Agnes Martin: Beauty is in your mind, not in the rose

Agnes Martin, White Flower I, 1985. Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 183 x 183 cm. Purchased 1995. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Agnes Martin Foundation, New York / SOCAN, Montreal (2022) Photo: NGC

Canadian-born painter Agnes Martin (1912–2004) is recognized as one of the most significant artists of the American post-war generation. With major exhibitions at museums around the world, Martin is associated with some of the most important movements of the mid-20th century. Her painting White Flower I (1985) hangs at the National Gallery of Canada alongside works by her American contemporaries Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. Newman, whose iconic Voice of Fire (1967) hangs next to Martin's painting, was a friend and early mentor to Martin and helped hang her first solo exhibition in New York in 1958. And yet, when visitors encounter Martin’s serene and minimal canvas, they may find that they are as likely to be transported to Saskatchewan, where the artist spent her early childhood, as to New York City, where Martin lived and worked in the 1950s and 1960s.

Charles R. Rushton, Agnes Martin, April 6, 1991. Galisteo, NM, 1991. © Charles R. Rushton / ARS, NY. Photo: Courtesy of Charles R. Rushton / Art Resource, NY

Martin’s enigmatic paintings have elicited many readings; perhaps none has been as often repeated as the enduring comparison between her paintings and the openness of the Saskatchewan prairies. In a review of a 1959 exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York Times critic Dore Ashton wrote, “Agnes Martin was born in Saskatchewan and brought up in Vancouver and the great prairies have lodged in her imagination ever since.” When art critic Irving Sandler, in an interview published in Art Monthly in 1993, asked how her memories of the Canadian Prairies factor into the “the openness and expansiveness in [her] work,” she answered, “My work is non-objective … but I want people, when they look at my paintings, to have the same feelings they experience when they look at landscape, so I never protest when they say my work is like landscape.”

White Flower I is one of approximately six paintings that Martin titled with some variation on the words “white flower.” It was painted in 1985, long after Martin had left New York City and had settled in New Mexico, where she lived from 1968 until her death in 2004. The first White Flower hangs in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and was painted in 1960 when Martin still lived in New York. Although separated by fifteen years, the two paintings share many similarities, most notably the 183 x 183 cm (6' by 6') format and Martin’s signature grid style. Martin carefully planned each dash or line in her grids before attempting them on canvas. She covered the canvas in oil or acrylic paint with a brush, and then drew the grid in graphite lines using a T-square or ruler and a string to guide her hand. Martin destroyed any painting that did not live up to her exacting standards.

Agnes Martin, White Flower, 1960. Oil on canvas, 182.6 x 182.9 cm. Anonymous Gift, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY. © Agnes Martin Foundation, New York / SOCAN, Montreal (2022) Photo: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY

The reader will quickly recognize that only the Gallery's work is white like the titular flower. During an oral-history interview in 1989, Martin explained that “it isn’t really about a flower, it’s really about a mental experience.” She did not want to represent an actual white flower; instead, she wanted to convey the feeling one would have when seeing a white flower. She wished to create an abstract emotional experience that she likened to listening to music or to being in the natural world. As early as 1966, speaking with her friend and fellow artist Anne Wilson for Art and Artists, Martin explained: “There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience, you become lighter and lighter in weight, you wouldn’t want anything else.” Although Martin’s paintings appear to be subtle variations on a single theme, they convey a wide spectrum of human experience and emotion.

Reflecting in 2015 on a visit with his 11-year-old granddaughter to Martin's studio in Galisteo, New Mexico, her dealer and friend Arne Glimcher remembered how the artist took a rose out of a vase, held it behind her back and asked the young girl if the rose was still beautiful even when she could not see it. When the child responded that it was, Martin replied, “You see Isobel, beauty is in your mind, not in the rose."

One could imagine that White Flower I might call out to the Saskatoon Bush, a shrub with edible berries and small white flowers that is widespread in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, where Martin lived during her childhood. Perhaps she was thinking of these white flowers in her studio in New Mexico, and trying to bring to mind the feeling she had seeing them as a child. Could they have kept their beauty in Martin’s mind, even so long after she left Canada? Her enduring bond with the country of her birth makes this a possibility.


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