Writing a biography of Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is a study in frustration, but former Art in America senior editor Princenthal (School of the Visual Arts; Hannah Wilke, 2010, etc.) manages to piece together a story while getting beyond her subject’s well-guarded privacy.
Martin was born in rural Saskatchewan and bounced between the coasts as student and teacher, building the disciplinarian aspect of her character. Eventually, she spent 40 years on and off in Taos, New Mexico, punctuated by forays to New York. Throughout her life, she sought time to be alone, whether traveling or living on a lonely mesa outside of Santa Fe. When she began giving talks about art, she refused to speak to or meet any of the audience members. However, she wasn’t asocial; she had many artist friends when she lived in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan. Among her influences were Zen Buddhism and Rothko, Cage and Klee. A contemporary of the abstract expressionists, Martin's work was much more minimalist. When she finally stopped destroying her work, she settled on rectilinear grids on square canvases; she sought to upset the power of the square. She suffered a lifelong battle with schizophrenic paranoia, and she hoped to bring out what she felt were the only true feelings: happiness and helplessness. The author readily acknowledges that Martin is unknowable, citing contradictory biographical material from the artist. Martin prohibited catalogs for her exhibitions and swore her friends to secrecy regarding her life. She feared the deception of words. Princenthal carefully describes the artist’s works, but there is no way to appreciate her without seeing the originals; illustrations don’t fully convey the feeling in her work.
The author’s deep research and personal correspondence with the artist will be enlightening to fans of Martin and will encourage others to seek out her work.