Agnes Martin at Tate Modern : Part 1

I came across the writing of the painter Agnes Martin when I was an art student 25 years ago; and remember how captivated I was by her strange meditative phrases leading my mind away from meaning and towards something more feelable. I was in the presence of someone who had realised something hidden about being human that I had not yet found. I remember how spacious her words felt to me, as if I was breathing clean air again after being stuck in a claustrophobic room.

“I am careful not to have ideas because they’re inaccurate.”

“The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself.”

“Love makes us want to do all the good things. Get up in the morning and work for life.”

Presence itself seemed to be the main theme – how to be present, how to avoid not being present, how to get beyond words and meanings to get to being present. Somehow I also felt more present to myself in the reading, and perhaps there was an early recognition in me that my own journey into life would be through myself rather than through the world, and as someone drawn to emptiness rather than fullness.

On visiting Agnes Martin’s exhibition at Tate Modern recently, I fell into the same mood, this time through viewing her paintings. Foregrounding the process of their construction with their absence of imagery and painstakingly drawn ruled lines and carefully applied dabs and stripes of paint, these are paintings less to see and more to be with, something that reproductions of her work just can’t capture. What we see displayed more than anything is Martin’s intention to make, and the particular grids or colours used in different paintings are somehow built on this foundation.

What I hadn’t realised up to that point was that she had struggled most of her life with schizophrenia. Her remaining in the presence of making appears to have enabled her to remain in the presence of her mind. The particular forms of the paintings, with their repetitions, their extremely accurate placement of pencil lines and paint, appear to have provided her with not only an artistic discipline but also a life discipline. Despite the labour involved in their making, Martin’s triumph is that her paintings and drawings never feel laboured. There is a lightness, elegance and sensitivity always at work. The paintings emerge as open and calm despite the heavily constructed nature of the marks we see in front of us. I am left wondering what kind of self-discipline is needed to hold oneself back from a psychosis, and whether Martin’s working methods were partly a response to the challenge of being schizophrenic.

Knowing of her struggle with schizophrenia that led at times to long breaks from working, made the work poignant, because they were made out of a desire to remain conscious in the face of an illness that can lead to a complete evacuation of consciousness. I saw her strength and persistence and desire to remain human, to be the artist she had made herself into, rather than the schizophrenic her biology proscribed, her desire to remain an active presence for herself, and her wish to remain in relationship with the feelings and atmospheres evoked in her by the desolate desert environment of New Mexico where she lived for most of her working life.

Psychotherapy charts the difficult journey that clients have to make towards the person who can finally emerge into the world as consciously themselves, leaving behind the person they once were, defined by there unconscious responses to external circumstances – to paraphrase the writer James Hillman’s words, to begin move towards their destiny, rather than their fate. Fate brought schizophrenia to Agnes Martin, but her belief in her own destiny as an artist helped her to gain an identity that was more than that.

All of us struggle to move beyond what has been set out for us by our defining external reality, and Agnes Martin’s work re-assures us that this is possible. Her work is a triumph of conscious activity despite, and perhaps as a response to, the close proximity of mental illness. Her finding her own solution to the problem of finding a humane accommodation for herself in the world, produces hope that we can find ways of living beyond our own fates.