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[Note: Recently I went in search of a particular post on Slow Muse from several years ago. In the process I found so many others that dealt with topics that are still, all these years later, speaking to me. So I have decided to start a recycling series. From time to time I’ll share content that is still bouncing around in me, still offering its own kind of inspiration. This first one originally appeared in January 2007.]

From Agnes Martin:

My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in artwork which is also wordless and silent.

Agnes Martin, portrait by Charles R. Rushton

Martin also talks about how she first began using the grid in her work:

When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.

The Tree, by Agnes Martin

Martin’s work exudes a quiet humility and a transcendent, uncomplicated purity. The power that exists in her paintings is tangible yet rarefied. When the Whitney Museum mounted a Martin retrospective a few years ago, it ran concurrently with a show of work by Basquiat. People in his exhibit were engaged in lively discussions of Basquiat’s larger-than-life iconography and wild-handed expressionism. Two flights down, in the Martin exhibit, there was no gaggling or chatter. People wandering in fell silent as if on cue, respectful of the sepulchral reverence that had been created by her subtle and evocative work. Sitting “wordless and silent” amid those paintings was full immersion Martin.

I have thought about her line, the innocence of trees, many times. Her equating of the grid with innocence is still an idea that I find poetic and provocative—I don’t speak grid in my own work—but I do feel its fulfillment in the delicate armatures of graphite in her paintings. The large hearted innocence of nature, and of trees, just may be the delicate armatures of our existence. Like her grids, they require close viewing to capture fully. And, like her work, they call for a moment of wordless silence.


Agnes Martin at Dia:Beacon

The etymology of the term “jaded” surprised me. It has been traced back to a 14th century Middle English word for a worn-out horse, one that can no longer pull a cart or work the fields. It is about being wearied, exhausted, spent, bored, out of juice.

While the roots of the term are utilitarian and agricultural, it has now morphed into a condition that is all too human. It is used to describe someone dissipated through sybaritic overindulgence as well as a person who has worked with the public too long and just has no patience left for collective human idiocy. Sheer repetition of the mundane, like the barrage of noninformation that is Fox News and talk radio, can also result in a dulling and deadening of our response.

But it is overexposure of a loftier kind that troubles me most. In many ways it is the dark side of devotion: Our passions drive us to excess, but answering that appetitive call for more, more! can also come at a price.

James Elkins offers a cautionary warning in his book, Pictures and Tears. As part of his research on emotional responses to art, Elkins polled his art history and critic colleagues to find out if they had ever cried in front of a painting. He was amazed by the responses. Some said they remembering tearing up in front of a work of art when they were younger, but that had not happened since they became trained experts. Some of Elkins’ colleagues said they thought it would be viewed as extremely unprofessional for them to exhibit that degree of emotionalism toward a work of art.

Of course saving face (even though we could have a whole other discussion about what that means) is not the only reason a distancing takes place over time. Can you look at and contemplate art every day for a lifetime and still keep the fresh openmindedness that drove you to art and art making in the first place?

I fight this flagging in myself. I have to watch my thoughts with vigilance when I find myself glazing over. It can be a slow drift into disconnection, but the symptoms are obvious: Walking too fast past paintings I have seen hundreds of times; listening to the conversations in my head rather than letting my body feel and lead; feeling uninspired and well, jaded.

And sometimes you need to relearn enchantment from those who are new to an experience and fully present to the joy that comes from discovering art, music, writing for the first time. Yesterday was a good example. I brought two friends to Dia:Beacon, their first visit to a place I have been to many, many times. Yes I am still moved by Robert Irwin‘s vision for that former Nabisco box printing plant, and many of the artists on exhibit continue to speak to me. But watching my two companions discover room after room of extraordinary work—from Robert Ryman‘s rarefied explorations of white to John Chamberlain‘s phalanx of twisted metal stanchions to Agnes Martin‘s exquisite invitations into a silent stillness to Sol LeWitt‘s enchanted graphite tooling of walls—made me stop and consider how I have allowed distance and overexposure to detach me from the joy that is there, ambient and freely available. When I read what my partner Dave wrote about his visit, “Being in 3 rooms full of Agnes Martins definitely leads one to believe in a female deity,” I was reminded that receptivity does have an aspect of conscious will. Magic is happening whether we are tuning in or not. I don’t want to miss any of it.

