Stopping to look at an Agnes Martin painting can feel like stopping to look at wallpaper. Her paintings typically have soft warm bands of color arranged in symmetrical patterns or delicately drawn lines in a grid. But to dismiss her work as simplistic or decorative would be a mistake.
An abstract painting like hers has no recognizable object and no human figure. The painting can feel impersonal because the emotional content isn’t immediately apparent. Yet her paintings can have a deep emotional impact when we let go of the need for the familiar and come to understand her work.
She drew upon her inner experience to create her paintings. She didn’t paint landscapes outdoors. She didn’t use a model. She didn’t arrange fruit on a platter. Instead, she composed her work in the studio while being inspired by an image she saw in the mind’s eye. She said, “The inner eye contemplates all that you have ever seen. And the emotions rise as the inner eye operates.” Her abstract paintings express emotion through a carefully arranged composition in way that a piece of classical music expresses emotion through its composition without direct representation of an object.
Some of her paintings have titles that refer to objects like “The Bird”, “Spring Field,” or “White Flower.” She didn’t paint the sensation of seeing a white flower, though that was her inspiration; instead, she transformed her inner experience into a new work that expresses the emotion of having seen a white flower and her work represents her contemplation of the flower.
A number of her paintings have a subtle luminscent quality. They appear to glow from the inside rather than reflect light. It’s a difficult affect to achieve in a painting and it speaks to her mastery of the medium. Like Mark Rothko’s colorfield paintings, the simplicity of the form belies the complexity of the image. Taking time to observe the painting and live with its affect can be a spiritual experience.
Much has been said about Agnes Martin’s encounter with Buddhism without looking deeper into her experience of growing up in the Presbyterian tradition. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Presbyterians commonly sat in reverent silence before a worship service. Presbyterians will often quote a passage from the Bible to explain the tradition, “The Lord was not in the wind…the earthquake…the fire; and after the fire the sound of sheer silence.” Divine inspiration comes after the the tumult. It comes in the silence when a person sits with a heart ready to receive it.
In his novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, said, “All Profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence” and he also said “Silence is the only Voice of our God.” In this tradition, it is silence that makes space for the presence of the divine.
When speaking about her artwork, Agnes Martin famously said, “You go there sit and look.” This statement summarizes both how she created her paintings and how her paintings are best viewed. It sounds a little like sitting silently in a church sanctuary and waiting for divine inspiration.
It doesn’t take long for the mind to resolve an image in a painting. The human mind can distinguish the difference between a person’s face and a background or a mountain and a river in as little as thirteen milliseconds. To slow down and contemplate an abstract image takes effort. And more than that, it takes effortless effort. Like mindfulness meditation, a person allows the experience to arrive rather than trying to force it. It is an intuitive experience.
In Jungian thought, intuition is an involuntary act like sense perception (Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, p. 49). Intuition occurs separately from judgment. Creating space for an intuitive experience requires the suspension of judgment so that the experience can arise unimpeded.
At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it’s possible to experience a kind of visual car crash in Lee Krasner’s painting Polar Stampede (1960) and then walk to see an ocean of calm in Agnes Martin’s painting Night Sea (1963). The torrential burst of light and darkness in Lee Krasner’s painting contrasts starkly with the subtle and nearly uniform color of Agnes Martin’s painting. The images evoke different emotional states because they communicate different emotions visually.
The regular pattern of horizontal lines in Agnes Martin’s paintings communicate stability. Molly Bang, in her book Picture This: How Paintings Work, says that horizontal lines communicate a sense of stability because objects are most stable in a horizontal position. A person laying down on the earth cannot fall over. A slab of cement laying on the ground cannot collapse. A flat body of water is calm.
Agnes Martin’s paintings also communicate a kind of dynamic energy either through form or color. She often used vertical lines in her paintings to express visual tension. Molly Bang says that vertical lines in a picture imply energy because the object defies the pull of gravity downwards. A tree grows towards the sun. A monument is erected vertically. A skyscraper reaches towards the heavens. If a skyscraper were to fall over, it would release an enormous amount of energy.
Agnes Martin said that her grids inside of a square frame are rectangular in order to destroy the square (Writings, p. 29). A completely square grid would be static. The images in Agnes Martin’s paintings are dynamic communicating energy at the same time that they communicate stability. In instances where she used only horizontal lines, the paintings use tone and color to create contrast and visual tension.
She sought to express beauty and joy in her paintings. She said that these fleeting moments of joy were a kind of perfection:
Moments of perfection are indescribable but a few things can be said about them. At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties and we think we will never lose it again. (Writings, p. 68)
This kind of joy is not the pleasure of abandoning one’s self to a wild and ecstatic experience. Instead it is the kind of calm joy one experiences when looking off into the distance or watching a sunset. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford, said that this mode of vision releases a mechanism in the brain stem involved in vigilance and arousal. Contemplating an Agnes Martin painting can lower one’s sense of arousal and evoke a sense of calm by releasing the mind from a state of vigilance.
Agnes Martin considered herself to be an abstract expressionist like Franz Klein and Helen Frankthaler. Given her focus on expressing emotion, one can see why she might have thought this way. Many art critics categorize her artwork as minimalist. Minimalism reduces a painting to the minimum number of elements necessary to create the work. Minimalism as an aesthetic is ancient and can be found in everything from Japanese tea ceremonies to modern industrial design. When done well, minimalism removes visual noise from our field of view and helps us focus our attention.
Agnes Martin’s work invites us to sit still and focus of our attention so that a kind of joy can arise unhindered. In this way, her work isn’t about creating the appearance of an object like a flower, instead it’s invitation to transcend the object and focus on the experience of contemplating beauty.