After This Rain

In the summer of 1972, Ann Wilson visited Agnes Martin at her modest home in Cuba, a remote desert town in the state of New Mexico. Martin had settled there in 1968, just after having spent eighteen months on the road—a trip she’d taken after a decade living and exhibiting her artwork in New York City. Since her arrival to Cuba, though, Martin had been mainly at work building her home and studio. She had chosen to construct this environment on her own. And she was in her mid-50s at this time, so not exactly a young person. Martin had also decided to take some distance from the art world she had come to know, to at least take shelter in the peacefulness granted by a familiar environment, if in solitude or for that purpose alone.1

For life in the mesas and desert valleys of New Mexico wasn’t new to Martin.2 It was in its city of Taos, in the 1950s, where the New York art dealer Betty Parsons came to know Martin’s work. And it was Parsons who convinced the artist to move to Manhattan in 1957, where Martin and Wilson had met and befriended. They were fellow artists. In any case, Wilson’s visit to Cuba was to work towards the publication accompanying Martin’s exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, taking place the following year. Curated by Suzanne Delehanty, the exhibition would be, at the time, the most comprehensive for Martin, and it would open a yet uncharted path in her artistic trajectory. Its publication was a central piece in making that possible.

The exhibition catalog provoked a new kind of reception for Martin’s work—one in which her interest in the emotional scope of art would weigh in, through the faculty of artist statements, over the subjectively neutral and objectively formal approach given by then to her work. Wilson’s contribution to the catalog was to retell, by writing and editing, a series of statements made by Martin during her interviews in Cuba, as well as to write, by transcribing and restructuring, a series of notes shared by Martin during the exhibition planning process. In her own catalog text, Delehanty is precise about the process involved in publishing these artist’s statements, explaining, for example, that Martin tells some of these “when viewing the work with another person.”

I am interested in the 1973 publication of Agnes Martin’s writings because it manifests a plight often experienced while making primary research. As a curator of contemporary art mainly carrying out this kind of work, largely in places off-mainstream art circuits, I meet artists whose work has yet to be written about or be publicly, critically or widely interpreted. I thus value the conversations with artists and the experience had in their immediate environment. These play a significant part in my own understanding of their work, as well as of the historical context which it draws from or is shaped in. Artist’s statements can help clarify an artistic practice, and may likewise help elucidate wider concerns in the field of visual arts. So I have come to trust their statements. On occasions, however, I have also become suspect of some of their voiced ideas. But regardless of whether these are sincere, pretentious, inspiring or even coherent, I value them.

Being welcomed to the privacy of an artist world is a privilege of my vocation, and it is the very matter I attempt to sensibly work with. For example, how such feelings of trust or suspicion emerge is weighed upon the artists’ (and my own) breadth of acknowledgment of a given art historical Canon, and in their (as my) level of appreciation to the communities of thought they claim to, or appear to, belong. I thus situate the artist’s voice in relation to the languages and narratives valued by the prevailing discourses in the field of contemporary art. That is, I appraise these in correspondence to how they (and I) position their work in context. By context here I mean the artist’s local environment and its histories, as well as the global art circuit and markets, which nowadays impresses every corner of the world. And when artists frame their work under different terms, I try to understand their intent and reasons in doing so and the manners in which such distinctions actually manifest.

This is not to say that I always enter or come away from this interpretative process with a lucid mindset, for emotions, as class distinctions, naturally emerge in conversations and always influence any attempt at objectivity. The character and intensity of such emotions—how these feel, why they develop, and what they mean—tends to expand and simultaneously slow down aesthetic experience. However subjective or extraneous it may seem, feelings shape art as much as its cultures may provoke them. So in par to identifying what is interesting or relevant in an artist’s work or art scene, which is always relatively measured to what is normative at a given moment in time, primary research stresses the task of making sense of emotion as well as circumstance. And intuiting, facing or arriving at a conflictive viewpoint comes with the practice of working with living artists. What to make of that is part of a curatorial undertaking.

I’ve thus chosen to translate Agnes Martin’s Parable of the Equal Hearts and publish it along with her work The Rain because the simplicity of their lines, the paradox between them, moved me. Ultimately, publishing them in Murmur is part of a longstanding, personal interest in writing by visual artists, especially on the role it has in the reception of their work. This particular statement by Martin also interests me because it presents a contradiction. After telling what is pretty much a love fable, Martin points to an artwork she had painted more than a decade earlier. In that brief conclusion, she turns one of her abstract paintings into a decipherable picture. The artist had gratuitously given up the artwork’s apparent non-figurative character, and she had done so with a kind of levity that non-sequiturs are able to transmit.

