The artist whose $7m painting caused a row when Dublin gallery bought it for £23,000

Troubled painter found peace in grid-like works inspired by children playing hopscotch

Agnes Martin in 1993. Photograph: Dan Budnik

Agnes Martin in 1993. Photograph: Dan Budnik

 

Hanging in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery is a painting so unassuming that many visitors don’t know it’s there. Though it is large – six feet tall and wide – it has no subject, barely any colours, and even its name, Untitled #7, suggests no clear identity, purpose, or meaning.

Painted by the Canadian-American artist Agnes Martin in 1980, when she was 68, this quiet work sparked an outcry from Irish media and gallery associates when it was purchased at the behest of curator Ethna Waldron that same year. “I don’t see any artistic merit,” committee member Ned Bennett said at the time. “I reflect, I hope, the view of the man on the street.”

Like many, Bennett was shocked that £23,000 out of the Gallery’s annual £30,000 acquisitions budget would go on a single painting and, to add insult to injury, by a non-Irish artist. Politician Mary Flaherty came to the painting’s defence: “I don’t think I’ve had an experience like this before in Dublin. For me, there’s a lot in it.” Neither Bennett or Flaherty could foresee that one day the pyjama painting (so called because of its stripes) would be worth $4-7 million, and its painter regarded as an icon of 20th-century art.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was born and raised in Canada, the third child of Scottish pioneers. In 1931, after an unhappy childhood and mediocre high-school education, she emigrated to the United States where she eventually taught in Oregon, Washington State and New York City. It was there in 1941 she decided to become an artist, but it was not until 1958, when she was 46, that she had her first solo exhibition with the influential dealer Betty Parsons.

Although Martin spent most of her adult life in Taos, New Mexico, she developed her signature style in Manhattan’s Downtown art scene of the early 1960s, where she lived among a community of artists, including Jasper Johns and John Cage. Her paintings, often called grid or band paintings, bridge two artistic movements – Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism – though they have what the writer Dore Ashton calls their own “distinct climate”.

Until recently, very little was known about Martin’s life, in particular her life before 1967 when she famously quit painting and substituted fame in New York for solitude and an ascetic life in New Mexico. She eventually returned to painting in 1973 and for the remainder of her life had a dedicated studio practice and exhibited widely. In time, the accolades and influence she craved as a young artist were hers.

“I’m the greatest artist in the world,” she told an interviewer in 1998, with surprise more than seriousness. Throughout the 90s, journalists and fans made pilgrimages to New Mexico to meet her and ruminate on her Zen-inspired proclamations often inspired by water (she almost competed in swimming in the 1928 Olympics): “There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience … you become lighter and lighter in weight.”

To many Martin was more interesting for remaining an enigma, and she performed that role perfectly. Although she spoke often about her unhappy childhood she did not discuss her adult life much. She once said that her biography should only include the jobs she did and places she visited, such as tennis coach, cashier, janitor, Scotland, Beirut and Japan. The word artist, mysteriously, was absent from her list.

Martin rejected biography because she wanted people to focus on her work and not her life, but also because the ingredients in that biography – her gender, sexuality, profession, social status and schizophrenia – made her an outsider in a conservative world hostile to deviation. That said, to deny a biography is not the same as to deny an identity, and Martin, like many artists, crafted hers through writings, lectures, documentaries, and exhibitions.

“I have never had an unhappy moment,” she said, and many of her devoted fans might just believe this. Those who knew her, however, have another story to tell; the story of Agnes the person, not the icon.

One long-term friend, and her one-time lover, Kristina Wilson says, “Though Agnes talked, wrote and painted about the quiet mind, tranquillity and happiness she seldom experienced these things in her own life.” Here, Wilson is referring to Martin’s schizophrenia, which frequently incapacitated the painter, notably during the ’60s, when she was incarcerated in Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital and given electroshock therapy. While it is often controversial, not to mention limiting, to bind artwork to a biography, Wilson believed that “the physical process of painting grids and lines quieted\ [Martin’s] mind”. In 1978, Martin provides evidence of this herself, saying “It was good to get back to my grids at last because they are a rest – they tranquilize me”.

One of Martin’s core beliefs was that positive universal feelings exist in each person and good art helps these feelings surface. Praise (1976), Happiness (1999), Affection (2001), Friendship (1963), Gratitude (2001), Innocence (1993), Love (1993) or Untitled, Martin believed her artwork could be a tool to make our emotional life easier. She once told her friend Marcia Oliver that she got the idea of making grids from watching children play hopscotch. “People can put their troubles into those little squares,” she mused.

In her final years this generosity of spirit manifested in other ways, as when she anonymously funded local projects that benefitted nature preservation, facilities for children and victims of domestic and sexual violence. Maybe with these donations Martin was trying to compensate for what she experienced in her childhood; an absence of affection, facility, support, and nurture?

Despite her best intentions, for many, Martin’s work remains challenging; especially if it is not seen in person – the only time its textures and luminosity become discernible. Over the years confused viewers have written on it, thrown rubbish at it, or coloured in her squares, evidently disturbed by the demands it is making on them. Today, it is both the balm the artist wanted it to be, but also inspiration to fashion designers, bands, composers, florists, interior designers, choreographers, and of course artists of every kind: painters, textile artists, tattoo artists, and so forth: the artist, her art, and her words, are as iconic as ever.

Martin once said “Above the line is happiness and rest. That’s where I live…” but the truth, like her art, couldn’t possibly be this simple. Could it? In Agnes Martin: Pioneer, Painter, Icon, I offered those who knew the artist – friends, family, neighbours, curators – the opportunity to relive their relationship with Agnes and discuss her lifelong balancing act. Their stories are funny, sad, painful, and enlightening, and they travel to the core of the artist and her art.

Soon after leaving New York in 1967, Martin wrote to her friend Sam Wagstaff “I think my paintings will be around quite a while as I perceive now that they were all conceived in purest melancholy”. Martin had gone to New York to “make it” as an artist, and although she had succeeded, she got more than she bargained for. She was met with love, fame, friendship, and trauma. Perhaps, in the end, her art achieved the balance that her life could not?
Henry Martin is the Irish author of Agnes Martin: Pioneer, Painter, Icon (Schaffner Press), Yappo (Company Cod), and numerous stage plays. He presents a talk on the life of Agnes Martin at the Hugh Lane Gallery, on June 20th

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