The exquisite human handedness of a stuttering graphite line: Looking closely at an Agnes Martin painting

Something does happen in the body when you are truly out of digital reach. No cellphones, computers or televisions. And in that digital silence, life takes on a different texture. In the splendid isolation of the Maine coast, worries and concerns begin unpacking and gently floating off your bow. In the words of Yeats, peace does come dropping slow.

That setting is also the perfect backdrop to what turned out to be our ongoing discussion of decision fatigue. Prompted by John Tierney‘s New York Times Magazine excerpt from his soon-to-be-released book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written with Roy F. Baumeister, this was our conversational theme all week.

Tierney explores new research in the personal cost of making decisions, little ones as well as big ones. The results are sobering for all of us who live in the distraction-rich, small decision-ridden world of 21st century America. These findings scientize what many of us have observed in ourselves and others.

From Tierney’s piece:

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. Like the depleted parole judges, they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.

There are many behaviors that we have adopted that are decision energy zappers. Spending time online. Weddings. (Tierney describes them as Decision Hell Week.) Shopping. The option-rich abundance that we have come to view as a sign of advanced culture. (What? That only comes in 8 colors?)

He also shares a valuable insight into the implications of these findings on the perpetual poor: “This sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.”

And what does the body need most to replenish itself from decision fatigue? Glucose. Those candy bars at the check out counter are there for a reason. Your resistance is low after shopping, and you need a glucose hit to continue on.

In his concluding comments, Tierney offers up a profile of the optimal decision maker:

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

What are the implications of these findings on art making? Well, let’s start with how many decisions are involved in a single painting. The number exceeds what most non-artists would expect. (I am reminded of the line from a 90 year old Agnes Martin, delivered to a visiting reporter after her morning session in the studio: “Painting is hard work!”) Applying these findings to the life of an artist or maker, certain good work habits emerge as invaluable—a regular schedule for working, staying conscious of when the body and willpower are depleted, the importance of taking breaks. And perhaps I can now view my need for a bite of chocolate around 3pm as a righteous cry from the body for glucose reinforcements.

Great article. Available to New York Times subscribers here.

A painter and a poet. Martin and Stafford have been (and continue to be) elemental influences on me.


Agnes Martin (Photo: Charles R. Rushton)

To discover the conscious mind in a world where intellect is held to be valuable requires solitude, quite a lot of solitude. We have been very strenuously conditioned against solitude. To be alone is considered to be a grievous and dangerous condition.

So I beg you to recall in detail any times when you were alone. You will find the fear that we have been taught is not one fear, but many different fears. When you discover what they are they will be overcome. Most people have never been alone enough to feel these fears. But even without the experience of them they dread them.

–Agnes Martin


William Stafford

For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot – air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.

–William Stafford

The Crossing, video/sound installation by Bill Viola (Photo: Kira Perov)

One of the added pleasures of the MOCA Los Angeles show (reference to this is in the blog below) was the quotes from artists that accompanied their works. Many are worth sharing and are compelling even without the specific context of the work on display.

Here’s a sampling:

When I paint, I liberate monsters. They are the manifestations of all the doubts, searches and gropings for meaning and expression which all artists experience. One does not choose the content, one submits to it.

–Pierre Alechinsky

I never violate an inner rhythm. I loathe to force anything. I don’t know if the inner rhythm is Eastern or Western. I know it is essential for me. I listen to it and I stay with it. I have always been this way. I have regard for the inner voice.

–Lee Krasner

My work is non-objective. But I want people, when they look at my paintings, to have the same feelings they experience when they look at landscape, so I never protest when they say my work is like landscape. But it’s really about the feeling of beauty and freedom that you experience in landscape.

–Agnes Martin

The rational mind constantly wants to be in charge. The other parts want to fly. My painting is the encounter between the minds’s necessity for control and its yearning to fly, to be free from our ever-confining skill.

