Why Agnes Martin is my favorite artist — and probably always will be.
I attended a retrospective of the American artist Agnes Martin’s work at Tate Modern in 2015, having never previously heard of her.
I would like to consider myself well-informed on art history, in a bookish sense, but this exhibition was to change that notion entirely.
Not just because I had not even been aware of such an accomplished artist up to that point, but because I had held a belief that art was to be ‘known’.
Something to be categorized and stored away neatly alongside Simpsons quotes and a list of the Tudors.
Perhaps I enjoyed this exhibition so much precisely because I entered with no preconceptions. Its main attraction to me was that it seemed quite empty.
What matters more is the real impact that seeing Agnes Martin’s work had on me.
Her paintings distilled a feeling that follows me everywhere: that paradoxical sense of controlled, steely, yet ultimately uncontrollable disorder.
I struggled to put it into words before that day; I struggle equally so now.
Martin’s work has, however, been a steadfast companion since then.
I sat in a room filled with these intentionally imperfect grids at the Tate Modern and for the first time truly felt a connection with art.
I was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks at the time and these paintings helped. They helped, not because of their calm colors or patterns, but because of what lay beyond that appearance of stillness.
Perhaps reassured would be a more appropriate way of defining their impact.
I have never really been one for catch-all platitudes or easy panaceas, and here were paintings that told me I didn’t need to be — in fact, that I shouldn’t.
I love Agnes Martin’s work because she embraces uncertainty as a fact of life.
Her paintings, particularly in digital reproductions, can take on the appearance of smooth grids and block colors. However, just when order seems to be the victor, take a closer look and things are no longer so clear.
Lines are hand-drawn and contain mistakes. Sometimes the lines are drawn with precision, but paint spills over the edge of the canvas.
The paintings present a facade of serenity, all ululations ensconced beneath, occasionally nudging the surface as if to remind us of their presence.
In Martin’s work, the dueling forces of the Dionysian and the Apollonian are ever-present, always visible. And neither truly wins.
After the exhibition, I learned of the artist’s frequent bouts of schizophrenia as I researched her work and life.
Even an enthusiast as amateur as I am aware of the pitfalls of tying biographical details with specific works of art. In the case of Agnes Martin, these details are illuminating rather than confounding.
For biographical rigor, I cannot add to the hugely impressive Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, from which I have learned most about the artist’s achievements and struggles.
This book was gifted to me by my partner and has only served to increase my curiosity about Agnes Martin, rather than satiate it.
As such, it serves as the perfect complement to the paintings; the more it draws you in, the less certain you are about the object of your curiosity.
We are encouraged to read between the lines when we observe these works and, when we do, we find further intricacies, imperfections, contradictions. Agnes Martin’s art both rewards and resists deeper interpretation.
I have since seen many more of Martin’s canvases, which were most affecting at dia:beacon in upstate New York. Here, the cavernous surroundings allow these works the space they require to communicate with each other.
If they are an attempt to create calmness where there is none, they fall short. As an honest portrayal of an inner life — perceptual, emotional, intellectual — in constant turmoil, they are poignantly subtle.
Our age demands certainty. We can be 100% right or 100% wrong, but ambiguity is a weakness. The aim is to accelerate, not to ruminate.
Perception is all. It always has been, perhaps, but in the age of reason we do not like unclean lines. Better to create an illusion of surety than to confront the messy nature of our phenomenological reality. Slogans, buzzwords, social media shares.
That day at Tate Modern, Agnes Martin’s work forced me to stand still and stare. It allowed me to face up to how I had been feeling all along and see that it could have some form, some expression. That memory is an endless source of solace.
I am entirely biased, of course. But that is the point of having, and declaring, our favorites. We are occasionally allowed to rhapsodize.
I continue to find that Agnes Martin’s art is the perfect blend of intellectual and emotional stimulation, providing comfort when order and disorder are in constant, jittery dialogue.
For that, she will remain my favorite artist for some time to come.