Agnes, Awe and Inspiration

On the fourth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, almost hidden away, there is a small gallery in which hang seven paintings by Agnes Martin. This past November I sat there in bliss.

“ Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.”
Agnes Martin

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Agnes Martin: (l) untitled #9  1981 (r) untitled #5  1988  SFMOMA

Martin’s paintings are not clever. They do not tell stories. They are not about verisimilitude. They do not portray myths or celebrate battles. They were not done to adorn the halls of power. They are not demonstrations of the artist’s facility with a brush. They are simple but not simplistic. They are beautiful but not pretty. They are done with an economy of means—color washes and pencil markings on gessoed canvas.

To sit with Martin’s painting is to sit in peace in the presence of essential beauty. They bespeak reverence but not for any god with a name. They are pure in their imperfections.

A little more than 2 months before visiting SFMOMA I was in Florence, Italy. There I stood in awe of Michelangelo’s David and works by such masters as: Fra Angelico, Donatello, Uccello, Botticelli, and Vasari. All these artists were and are unsurpassed in skill. But awe is not the same as inspiration.

Martin made her own rules. Working in solitude in New Mexico, after leaving New York in 1967, she developed her own visual lexicon. And unlike the renaissance masters, her art was not restricted and directed by the demands of the church and wealthy bankers. Her art was the manifestation of her own vision, truth and integrity.

I am in awe of what the old masters accomplished. But I am more inspired by the life and work of Agnes Martin.

 

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