–Ed Moses

I am not trying to illustrate religion. I’m a storyteller with a broken history.

–Anselm Kiefer

The most basic thing to say about painting: it’s a limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes. But it’s a negative premise. It’s not, “I like painting because it’s so wonderful—it can do all these wonderful things.” It’s more, “I like painting because it’s so limited, it’s so uptight, so old and so flat and so rectilinear.” Within that, you’re good to go.

–Carroll Dunham

I believe that art us socially useful. If it is destructive, it is constructively so. What helps some hurts others—all art is not made for the same audience. We are in a very restrictive period where many think it is necessary to narrow the limits of what is allowable, to set up unitary reality and condemn the idea of multiple “realities”. I support an art of multiplicity, which is why I am an “anti-classical” artist. In fact, I like to think that I make my work primarily for those who dislike it. I get pleasure from that idea.

–Mike Kelley

I prefer to consider the painting as a thing in the world than the painting as a picture of things in the world.

–Gillian Carnegie

I do not distinguish between the inner and outer landscapes, between the environment at the physical world out there (the “hard” stuff). It is the tension, the transition, the exchange, and the resonance between these two modalities that energize and define our reality.

–Bill Viola

“Cold Mountain Studies 10” (1988-90) by Bruce Marden

Having just gone through a stack of recent art periodicals—Modern Painter, Art on Paper, Art Papers, Art Forum—I can categorically say that the number of times I felt connected to (compelled by? curious about? impressed with?) the art being written about or advertised is at a lifetime low. After a while you feel like a lonely dingy, trying to keep from capsizing while the noisy regattas, festooned and extravagant, barrel past. Ahoy! Any other small craft out there?

It may be that all the art regattas are being pulled ashore, now in storage until the next good breeze season is upon us once again and we are through this particular patch of bad weather. Dingys are all season vessels, too small to notice or worry about. And there is something to be said for that durability and agility.

For the first time in quite a spell, today’s Times brought news of two shows in New York that feel dingy-friendly: The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, at the Guggenheim; and Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors, at the Metropolitan. Both shows are up until April 19.

The influence of Asia on American art is a fascinating topic and one that I have studied for some time. The Transcendentalists were digging into Asian spiritual traditions as early as the 1840s, with accounts of Emerson and Thoreau reading the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. Japanese prints made their way into American visual consciousness, many by way of Paris-based artists who were captivated by a different concept of pictoral space as portrayed in Ukiyo-e wood cuts.

That meme’s influence has continued, showing up in a wide variety of facets of American art. And it is an influence I resonate with deeply—one that features the meditative, the mysterious, the nonlinear and nonrational.

And Bonnard. He’s the colorist whose work never ends in pleasuring the eye. One of Bonnard’s signatory flairs was his insistence in placing a stripe or patch of bright orange in every painting. He is, after all, the master of the secondary palette—those colors that result from mixing two primary colors—the purples, the greens, the oranges.

Here is an excerpt from Holland Cotter‘s review of the Guggenheim show:

Asian influence seeped into American painting a bit later, after scholars like Ernest Fenollosa and artists like John La Farge visited Japan. In the show you can see the fashion for it catch on and spread, in Whistler’s inky 1870s nocturnes, in Arthur Wesley Dow’s turn-of-the-century Japanese-style prints, and in the spiritualizing work of artists who lived closer to Asia in the American Northwest: Morris Graves with his luminous images of birds and Chinese bronzes, Mark Tobey with his calligraphic “white writing.”

Tobey’s art is sometimes taken as a precursor of gestural abstraction in New York. And the case for linking some forms of Abstract Expressionism with Asian writing has been made and unmade many times. With its lineup of Pollocks, Motherwells and Klines the show pushes the argument forward again, though without adding anything startlingly new to it.

Instead its surprises come from the West Coast. There’s a gorgeous painting by Sam Francis, who lived for a while in Tokyo, of what looks like a lotus on fire. Lee Mullican’s “Evening Raga” has the note-by-note shimmer of Indian music. And his friend Gordon Onslow-Ford, a spiritual omnivore who painted on a ferryboat in Sausalito and wore “visionary” like a campaign button, offers a kind of abstract version of “Starry Night,” all filigree webs and wheels.

