It is loud. All of it. And no matter how the next few weeks play out, it will somehow get louder.
When there is so much cause for emotion, it’s hard to remembemr that there exists — somewhere in this universe, somewhere in you — emotion without cause. Abstract artist Agnes Martin devoted her life to painting such feelings: subtle emotions, the ones that arise without cue or reason.
Martin, who died in 2004 in Taos, N.M., at age 92, was interested in sensations like the inexplicable happiness you might feel when you wake up in the morning — that fleeting feeling, sunlight tiptoeing on your eyelids as you break the surface of consciousness, when you’re aware only of being aware.
That is, until the world crowds in.
I discovered Martin’s paintings four years ago, during a similarly noisy, tense time. Her retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York had opened in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election and ended just before Donald Trump’s inauguration. At the time, I was volunteering there on weekends.
Over that fall, which marked the first presidential election I could vote in, my thoughts were shaped by a nascent but relentless political awareness, and many of my hours were filled with training for competitive swimming. Most days, I was underwater before I was awake.
The only certainty in the world, it seemed, existed in lines. The lines I’d trace back and forth — hundreds of times a day — on the bottom of the pool. And the lines I’d chart up and down on Martin’s grid paintings at the museum. Martin’s paintings found me with a cloudy head, heavy legs and a drained spirit, vacillating between numbness and anger. They left me balanced.
Martin wrote about seeking an “untroubled mind.” She didn’t own a television, lived alone and stressed the importance of solitude. The artist disavowed what she called “unreal” concerns — those of politics, societal life — and worked by the whims of her inspiration, sometimes waiting months for it to come to her. She painted, she said, “with [her] back to the world.”
In the 1960s, after decades of relative obscurity and frustration with her work (at the end of every year, she would burn her paintings), Martin arrived at her now-distinctive style seen in a 6-foot-by-6-foot work depicting a painstakingly crafted grid of small rectangles. She called it “The Tree,” and it came to her as all her paintings did: in full form, through a vision. It represented innocence, she said.
Martin would continue making human-size works with titles describing the ideals she aspired to represent: “Friendship,” “Gratitude” or objects that symbolized those ideals as in “The Tree” or “White Flower.” Her late works have overzealous titles: “I Love the Whole World” and “Loving Love,” which feel sincere if only because they bely restrained canvases with pale colors that pull away from you like a receding tide.
Stories of Martin’s life most often focus on her time living on Lower Manhattan’s Coenties Slip, which became a creative enclave in the 1950s and ’60s, surrounded by such artists as Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana; her move from New York to New Mexico, mirroring her contemporaries, including Georgia O’Keeffe; and a psychotic episode she experienced amid her creative breakthrough. That she had been a competitive swimmer — one so good that she qualified to represent Canada in the Olympic Games as a high-schooler — is usually mentioned only in passing.
During that fall of 2016, I didn’t know that Martin had been a swimmer, but I recall staring at the work “Falling Blue,” which looks as if it has been soaked in water, and finding comfort in the undulating lines. The long, narrow brushstrokes alternate blue and gold. Like arm strokes in a pool, they pull you under, then forward, then up. And the neatly drawn, but slightly uneasy, graphite lines of her grid works “Grass” and “White Stone” call to mind faded pool tiles seen through foggy goggles from a body in motion. In front of the work, I was freed from the pressure that usually accompanied such a sight. All that was left was an image of discipline and blissful monotony.
There’s a place you reach when you’re deep in any task — swimming, painting, meditating — when the outside world disappears, becoming no more than a distant landscape, shrinking in a portal window. Martin painted the emotions you can access there, on the furthest frontiers of tedium, when manufactured emotions and worldly concerns have been dulled by countless laps or lines. There, she finds quiet gratitude. Humble joy.
There’s a surety to her grids and lines that lets you hang on to them when the floor on reality seems to be tilting and truth morphing. For me that fall at the Guggenheim, Martin’s images became windows of reprieve — the loud of the outside never breaching the quiet of the rotunda. And today, with access to art limited, I find myself craving the time I spent there.
The lifestyle Martin advocated for — renouncing the world and all its political and intellectual concerns — can seem outlandish and even irresponsible at a time when so much feels so urgent. But Martin did that work of isolation for us, so we could experience the fruits of solitude and silence by proxy — through her paintings and her words. Even in the noisiest of times, as you look at her art, you become nothing more than eyes opening, lungs breathing, a creature waking up in the morning. You are free to do nothing but feel.