In the spring of 1956, a duck-walking Chuck Berry sang “Roll over Beethoven and dig these rhythm and blues” in an act of rebellion against musical conventions much in the same way that Agnes Martin did for art. However, while Berry hated classical music, Martin adored it in a way that reflects her "resistance to change" and her love for "repetition." Music, and in particular Beethoven, mattered a great deal to Martin who wrote in a notebook how closely allied her work was to musical appreciation. “Art work that is completely abstract—free from any expression of environment—is like music and can be responded to in the same way,” Martin wrote. “Our response to line and tone and color is the same as our response to sounds. And like music abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning for us that is beyond expression in words.”
The Guggenheim Museum in New York staged a Martin retrospective from October 7, 2016, to January 11, 2017, in their effort to set the pictures to music. What she understood was that repetition begets a difference, and that difference is progress, which is why she was attracted to geometric art and especially grids. The effect of the grid on the viewer, and me in particular, was one of a dazzling sensory experience that recalled the impact of rock ‘n’ roll on my young soul years ago. Art critic Nancy Princenthal, who led IDSVA students on a guided tour of the exhibition and wrote a 2015 biography of Martin, emphasized her minimalism as reflected in her art and also her search for solitude and a simple austere life.
Art must draw from inspiration, Martin once said, and yet decade after decade she painted what seems at first glance to be the same thing repetitively: the grid drawn with a ruler and pencil on canvases—in infinitely subtle variations. Reminiscent of Paul Cézanne, these deliberate, reserved, and exquisite paintings acted like visions for which she would wait for weeks on end for a glimpse of the minute image that she would paint next. “I sit here and wait to be inspired,” she once said, as she rocked in her chair and alluded to the enigmatic and inexplicable nature of her life and work, and then added, “My happiest moment painting [is] when they go out the door. Go out into the world.”
What Martin wanted to catch in her grids was not material existence, but rather the abstract glories of being: beauty, innocence, and happiness. The intensity of her works, all so alike, but each one so different from the last one, haunts viewers. Happy Holiday, for instance, is a synthesis of not only her life’s work, but also her character: modest in form, subtle in color, yet immense in its spiritual presence. She was suspicious of fame and success, so much that in the 1960s she abandoned the art world altogether, packed up her New York studio and gave away most of her belongings for a life of solitude in a remote desert in New Mexico.
When she returned to painting in 1971, the grids had been replaced by horizontal or vertical lines, and the old palette of grey, white and brown had given way to glowing stripes and bands of very pale pink, blue, and yellow. Yet these images of calm and tenderness did not originate from a life of love and ease, but rather out of turbulence and hardship of her childhood in the Canadian prairie. Though inspired, the perfection of her pieces is hard-won and represents a continual act of determined will power and gallant effort. Although she did not achieve the legendary stature of her male contemporaries in abstraction, Martin is slowly emerging as a quite revolutionary and could very well become an icon of the art world in the not distant future.