By the time this piece, “Round See,” was done in 1961, John Cage had been painting, composing and proselytizing his customized version of Zen for years. A section of the show is dedicated to him, or rather to a concept he embodied, one absolutely central to Asian culture: the idea of lineage, the transmission of forms and knowledge from mind to mind.

Cage developed his aesthetic of chance operation in part through study with the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, and shared what he learned with contemporaries like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. A Rauschenberg combine called “Gold Standard” (1964) was slapped together in a matter of hours on a Tokyo stage as Cage watched.

But Cage’s creative DNA also passed on to a generation of younger, Zen-tinged, Neo-Dada artists who used the group name Fluxus. Work by several of them — Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Alison Knowles — is assembled near Cage’s, along with a ready-for-the-future-travel suitcase packed with Fluxiana.

Traditional Zen painting is black and white. By contrast, Tibetan Buddhist art comes in vivid colors, which made it naturally attractive to artists and writers taking drugs in the 1950s and 1960s. Some are indelibly identified as Beats. Jack Kerouac, with sketchy bodhisattvas and a manuscript slice of “Dharma Bums,” is one. So is William Burroughs, whose esoteric cut-and-paste work called “The Third Mind” gave the show its title.

Where an artist like Harry Smith fits in is harder to say. Chronologically he was a Beat. But his short animated films blending Tantrism, Theosophy, Orientalist Pop and Alastair Crowley, all to a cool jazz score, don’t feel period specific. They could be hippie ’60s. They could be by young artists today. (It’s important to note that the show barely touches on Islamic Asia, specifically on Sufism, in which Mr. Smith was interested.)

There are a number of free-radical types like him in the show, which is one reason it has a patchy, scrapbookish look. Even the section devoted to Minimalism resists the sort of uniformity that art history, ever straightening and cleaning, tries to impose.

Ms. Munroe [the show’s curator] finesses the problem by inventing a category she calls ecstatic minimalism, which covers expected figures like Robert Irwin, Ad Reinhardt and Richard Tuttle, but also admits personally expressive works like those of Agnes Martin and Yayoi Kusama, and makes room for excellent artists like Natvar Bhavsar , Zarina Hashmi and Tadaaki Kuwayama, so seldom seen in big mainstream shows that they’ve barely been slotted at all.

Into this charmed circle Ms. Munroe also brings abstract artists working with sound and light, like Jordan Belson, James Whitney and La Monte Young. Whether you call Mr. Belson and Mr. Whitney optical scientists or psychic magicians, they are fascinating figures, very much in line with the Guggenheim’s own history as a museum of non-objective art rooted in diverse cultural and spiritual traditions.

As for Mr. Young, he and his “Dream House,” with a 24/7 drone and trippy lighting by Marian Zazeela, have long since become underground institutions. First installed as a permanent environment in his Manhattan home in 1962, then used for performances with his teacher, the Hindustani raga vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and now reconstituted at the Guggenheim, “Dream House” forms a natural bridge to the conceptual and performance art that brings the show to a close.

Artist Agnes Martin, 1912-2004

Another thank you to Pam Farrell for leading me to artist Susan York’s account of her relationship with the legendary Agnes Martin. I’ve included the text at the end of this post. It offers a compelling window into Martin’s way of seeing the world.

Martin is a quirky but powerful presence in contemporary American art. She was one of several extremely talented women artists of a certain generation who came to the art mecca that was New York City in the 40’s and 50s only to eventually flee to other climes. That group also includes Joan Mitchell and Lee Bontecou.

Martin found her connection in the deserts of New Mexico, living out her life in a simple, monk-like manner. The story circulated that she didn’t read a newspaper for 50 years. One of her statements captures something about the way she lived: Perfection is in the mind.

Her writings have a Koan-like quality to them—metaphysical, mysterious, sometimes contradictory—but her work continued to explore a quiet intensity that never dissipated. She was painting right up until her death at the age of 92. When a writer for the New Yorker came to visit her just a few years before her death, Martin was still spending her mornings working in her studio. As Martin emerged from her morning session, she made this simple but profound pronouncement: Painting is hard work. That’s a truism that holds whether you are a nonagenarian or not.

