Written by Blogging Fellows, In Residence, In-Depth, Visual Art

Agnes Martin in Coenties Slip

“The work is so far from perfection because we ourselves are so far from perfection … That is why art work is so very hard. It is a working through of disappointments and a growing recognition of failure to the point of defeat. But still one wakes in the morning and there is the inspiration and one goes on.”

1. In 1957, Agnes Martin moved by herself from Taos, New Mexico to Coenties Slip, a triangular piece of land in Lower Manhattan that faces the East River. The area was originally an artificial inlet created for loading and unloading ships, but the industry moved on, the inlet was paved over, and artists repurposed the nearby warehouses into inexpensive lofts. Jack Youngerman, who lived near Agnes Martin, remembered everything looked “pigeon gray.”

At that time, Agnes Martin was 45 years old, soft-spoken, athletic, wore her dark, long hair combed and parted to the right, square-necked blouses, modest calf-length skirts, and apron-like painting smocks to protect her clothes. In photos, she crossed her legs at the knee or ankle and rarely looked directly into camera. She was still trying to create a painting that represented pure emotion, the way music can.

In a 1997 interview, Agnes Martin said, “The best art is music, that’s the highest art, highest form of art. It’s completely abstract and we make about eight times as much response to it, to music, as any other art. And we respond to it emotionally, you know … Well, all art is music that way.”

Agnes Martin’s favorite piece of music was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, his last. He never lets you stand still in that piece. The music is preoccupied with moving through something, not how it feels to be where you want to be or where you are, but the disorienting feeling of moving when you don’t know either, and you’re uncertain if every step is taking you closer or farther away from the place you had in mind.

When Agnes Martin looked through the windows of her loft in Coenties Slip, she could see the expressions on the faces of sailors working on the East River below, the horizontal lines across their foreheads, much like her own. The space had white walls, gray floors, and was sparsely furnished with a long rectangular table she’d made herself, exact square benches lined up neatly on either side, a work table, measuring tapes, and a cast-iron stove to bake blueberry muffins. Artist Ann Wilson remembered, “To enter her loft … was to enter large quiet … Spaced and arranged on the walls, suspended in stillness, were her paintings.”

Many of the descriptions of Agnes Martin’s studio space mirror descriptions of the paintings themselves, like this one by painter Jack Youngerman, “What I remember about the studio was the infinite patience and quietude the paintings required. It was very quiet. I remember these paintings with hundreds of little lines and dots … I was almost annoyed by it, because I had so little of that myself. There was an absence of agitation.”

The rent was $45 a month, partly because the space had no running water and little heat. The ceilings were 14 feet high and light poured in from two skylights, windows, and gaps between the ceiling beams. Unfortunately, those same holes let in humid salt air. During summer, her space was filled with wet heat, and during winter, with a lingering chill that seeped through buttonholes, under collars, into skin.

In a 1960 Alexander Liberman photograph, Agnes Martin faces a pale canvas with horizontal lines hung on a white brick wall splattered with paint, her then-long hair lies in a loose braid halfway down her back, and she wears a heavy quilted jacket, matching pants, and moccasins. Despite the obvious cold, her ankles are bare.

In a conversation at the Tate, Agnes Martin’s friend and later gallerist, Arne Glimcher, described meeting Martin at a party thrown by Jack Youngerman, “That first night I met her, we sort of clicked in some way, and I received my first lecture on beauty. So all through the party going on, everybody dancing, drinking, singing, Agnes was telling me the fundamentals for beauty, and the search for beauty, so I thought there was something there between us.”

Although Agnes Martin cultivated a reputation for solitude later in life, she made many close friends in the artistic community around Coenties Slip. Barnett Newman hung her shows with The Betty Parsons Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly ate breakfast in her loft every day for a year and a half, she and Leonore Tawney read The Lives of Saints together. One of Agnes Martin’s early grids was made using gold-leaf, which would have been extremely difficult for her to afford. Several art historians suggest Leonore Tawney quietly paid for the materials. The painting is titled Friendship.

