John Vincler’s column “Brush Strokes” examines what is it that we can find in paintings in our increasingly digital world.
I went into the woods for a while in order to think about the paintings of Agnes Martin. For most of the last fifteen years I’ve spent at least a week of the summer in a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that has been in my partner’s family since the Depression. The cabin is a three-day drive from Brooklyn, with a dog and our two-year-old daughter all packed uncomfortably in our old Honda. Closing in on the cabin for the last mile or two, as our car bumped along the unmarked, sandy two-track passage better suited for a truck or Jeep, I looked at the two lines ahead of me, more path than road, and at the stand of tall and slender soft pines, like the ones the logging trucks carried up here to be pulped into paper products. The road and the trees made a sort of grid, I thought, as the forest, cleaved by the road, engulfed the car. Finally, with the evening sun low in the sky shimmering off the lake, the cabin came into view—the vertical lines of pines on the other side of the lake formed a horizontal band between the water below and the sky above.
The paintings that burrow their way in are most often the ones I didn’t expect to impress me. Seven years ago, shortly after having moved to New York, I found myself in a room of Agnes Martin paintings at Dia:Beacon, the Dia Foundation’s museum of mostly minimalist late-twentieth century artworks in Beacon, New York. The museum is full of artists regularly found in modern art museums: the fluorescent light works of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd’s right-angled sculptural constructions, Richard Serra’s immense and weighty weathered metal forms. While I may nod to those with expectation and recognition, they mostly leave me cold. At Dia:Beacon, however, even the expected work of these artists wrested my attention differently. Their cold physicality seemed more matter-of-fact: constructions to be contemplated (or not) within an environment of quiet and light and openness. There is a hangar-like space with a row of enormous Serra sculptures you can walk within, rendering them poetic, elegant, and inviting when I expected them to be audaciously brooding. Strange that my favorite museum holds few of the works of my favorite artists. On my first visit, I would have counted among those only Louise Bourgeois. But after that visit, I would also include the work of the Canadian-born painter Agnes Martin.
I had only a vague idea of Martin’s art, gleaned from reproductions in magazines and monographs, which amounted to little more than “a painter of lines and grids.” I may have rightly understood her to be an outlier and predecessor of minimalism. Like the work of Flavin and Judd, I expected mostly a cold recognition: so this is what an Agnes Martin painting looks like in person. Does anyone go looking at a painting of lines and grids expecting excitement or insight or anything remotely surprising? Not me. Not then. During that first visit, the works of Flavin and Judd seemed less austere, more humane. I hadn’t gone there thinking about paintings (sculpture and installation dominate) but I wandered in to the room of Martin’s canvases and works on paper. So here were the paintings of lines and grids.
There is something about the light in this museum. Martin’s paintings are composed with gentle washes of color, mostly represented in bands of blue, yellow, red, or orange, and white in various permutations, especially in her later period. The paintings have a distinctive diaphanous quality, matched and heightened by the space where they are hung. (I believe, this quality is also why her paintings are impossible to adequately reproduce.) Previously a box-printing factory for a cookie company, Dia:Beacon’s skylights filter natural light in from above. A drifting cloud or an overcast day can change the character of light in the room, connecting you to the natural world even while standing in a white cube of space with the quality of an unadorned cathedral. The simple bands of color drew me in, so that I found myself looking closely at the shifting tones. Light moves through her faint washes of paint, like the ghost of a color floating above the white ground. As I drew closer, until I was inches away from the canvas, I noticed the thin penciled lines demarking each band.
