Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Agnes turned her back

I was watching a documentary, by Mary Lance, about the painter Agnes Martin; it is called "With my back to the world." Early on, the (then 86-year-old) artist explained that she did turn her back... she said she needed a quiet mind for inspiration to enter in, and that she only began a painting when she could see an image of it fully-formed in her mind (and then she begins the mathematical calculations to expand it to 5 x 5 feet).  Martin's paintings are, for some people, very difficult to love. They are composed largely of horizontal lines, begun in pencil, and then painted in with thin lines of very pale shades of paint. She said that she considered herself to be an Abstract Expressionist (but her work is very different from the extravagant splashes we usually associate with AbEx work... think Robert Motherwell or Joan Mitchell). But many people must love her ... the books and catalogs that remain in print are rare and pricey, and her work sells rather well.  Martin seemed to feel that her work may be accessible, if people give it a chance: "if you wake up in the morning and you feel very happy -- about nothing -- no cause -- that's what I paint about -- and I'm hoping that people when they ... respond to [these paintings] ... will realize that they make responses ... that are completely abstract, you know, and that their lives are broader than they think."

Do artists need to turn their backs in order to create work that people can respond to? Martin said that her past -- over twenty years of trying to paint and living among other painters and traveling -- gave her enough experience to work from for the rest of her life. And so she preferred living on her own. Gertrude Stein said (maybe in Alice's voice, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?) that she liked a view, but she liked to turn her back to it. She wrote after everyone else went to bed, sometimes until the birds began singing in the morning. Focus is important ... but Stein did set up her Paris apartment as a place to meet artists and writers and encouraged conversation, and only wrote after everyone had left.

This less-isolated way of working, Stein's focused moments in an otherwise social life, is also my husband's way ... Charley calls it working "in the interstices," stealing little moments "between" peeling the onions or returning the phone call or writing a Tanka prose piece or ... whatever. He came up with it as an expression long ago, in New York, as we were raised our two children, because, while he was sitting at the kitchen table or standing making dinner, he wrote a number of essays "between" talking with me or the kids. But his political theory essays (then) and his poetry (now) came of lived experience, drew images and life from everything going on around him.

Much as I like Agnes Martin's work, and the feeling in her work, I think some rhythm, some contact, is pretty crucial ... at least for most of us! Most of my work comes from thinking about the landscape as we (together) have walked or driven through it, and then I can "see" images later to bring back that experience. Everyday things, but with people.

Here are 4 of Charley's peeled apples, waiting through the "interstices"to become a pie for company:

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