Art critic and MFA Art Writing faculty member Nancy Princenthal read from and discussed her new book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art on October 22 at SVA. The biography, which The Wall Street Journal recently called “gracefully written,” is a product of five years of rigorous research and a longer period of gestation. Princenthal recently spoke with current MFA Art Writing student and SVA Close Up reporter Blessy Augustine about some of the challenges of being biographer to an artist who didn’t like to be written about.
You mentioned that you wrote your thesis on Agnes Martin’s work when you were in college. What made you go back to Martin after all those years?
I was always following Martin’s work but didn’t have the opportunity to write about it at great length. When I finished my monograph on Hannah Wilke, which was in a sense a biography because Wilke’s life and her work are nearly inseparable, my editor asked me what I wanted to turn my attention to. Martin’s was the person I thought of. I felt, without knowing, that the landscape of her life was unexplored and so were the points of interception between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism that her work sits at.
Early on in my research, I found out that Martin had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I became interested in exploring what mental illness meant clinically and culturally in the 1960s and whether meaningful connections can be made between her works that are so abstract and the kind of internal issues she faced.
Did you find answers?
I didn’t. But I found some helpful speculations. I thought a lot about what it means to have a chaotic inner life and to produce very orderly work. I thought about what it means to have unbidden voices inside your head and have an urge to find some quiet. And I thought a lot about the translation of written and spoken language to a line, which is connected to written language but isn’t writing.
What were the challenges in being Martin’s biographer?
She didn’t leave an accessible archive behind. She was resistant to biographies and catalogs. She rejected museum exhibitions because she didn’t want publications. There were scattered letters but these weren’t easily accessible, so I had to forage a great deal. But that also meant that much of what I had to say was new information.
Martin loathed the idea that anyone would talk about her life. The people she was close to felt constrained by this even after her death and that is perfectly understandable. In the single exchange of letters that I had with her, she herself told me never to take a biographical approach and that it won’t lead to any useful insights.
Did that create any conflict in you?
Yes it did. I thought about it all the way through. It would not have been possible to write this biography while she was alive. At the same I felt that many of the compunctions she had, pertained to the prohibitions of the time. Our response in 2015 to her being lesbian is not the same as what it would have been in 1957. I have tried hard to not sensationalize any aspect of Martin’s life.
The biggest encouragement or comfort to me embarking on a biography was the idea that all art and especially her art is a form of personal communication. She was very clear about that. She didn’t think the work was complete until it had a viewer in front of it. She wanted it to be seen and people to spend some time with it and, presumably, she wanted it to be understood. A biographical perspective is one way of supporting this effort. I try to talk about Martin’s work in a manner that both illuminates it in the way she meant it to be and to understand it in relation to her story, which includes her inner life, her friends, the art context at the time and the kind of work she was looking at. There is a tendency to think about Martin as isolated and as an outsider artist but that’s not the case. She did care about what other artists were doing and she responded to that. I try to talk about those influences, which were, of course, mutual.
What were some of the more surprising things you came across while working on the book?
In 2014, Anthony Kiendl, an alumnus of MFA Art Writing, invited me to speak at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Saskatchewan in Canada. We travelled to Macklin, where Martin was born in 1912. That landscape surprised me. I saw the connections between Macklin and the landscape of New Mexico. I discovered that Martin lived in Macklin a couple of years longer than had been known previously; long enough to remember the landscape. So that was satisfying to put together.
I also spent a lot of time exploring the Coenties Slip art community in Lower Manhattan in the late 1950s and 60s. There’s a lot written about the artists who lived there: Rauschenberg, Johns, Robert Indiana and others. But I hadn’t understood how self-identified as a community and deliberately different the group was from the Abstract Expressionists up on 10th Street. From the feedback I have received it seems that many people were surprised by this. As a kid I would go down to the Coenties Slip and I lived there for a brief period in the early 1980s. It is a historic area and it was satisfying to get a sense of how artists felt about it at the time.
Having spent so much time looking at and thinking about Martin’s work is there a different takeaway now?
I recently had coffee with Tiffany Bell, who is working on a Catalogue Raisonné of Martin’s work and is a co-curator of Martin’s exhibition at Tate, London, which will be at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in late 2016. Bell has been looking at Martin’s work for a long time now and she said that she had a moment of panic when she got to the Tate and saw the work being uncrated. She was worried that the work would look inert to her. I completely identified with this. I went to London to see the show and was anxious that the work would not sustain my interest. That’s always in issue when you have an intense relationship to a work, especially if it’s an abstract work. I speak about my relationship with Martin’s The Tree (1964) in the Epilogue of the book. Like any relationship, it has its moments of crisis but it survives. The work remains spectacular for me.
Nancy Princenthal reads from, discusses and signs copies of Agnes Martin, Her Life and Art on Thursday, October 22 at 6:30pm. For more info, click here.