“This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”[i]
Writing in her own notebooks and journals Agnes Martin sets out her thinking in spare and poetic lines. Not unlike her paintings. Single lines, and then groups of lines, they add up to a wholeness in both vision and spirit. And it raises questions: where is painting and pattern in relation to nature? Where is the balance, what is the distance between perfection and imperfection? Do content and abstraction rule each other out? These questions serve to articulate and refine our thoughts. Through them we might discover that vision for an artist comes from within rather than from the outside.
“In my best moments I think ‘Life has passed me by’ and I am content.”[ii]
“I wish the idea of time would drain out of my cells and leave me quiet even on this shore.”[iii]
“Everyone recognizes the nature pattern of unequal and contesting or related parts.”[iv]
“I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.”[v]
The poet Edward Hirsch has written a series of spare and poetic lines about Ms. Martin’s work: very minimal yet extremely observant. I have heard him read several times, both here in Indianapolis and in Chicago, and I often feel like I can hear his voice when I read his work. His lines are the perfect analogies for the shapes and colors contained in the paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin. In his collection Lay Back the Darkness he has achieved a light and gracious balance. Crucial to the ekphrastic tradition.
I once asked him about this and if this ekphrastic example was based on a specific painting by Ms. Martin or rather a general group of them, taken together as a larger body of work. He responded:
“Yes, my piece on Agnes Martin refers to a wide range of her line drawings. There is a piece on ekphrastic poetry in the new issue of ‘American Poetry Review’ and the writer refers to the poem as a form of gallery poetry. That actually makes sense. It doesn’t refer to one single painting, the way, say, my earlier poem did, ‘Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad,’ but rather surveys a whole landscape of poems.”[vi]
THE HORIZONTAL LINE
(Homage to Agnes Martin)
“It was like a white sail in the early morning.
It was like a tremulous wind calming itself
After a night on the thunderous sea.
She came out of the mountains
And surrendered to the expansiveness of a plain.”[vii]
“The beauty of an imperfection.
From its first pointed stroke
To its last brush with meaning
The glow of the line was spiritual.”[viii]
“The horizon was a glimmering blue band
A luminous streamer in the distance.
She remembered the stillness of a pool
Before the swimmers entered the water
And the colorful ropes dividing the lines.”[ix]
“Sacred dream of geometry,
Ruler and protractor, temper my anguish,
Untrouble my mind.
She would not line up with others
She would align herself with the simple truth.”[x]
And Agnes Martin, writing in her own notebooks, might have the final say in this matter:
“One who has become all eyes does not see.”[xi]
[i] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1992; p. 25.
[ii] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 26.
[iii] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 26.
[iv] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 25.
[v] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 25.
[vi] Hirsch, Edward; From an e-mail correspondence with this author; 26 July 2017, at 9:49AM.
[vii] Hirsch, Edward; “The Horizontal Line (Homage to Agnes Martin), Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 35.
[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 37.
[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 38.
[x] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 39.
[xi] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 24.