that she gives it its milk without its having to ask for it so much as by moving its lips. That is what happens here. The will simply loves, and no effort needs to be made by the understanding.”

There is a connection here to Martin’s curiously staunch belief that mothers know instinctively just how to best serve their infants and do so without doubt or exception: “Our most heartfelt and anxious obedience is a mother’s obedience to the infant, and her slavish obedience to her children as long as they are in her care,” she wrote. The child, reciprocally, is perfectly obedient to the mother; this “authority-obedience state” is “a continuous state of being.” But, Martin goes on to say, “the obedience of children is generally worthless because they are inattentive and desultory.” The oblique perspective such statements throw on Martin’s childhood, and on her experience as a teacher, is tantalizing, not least for its final touch of mordant humor. But most salient, for Martin, in Saint Teresa’s advice is her celebration of a state of rapture, her affirmation of vision as a creative resource, and, not least, her recommendation to disregard thought—which, Teresa says, is to be laughed away, a recommendation Martin took to heart.

Excerpted from Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal. © 2015 Nancy Princenthal. Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.