Agnes Martin’s work can be tricky, all lines and grids and pale neutrals. It used to make me wonder, what’s the big deal? Pencil marks and a wash of color—not so impressive. I chalked it up to those nutty Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists, divorcing themselves from the real world and delving into a world I didn’t know how to get into.
But then I got a job as a docent at my college’s art museum, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. I gave tours, but I also spent a lot of time in the galleries at the docent’s table, where we waited for visitors to ask us questions (and maybe did some homework when things were slow). The table was situated right across from their Martin, The Harvest (1965). Being forced to look at this painting nearly every day, at least for a few minutes before a visitor approached me, completely changed the way I viewed Agnes Martin’s work. The Harvest, with its imperfect grid and odd “T” in the corner, became a quirky friend I saw each week—a comforting presence away from papers and tests.
But I’d never spent any long, uninterrupted time with an Agnes Martin. Seeking some quiet time away from my email inbox this past week, I wandered past Milwaukee’s Agnes Martin painting and then stopped and turned around.
It was time for a 45-minute slow look at Untitled #10.
Like many abstract works, my mind began to associate the piece with the “real world” almost instantly: lined paper from elementary school, a map, a whitewashed fence, a dirty grey wall, a storm. As my mind slowed down and I began to let the piece envelop me, the fast pace of my thoughts began to move from thoughts of natural occurrences I associated with the lines and pale background, to the very real nubs of canvas and graphite lines and all the texture they create. From afar the lines seem straight and linear, without mistakes; up close it becomes clear they were not drawn with a ruler, but instead by hand along the bumpy lines of the canvas.
I am a details person. I love to get up close to works of art, my nose inches away (shh, don’t tell the guards—I’m very careful). But this piece resisted me—or perhaps I resisted it—until I stepped far, far back. I walked over the Carl Andre floor sculpture and sat on the bench on the far end of the gallery.
And it was there that this piece opened up completely.
From afar, there is a luminosity to this work that you simply don’t get close up. It’s like an optical illusion. The work feels bigger and huge and whole when you are far away. You are sucked into it and simultaneously very conscious of being outside of it. And something about it glows, softly and quietly, almost like a lightning bug. Everything else around it seems suddenly duller (which is saying something, because this work is flanked by a very bright Frank Stella painting in our galleries).
Agnes Martin was a prolific and beautiful writer and left us with many words about her philosophy on artmaking. She was in constant pursuit of perfection, but she also knew that perfection was unattainable: “I hope I have made it clear,” she wrote, “that the paintings are about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed, in fact, even as we ourselves are.”
There is so much more to say about Martin’s work and this piece, but in her spirit, I’ll leave the task to you to visit the work and let it open up to you in the same or a different way than it did for me. Just keep these words of hers in mind:
“When we go to museums we do not just look, we make a definite response to the work…A work may stimulate yearning, helplessness, belligerence, or remorse. The cause of the response is not traceable in the work. An artist…does not consider the response but simply follows his inspiration. Works of art are not purposely conceived. The response depends on the conditions of the observer.”
Go forth and respond! You can find her work in Gallery 18.
Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.