Jack Youngerman believed Martin’s relationships in Coenties Slip directly influenced her development as a painter, “Remembering the paintings Betty brought from Taos and knowing what Agnes has done since then is always, for me, an extraordinary example of how art has to do with confrontation, not isolation.”

Agnes Martin working in her studio in New York, May 1961 (Photo by Fritz Goro/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

By the time Agnes Martin came to New York, she’d already been painting for twenty years. Portraits. Landscapes. Abstracts. Nothing satisfied. Most of her early paintings were thrown in annual bonfires, many of the later ones were cut with mat knives or box cutters. Later in life, Agnes Martin wrote that artists have to make work not knowing whether it will succeed or fail. By failing again and again, an artist becomes “a person who can recognize failure … If you were a composer, you would not expect everything you played to be a composition. It is the same with graphic arts. There are many failures.”

Agnes Martin was fond of repeating the story of how that changed: one day, as she sat alone in her chilly loft and waited for inspiration, a grid appeared fully-formed in her mind, “It wasn’t till I found the grid, in New York in 1960, that I felt satisfied with what I was doing. When I first made the grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do.”

Perhaps the grid represented innocence, because within that structure, you know where every line is headed.

Once Agnes Martin adjusted the dimensions of the grid in her head to fit her large canvases (through a series of complex calculations), she carefully marked the measurements with a ruler and a lead pencil. In some paintings, Martin used graphite or colored pencils instead, but whichever she chose, she was careful not to press too hard as she drew her lines. If she did, the canvas would flex beneath her hand and the line would waver.

In an essay titled, “The Perfection Underlying Life,” Agnes Martin writes, “The work is so far from perfection because we ourselves are so far from perfection … That is why art work is so very hard. It is a working through of disappointments and a growing recognition of failure to the point of defeat. But still one wakes in the morning and there is the inspiration and one goes on.”

During the decade she lived in Coenties Slip, from 1957-1967, Agnes Martin was hospitalized several times for schizophrenia, which manifested in episodes of amnesia, catatonia, and aural hallucinations. In 1967, after hearing the first three notes of Handel’s Messiah, Agnes Martin was so overwhelmed by the sound of the strings that she wandered the streets unsure of who or where she was—it must have been terrifying to try to to get home before dark without knowing either of those things. She was physically restrained, sedated, and given shock therapy at New York’s then-infamous Bellevue Hospital.

Agnes Martin’s friends from the Slip rallied to help. Leonore Tawney organized a show of Agnes Martin’s work to help fund her treatment (when Martin was feeling better, she complained about how Tawney titled them). Robert Indiana contacted an art collector he knew who worked as a psychiatrist, and together they arranged for Martin to be transferred uptown to Columbia Presbyterian, where she received crisp copies of The New York Times each morning, clean water glasses, freshly laundered sheets, prescriptions. However, there was (and is) no cure for schizophrenia.

A horizonless time.

After Agnes Martin was released from the hospital, she gingerly rinsed every trace of color from her brushes, closed her acrylic paints, gathered together her unused canvases and stretchers, and dropped everything off at Arne Glimcher’s gallery, in case another artist might want to use them. By her own account, she didn’t paint again for seven years. Later in life, Martin said she believed it was more important to find out where you want to be than what you want to do.

Agnes Martin had received a notice that her “perfect” loft on 28 South Street was going to be torn down and said she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in New York. In the same batch of letters, Agnes Martin received a $5000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. With no home to return to for long, she bought a truck and an Airstream trailer, got behind the wheel, and spent the next 18 months on the road—camping, hiking, looking at clouds. She wondered if clouds appear in repeated patterns, so she watched them closely for a month. She saw endless variations moving slowly across the sky but no patterns. Perhaps it’s easier to move forward without them.

As Agnes Martin wrote, “It is hard to realize at the time of helplessness that that is the time to be awake and aware. We imagine we are completely cut off and tremble … But helplessness when fear and dread have run their course, as all passions do, is the most rewarding state of all. It is a time when our most tenacious prejudices are overcome. Our most tightly gripped resistances come under the knife and we are made more free.”

In Residence is a series of essays about women artists working in landscapes of their own design.

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