By capturing oral histories of Agnes Martin’s friends, lovers and classmates, a documentary film by Kathleen Brennan and Jina Brenneman lends new insight into the artist’s personality and creative process.
Born on the rural plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, Agnes Bernice Martin (March 22, 1912–Dec. 16, 2004) became one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. Martin’s career in the arts began when she was 30, but it would be another 23 years before she developed a style she felt worthy of her legacy—the grid paintings for which is best known.
While Martin’s spartan life was often by choice, during her early years in New Mexico and in lower Manhattan’s Coenties Slip, she was often nearly destitute. During the course of a distinguished career that lasted into her 90s, she would see her paintings—ultimately commanding prices in the millions—exhibited at prestigious national and international galleries and museums.
Despite enormous fame and multiple interviews over the years, little has been made public regarding Martin’s early life and work, especially prior to 1958 when she had her first solo show in New York at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Martin purposely destroyed countless canvases—as many as she could locate, in fact—of her work prior to the grid paintings, and guarded her privacy closely, thus leaving significant gaps in her artistic timeline.
“ … Martin late in her life elicited pledges from friends that they wouldn’t talk about her after she was gone,” writes author Nancy Princenthal (“Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art,” 2015, Thames & Hudson).“Her paramount injunctions, against pride and ego, have continued to shape attempts to bring her life into focus.”
Following her death, Martin’s right to obliterate early periods of her art career and withhold personal details of her life prompted ethical debates among art curators and historians.
“The earlier works in an artist’s development comprise far more than steps in an inevitable progression to a mature style. Otherwise we would be dealing with just the history of taste, not the history of art,” Dr. Richard Tobin concluded in a catalog essay for the 2012 “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid” exhibition at the Harwood Museum of Art. “…Martin’s biomorphic work from the mid-1950s would lead to her geometric compositions from 1960, and as such they are critical to a full understanding of her mature style.”
According to biographer Nancy Princenthal, longtime friend and fellow artist Richard Tuttle has honored Martin’s wishes by suggesting instead of revealing confidences, that her paintings provide insight. Other friends speculate that social mores of Agnes’s day fueled her reluctance to reveal romantic relationships with women and challenges with mental illness (Martin suffered from schizophrenia)—attitudes that are far less stringent today.
In any case, since her death in 2004, research has uncovered missing links to both Martin the person and to her art, helping to place her more accurately within the context of the art-history continuum. In addition to the above-referenced biography, a number of successful exhibitions, including “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid” at Taos’s Harwood Museum of Art in 2012, co-curated by Brenneman and Tiffany Bell, have helped fill the void. Most recently, a major retrospective—“Agnes Martin,” featuring work from before and after the grid—originated at Tate Modern in London, where it was displayed from June 3 to Oct. 11, 2015. Co-curated by Frances Morris and Bell, the exhibit then traveled to Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, in Düsseldorf, Germany, where it resided from Nov. 7, 2015 to March 6, 2016. At the time of this writing, the exhibition is being shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Sept. 11. It will conclude at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it will run from Oct. 7–Jan. 11, 2017.Meanwhile in Taos, award-winning artist and curator Brenneman, and award-winning multi-disciplinary artist Brennan have been gathering oral histories of Agnes’s friends, lovers and former classmates to learn more about Martin’s life prior to 1967 when, at age 53, she left New York City after the death of artist Ad Reinhardt.
The project can be traced back to 2009 when Brenneman, then curator and director of exhibitions at UNM’s Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, was tasked with developing an exhibit to honor the upcoming centennial of Agnes Martin’s birth. The original idea was to exhibit Martin’s work—before and after the grid—but due to limited financial resources, Brenneman opted to focus exclusively on Martin’s earlier, before the grid, work.
“[The] bottom line is, we ended up with the ‘Before the Grid’ show because we didn’t have any money,” says Brenneman. “It was not an intellectual discovery. It was totally financially based.”
Even so, the resulting exhibition was the first major show of Martin’s early work, and marked a significant step forward in mapping Martin’s artistic evolution. Realizing there were still significant gaps in Martin’s life story, however, it occurred to Brenneman that time was of the essence in polling remaining people who knew Agnes.
“I have no money. You have no money,” Brenneman said to Brennan, who had collaborated in documenting the “Before the Grid” exhibition for posterity. “Are you in?”
“Of course I’m in,” said Brennan, who knew and respected Martin.
“Originally, all we were going to do was capture oral histories on the cheap,” says Brenneman. “That was it.”The two began conducting casual, videotaped interviews, starting with late Bob Ellis—artist, educator, and former director of the Harwood Museum credited with orchestrating the octagonal Agnes Martin Gallery, which permanently houses seven five-by-five foot Martin paintings from ’93 and ’94 at the Harwood Museum of Art. Brennan and Brenneman then interviewed longtime Taos artist Jim Wagner who, it turns out, owes his move to Taos to Martin’s influence.
When one of Brennan’s patrons heard the team had located Agnes’s then 102-year-old former college classmate, who had visited Martin in Taos in 1955, she sponsored a trip for Brennan and Brenneman to film Louise Sause in Lansing, Michigan. From there the project snowballed.
“It was a great example of one thing leading to another,” says Brenneman. She and Brennan worked side-by-side as the scope of the end project—far exceeding their original intent—unfolded “[The topic] is very interesting, but for me it [has been] more about the relationship of working with another person—Kathleen. Problem solving, negotiating and working creatively with another person is an incredible experience.”
Upon viewing a rough cut of the film, writer Rebecca Allan said she found it both ordinary and radical—a phrase that appeals to Brennan and Brenneman.
“I know the film could be more than it is if we had a big production—but [the simplicity] is also what I love about it,” says Brennan. “[This documentary] is a big leap from where I was coming from. I’m willing to know what I know and live into the unknown,” Brennan adds.
When she looks back over earlier work in comparison to what she has learned while making this film, she says, “I know so much more now. I wouldn’t have [necessarily] done that back then, but it’s really cool to see my own progress.”
“Which is the crux of the whole [“Before the Grid”] story!,” Brenneman notes enthusiastically. “The creative process is not all clean and linear. It can be really hard and really messy, and sometimes schizophrenic. That’s the story we wanted to tell.”
“Agnes Martin Before the Grid,” directed, co-produced and edited by Brennen, and co-produced and researched by Brenneman, is narrated by London-based writer and actor Henry Martin with original music score titled “Netherlands,” by composer Gideon Freudmann. The film will debut at Taos Center for the Arts on Sept. 15, followed by a Q & A with the co-producers. tcataos.org – beforethegrid.org.
TAOS MAGAZINE | SEPTEMBER 2016