One could argue that Nancy Princenthal began her newly released biography of Agnes Martin forty years ago, when, while doing research for an undergraduate paper, she wrote Martin a letter. Princenthal asked Martin if there had been any writing on her work that she particularly liked, but Martin never directly answered the question. Instead, she called into question the premise of the entire art historical discipline, encouraging Princenthal to let feeling, rather than intellect, dictate her approach to art. In line with the post-Structuralist criticism that emerged during the 1960s, the period when Martin first gained recognition, Martin was adamant that biography was purposeless in understanding her work. She so valued her privacy that she collected pledges from friends stipulating that they would never speak publicly about her personal life after her death. In defying this explicit rejection of biographical and analytical interpretation, Princenthal’s new book successfully demonstrates that a comprehensive analysis of Martin’s life enriches the meaning of her work.
Nancy Princenthal Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art
(Thames & Hudson, 2015)
In her introduction, Princenthal writes, “Martin, one of the most esteemed abstract painters of the second half of the twentieth century, expressed—and, at times, dwelled in—the most extreme forms of abstraction: pure, silencing, enveloping, and upending,” alluding to Martin’s state of mind and the paintings that materialized from it. All through the biography, Princenthal carefully examines Martin’s life, drawing from a range of sources including art historical scholarship, personal letters, institutional records, theoretical texts, interviews, and Martin’s own writing, all of which Princenthal lays out with analytical fervor. The culminating analysis yields an intimate portrait of Martin and the art historical periods during which she worked.
Princenthal pays a great deal of attention to Martin’s artistic methodology, examining her pragmatic approach to “inspiration,” which Martin maintained was the creative source for her paintings. Several times in the book, Princenthal refers to an interview in which Martin explains the origin of the grid, a formal device that Martin experimented with throughout her long career. In the interview, Martin recounts that the grid first appeared to her in an instant, as a “complete vision,” while she was contemplating the “innocence of trees.” Princenthal contextualizes Martin’s use of “inspiration” and “vision” by analyzing the painter’s immersive study of both Eastern spiritual teachings and Christian mysticism. Most revealing is the connection Princenthal makes between Martin’s visions and her interest in the teachings of Saint Teresa of Ávila, the 18th-century Spanish saint and mystic who wrote of the ecstatic states she achieved through contemplative prayer, and how these “trances” transported her to a supernatural state free of any distress. Martin often used the word “trance” to describe the desired effect of her paintings, and Princenthal’s contextualization deepens the meaning of what is otherwise an enigmatic methodology. Princenthal speculates that what was most salient for Martin in Saint Teresa’s writing was her “celebration of a state of rapture, her affirmation of vision as a creative resource, and not least, her recommendation to disregard thought—which, Teresa says, is to be laughed away, a recommendation Martin took to heart.” The parallels drawn between the saint and the artist manage to clarify Martin’s renunciation of intellect and dedication to “true feelings,” namely happiness and innocence.
These insights into Martin’s work are enriched by the book’s examination of the artist’s psychological conflicts. Princenthal looks at Martin’s long battle with schizophrenia, for which she was first hospitalized in the 1960s, and draws a link between the images that came to her through “inspiration” and the voices she heard in her head that told her to do certain things, although Princenthal distinguishes between the two experiences. Synthesizing medical research on schizophrenia with Martin’s own accounts of her illness, Princenthal connects Martin’s “need for internal peace” with her belief that abstraction was a place of awareness free from environmental influence. The result of these comparisons between Martin’s personal psychology and her use of inspiration and vision as creative resources seems to be a clearer understanding of the emotional and existential states her paintings were intended to evoke.
Contrary to Martin’s conviction, artists’ biographies have the potential to reveal a great deal about their art. Unearthing processes and circumstances that provide context to paintings that are as difficult to describe as Martin’s is what makes this biography a brilliant contribution to the history of art. Although “visual art, by its nature, does not reduce to words,” Princenthal concludes, “I believe that, insofar as words are part of the current of [Martin’s] thought, they hum along the lines of her painting.”