This “ascription of meaning,” as Nancy Princenthal has noted, “is utterly at odds with Martin’s unyielding insistence that abstraction is a language devoid of narrative or indeed figurative reference.” Now, if one were to take up Martin’s suggestive invitation to consider The Rain along the lines of her Parable of the Equal Hearts, the two monochromatic rectangular shapes appearing in the painting each stand for a lover who have been divinely separated by atmosphere and brought together by rain.3 As later noted by Princenthal, Martin’s parable seems to be a reworking of a legend in Plato’s Symposium that centers on the original existence of three genders in the world: male, female and one third combining both sexes, an androgynous being that is eventually annihilated, split in two, and ever since this division its parts yearn to reunite. In line with her reticence to personalize matters in either her work or statements, Martin’s lovers are phenomena figuring in both her prose and painting as nouns, not subjects.4

Parable of the Equal Hearts was first published in Martin’s 1973 ICA exhibition catalog.5 It was folded into a curatorial framing and interpretation of Martin’s work built upon artistic intent—of trust in the artist’s voice in addition to respect for the work.6 The piece is part of a larger constellation, a community of thought distinguishing their voices and observations from the formalist art criticism of the time. And Martin performed with precision the role of the artist as thinker, giving centrality to shapes of intelligence and of a subjective address to art without falling into the conventions of sentimentalism. Her statements gave other language and reason of her work’s simplicity and candor. They are a breath of fresh air. The abstraction in her compositions and the opacity of her artwork’s surfaces feel like a shield to a Canon, balanced expressions distinguishing private feelings from shared emotion. Like her work, her statements were a measured form to express and compel awareness—one intensely experienced as an outlier.

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Selected and Annotated Bibliography

Suzanne Delehanty, et al. Agnes Martin (Pennsylvania: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Philadelphia, 1973). Three artists statements are published here: The Untroubled Mind, Willie Stories, and Parable of the Equal Hearts. The author credits in the book indicate that the first of these pieces is composed of verbal and written statements by Agnes Martin, as given to and recounted by Ann Wilson; and that the two others are by Agnes Martin as retold by Ann Wilson. The catalog also includes an essay by Lawrence Alloway; refer to Endnote 6, below, for further observations.

Nancy Princenthal. Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2015). The book’s seventh chapter, “Departures,” deals at length with the artist’s 1973 ICA exhibition and catalog; on pages 195-196, the author develops on Agnes Martin’s Parable of the Equal Hearts.

Rhea Anastas. “Individual and Unreal: Agnes Martin’s Writings in 1973” in Agnes Martin. Lynne Cooke, Karen Kelly, and Babara Schröder, eds. (New York, New Haven and London: Dia Art Foundation and Yale University Press, 2011): 132-152. The author develops on the gendered positionality implied in Martin’s statements, a point made through the lens of Linda Nochlin’s eyes: women artists had by then mainly succeeded by adopting attributes traditionally associated to the masculine genius, like singlemindedness and the use of a “cloaked language.”

Agnes Martin. Writings. Herausgegeben von Dieter Shwarz, ed. (Germany: Hatje Cantz, 1992). This is an anthology of artists statements and public speeches, the latter which Agnes Martin would begin doing after her 1973 ICA exhibition. The artist’s Parable of the Equal Hearts is included, along with a German translation, with slight variations from the original 1973 version, and without listing Ann Wilson in the author credits.

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Endnotes

  1. While Agnes Martin had continued making art in Cuba, artworks created from her arrival there to 1972 are unattributed to her, at least to date. Martin’s retreat from the art world didn’t mean her work was totally absent from public view during those years. Her past work had indeed been shown or commented, if seldom. However engaged Martin was with creating her new environment and experiencing there a kind of artistic hiatus, during her first handful of years in Cuba the artist had been considering the interrelated nature of inspiration and aesthetics.
  2. Before heading to New York City, Agnes Martin was living in Taos. She had also lived in Albuquerque. And Martin would continue living in New Mexico until her death: in 1977, Martin left Cuba and settled in Galisteo; in 1993, she relocated to Taos, where she passed away in 2004.
  3. They take the initial form of hearts that transform into water as either atmosphere or sea, and their moment of unity, Agnes Martin tells, is through “a rain that affects people and softens them.”
  4. When translating this piece to the Spanish, specifying a gender to Martin’s lovers does present itself as an issue, however. This is because in Spanish nouns are preceded by a gendered article or assume a gender in their last syllable. So for example, “one” could be translated into una, uno, or un, referring to a female, male, or both, respectively.
  5. It was about two years ago when I first read Parable of the Equal Hearts. By then, I was already some years into a yet ongoing investigation of the relationships of climate and affect, as these were addressed in contemporary art. Relatedly, I was drawn to this piece of writing because the painting Martin mentions there is The Rain. This oil on canvas is shy from 72 x 72 inches, which Martin would soon after use as a standard measurement for her paintings. Its composition consists of two monochromatic rectangular shapes painted at its center, one form set over the other against an off-white color field that is the painted surface of the canvas. These two forms are slightly separated from each other, and they are equally positioned several inches away from the own borders of the canvas
  6. The main essay in the ICA exhibition catalog is by Lawrence Alloway. He likewise gives importance to the artist’s voice, quoting Martin throughout and thrice at length. In her interpretation of the Ica Rhea Anastas points that his “view was assiduously built upon his predisposition to listen to the artist’s own ideas and languages” and interpret it beyond the “formalist, rationalist sphere, where critics had so far located it.” Additionally, in the April 1973 issue of Artforum, another statement by Martin was published: Reponses to Art. Alloway cites this yet unpublished piece in his essay for the ICA exhibition catalog; and for the same issue of Artfroum, he also publishes an extended version of that original catalog essay.