Agnes Martin has been one of my absolute favorite artists ever since I saw her work in person for the first time. I had known about her work, but having only seen images online, I wasn’t particularly struck by it. But as soon as I stood in front of one of her quiet, contemplative, meticulous paintings, I was obsessed. I appreciate art history and I can’t help but insist that appreciation of art benefits from knowledge, but at the end of the day, the artists that I love most of all in any medium spark a visceral, emotional reaction. And Agnes Martin’s art, seen in person, was like that for me. I soaked up her paintings and couldn’t get enough.
So I started collecting books about her and eventually made it to this amazing book by Arne Glimcher. Through its beautifully reproduced letters, stories, and essays, juxtaposed with images of her art (which, now that I’ve seen many in real life, transport me back to afternoons spent sitting in front of the real thing), I was glad to learn that my reaction to her art mirrored her own thoughts about art and life. She said “Reality is seen as beauty, felt as truth, and responded to as art.” When I read that, I felt like a forest had sprung up around me. I loved the book so much that when my copy was lost by the postal service during our move back to San Francisco from Tokyo, I had to buy another one.
So much of what her art says resonates with me. She wrote to the Whitney, “To live truly and effectively the idea of achievement must be given up.” I’ve been thinking a lot about how I live these past couple years as we moved across the ocean and tried to build a different life, came back and tried to rebuild an old one. I’m still unlearning a lifetime of overachieving, surrounded by other achievers, constantly trying to improve, grow, and accomplish. I often catch myself falling into the trap of caring too much about constantly getting better, doing things better than I did yesterday.
But when I look at Agnes Martin’s paintings, when I read her calls to respond to life with joy, I remember that it’s possible to let that compulsion go, if you try hard enough, or rather if you stop trying. And then you can experience perfection.