I have been moved to tears several times standing in front of an Agnes Martin painting. They do not reproduce well. Dia Beacon has a room dedicated to her work, and there are fine examples in a number of leading museums. But they must be experienced in the flesh, first hand. The delicacy of her graphite lines, the respect for the imperfections of the canvas—those are all impossible to capture in a photographic image.

I first saw the artist Agnes Martin lecture in 1982 in Albuquerque. She said: “My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.” I thought she was speaking directly to me.

It took me a year to find the courage to call her. I wrote out a script of what I would say and laid my yellow legal pad with the dialogue printed in blue ink in front of me.

“Hello,” answered the plain, flat voice.

I couldn’t think of what to say. My heart began beating faster; the silence continued. Finally, I read from my paper: “Hello, Ms. Martin, this is Susan York.”

“Oh, yes, hello.”

“I sent you a postcard for a show I’m in,” I said, following my lines.

“Yes, I got it,” she said. “And I can’t decide.”

Can’t decide? I frantically scanned the yellow paper, looking futilely for the right words. “Can’t decide?”
“No. Can’t decide if you’re ready to be internationally recognized or not. Won’t be able to tell that until I see the work.”

I kept searching my page.

“Well, uh, would you like to come see the show?”

“No, never do that.”

I was trying to come up with a reply when she finally spoke.

“You can come for tea,” she said. “At 3.”

The next thing I heard was the dial tone.

The road to Galisteo cut across a wide mesa. In the distance, layers of blue mountain ranges rested behind clouds, trees and ancient petroglyphs. Agnes, in her early 70’s on that afternoon in 1983, stood in the doorway of her house. Her short salt-and-pepper hair framed red cheeks and blue eyes that sometimes seemed to be on the earth and other times beyond it.

The small home resembled a New Mexico tract house with a white generic interior. Everything was spare and tidy; three rocking chairs in the living room and one picture that looked like a Georgia O’Keeffe print.

As in her books, she spoke in absolutes. “Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work.”

Opening the door to her studio, she said, “Never let anyone in your studio.” It was a long, simple adobe building that Agnes had built by hand. She had no electricity in there and worked only from the morning until 3 p.m.

I was struck silent by a 6-by-6-foot painting composed of horizontal lines and washes of gray. Did she tell me it was geese flying, or did I dream it that night? Infinite washes of gray paint held by graphite lines, the painting made me think of the almost steady line of a child’s pencil meeting watery Japanese calligraphy.

She told me she wanted to preserve the work of the Abstract Expressionists. She asked me about the Zen center where I lived and had a studio. I had no way of knowing it then, but for the next several years I would meet her nearly every month for tea or dinner. I learned about the artist’s life from her, long before I had found my own. I was just a few years out of college, but I thought time was running out. “I didn’t get my first show until I was 45,” she said, fixing her penetrating gaze on me. “If I could tell you anything, I would tell you that you have time.”

Over the next decade, I continued making my art, but as Agnes often told me, I was frustrated. Something was missing in my work that I still hadn’t been able to grasp. She told me she had once worked as a dishwasher, saving enough money to spend an entire year solely in her studio. She thought I should do the same; instead, I entered graduate school.

In my work there, I sieved powdered pigment onto the floor, filling rooms with giant arcs and rectangles. Afterward I was pleased to have nothing left but a bag of swept-up pigment.

When I met Agnes the following summer, she thought the new work was ridiculous.

“How are you going to sell it if it ends up in a garbage bag?” she asked in that flat voice that sounded like the truth. And in fact, it was the truth.

But I knew this work held the missing piece: I realized that I wanted to distill thousands of miles into a single inch. Today, I cover whole rooms in graphite, rubbing the walls with my hand until the flat black carbon turns infinitely silver.

My hand was covered in graphite when I heard that Agnes had died. It was around this time last December, and I remember the world became quiet.

(This piece was published in the New York Times Magazine in 2005 after Martin’s death in December of 2004.)