Her lines surprised me and would later—gently, quietly—obsess me. They should be completely unremarkable. They are not made with anything like masterful virtuosity—I’m thinking of the tale of the fourteenth-century painter Giotto’s genius evidenced by a perfect circle drawn freehand (an act of protominimalism: he submitted only this red circle, while all his contemporaries submitted detailed drawings to win a commission from the Pope). Martin’s lines are likely made with the aid of a straightedge. They are not the singular autographic lines rooted in some primal mark-making impulse, like the penciled or crayoned lines in a Cy Twombly canvas. Martin’s lines are workmanlike. They are there to delineate where one color goes beside the next. From a distance, the bands of color perform their task of holding and reflecting light, imbuing it with color. Soft but seemingly perfect, they are ordered after some realized plan. But up close the lines quaver and wobble. Maybe the pencil lead broke here and the line was then started again thereafter. Martin’s lines breath, they document a moment of action done with purpose and—to purposely use an unadorned phrase—not a lot of fuss. They have humility. Hers is a minimalism with some blood in it—minimalism with a pulse. This is to say nothing of what an Agnes Martin painting is a painting of.
I saved writing about Agnes Martin until I would be here in the woods, almost an hour’s drive to the nearest store. In the cabin by the water, I spent a week remembering first seeing her paintings and writing these memories in my notebook, in the moments of quiet while my child napped in the other room. I spent the second week similarly, while rereading Nancy Princenthal’s biography of Martin. There again I found the spartan details of Martin’s life; when she stopped and then, eventually, returned to painting. Following her days in New York, Martin wandered up to the Pacific Northwest and down into the desert mesas of New Mexico where she would settle. First she lived in her camper, then she built the simple adobe structure she would use as a home, with a well for water but no working electricity. The simple ascetic diet: at one point she was said to be eating only “preserved walnuts, hard cheese, and homegrown tomatoes” and later, only “Knorr gelatin mixed with orange juice and bananas.” Beyond a shared impulse toward reduction, these facts and the rest of her fascinating biography do not illuminate her paintings. In fact, they risk crowding in on the ample quiet and light and openness.
To think about Agnes Martin, I wanted to get off-line, to unplug. To think about how my brain has been baited and trained by apps urging me to keep scrolling. My instinct—more feeling than thesis—was that Martin’s paintings were the antithesis of digital addiction. They were counter to it as an experience of nature was counter to it. Forest bathing some call the documented, calming neurological effects of the experience of nature (related to the decades-old Japanese process of shinrin-yoku—literally “taking in the forest”). Beyond a plan to think, recollect, and write about Agnes Martin, I also took with me two books: Silence: In the Age of Noise, by the Norwegian publisher and explorer Erling Kagge, and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, which I read in that order. I was surprised to find an epigraph by Agnes Martin at the start of Odell’s second chapter, which argues for the need for retreat to nature, to isolation, but then also return, back to the daily rhythms of one’s neighborhood and life, for only then is real activism and attention possible.
A lot of people withdraw from society as an experiment, so I thought I would withdraw and see how enlightening it would be. But I found out that it’s not enlightening. I think that what you’re supposed to do is stay in the midst of life.
I went to the woods, where I thought about Agnes Martin, and as I finish writing this, I have returned. This process began earlier, when I thought with clarity that an Agnes Martin painting cannot be reproduced, at least not on screen or in a monograph or magazine. You might have some luck making your own facsimile—that is, painting your own Agnes Martin. Or, I thought, as I walked my dog along the usual rectangular blocks of my Brooklyn neighborhood, that walking in the grid of streets was closer to reproducing a Martin drawing than photographing it and putting it online. Near the cabin, I saw the branch of a tree that fell in such a way that it was held horizontally by others, creating a stark but organic geometric pattern. Here, too, this may more accurately reproduce the experience of looking at an Agnes Martin painting.
In the three-day drive back to the city, I felt the quiet and isolation of the woods recede. I wanted stillness instead of the constant scroll, but I didn’t need to remain in the woods for that. In Agnes Martin’s paintings I can see how being in the woods feels. Hers are paintings of a state of mind—most often one of quiet and light and openness. In an interview, Martin was asked how long a viewer should look at one of her paintings. She responded, “about one minute.” Noting the interviewer’s surprise, she offered, “but a minute’s quite a while.”
John Vincler is a writer, visual artist, and has worked for a decade as a rare book librarian. He is editor for visual culture at Music & Literature and is at work on a book-length project on cloth as subject and medium in art.