MARTIN_Portrait_1981.jpg

Portrait of the Agnes Martin, 1981 © Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Films

The Enduring Musicality of Agnes Martin’s Paintings

Published Aug 15, 2021

To engage with the notion of musicality in Agnes Martin’s work, Pace Live presented performances by the musician Laraaji and members of the group Gang Gang Dance amid the recent exhibition Agnes Martin: The Distillation of Color in New York. The performances highlighted the ways that the legacies of Martin’s distinct visual language and philosophies about art making have touched some of the most innovative musical artists working today.

Widely considered one of the most important painters of the 20th century, Agnes Martin looms large in the history of art and the Minimalist movement. Best known for understated, austere compositions that privilege lines and grids, geometry and order, Martin rejected figurative and narrative elements in her works. “Paintings painted by the intellect are not artwork,” the artist once said.

Martin, who throughout her career wrote at length on modes of thought that ought to guide artistic practices, said in a 1976 ARTnews profile by the critic John Gruen, “Painting is a very subtle medium, and it speaks of the most subtle phases of our responses, and so, it is much more rewarding to the painter. I think that since the Abstract Expressionists, painting is in the same category as music. It really is abstract.”

To engage with the notion of musicality in the artist’s work, Pace Live presented performances by the musician Laraaji and members of the group Gang Gang Dance amid the recent exhibition Agnes Martin: The Distillation of Color in New York. Laraaji has been creating highly experimental music since the 1970s, Lizzi Bougatsos and Brian DeGraw, two members of Gang Gang Dance, draw on various genres to create their unique, immersive sounds. The meditative nature of the concerts reflected not only the formal simplicity and calmness of Martin’s work, but also the artist’s stated approach to art making. The performances highlighted the ways that the legacies of Martin’s distinct visual language and philosophies about art making have touched some of the most innovative musical artists working today.

As the art historian Nancy Princenthal details in her 2015 biography of Martin, the artist “said she composed her work following the dictates of inner visions, which arrived as complete images she executed just as she saw them, but bigger.” Princenthal goes on to write, “In many accounts she gave of her working process, Martin invariably used the word ‘inspiration.’”

These spiritual, introspective aspects of Martin’s process live on in her canvases. Laraaji, who has termed his own musical works “sound paintings” for their layered and textural qualities, said he identifies with a “a stillness, a non-rushed activity” present in Martin’s paintings, adding that he strives to create “an environment within which the listener can be present, immersive, without really figuring out what it is I’m trying to say, more they’re feeling embraced” in his own work.

Bougatsos and DeGraw trace a similar contemplativeness through Martin’s paintings and their music. Bougatsos compares her experience of the artist’s canvases to how she feels in desert settings, saying of Martin’s paintings, “You just settle into the environment and it’s this completeness. It just shows this oneness with nature, and I can relate to that because that’s how I feel when I’m on stage.” (Martin lived for many years in New Mexico, whose desert landscape deeply influenced her work.)

For DeGraw, the works “symbolize a real need to escape noise from every direction.” Martin echoed this sentiment in her interview with Gruen, explaining, “Art work comes straight through a free mind—an open mind. Absolute freedom is possible. We gradually give up things that disturb us and cover our mind. And with each relinquishment, we feel better. You think it would be easy to discover what is blinding you, but it isn’t so easy.”

Films — The Enduring Musicality of Agnes Martin’s Paintings, Aug 15, 2021