I can remember visiting the AGO (Art Gallery if Ontario) in my early twenties and falling in love with Agnes Martin’s paintings. Among all the big, bright, brash American art of the 60s and 70s in the contemporary galleries, one of Agnes Martin’s paintings stood out to me with a quiet insistence that still surprises me.
Sometimes incredibly subtle in her use of colour, or obsessive grids, I fell for her paintings in a way that’s pretty rare for me. In some cases there’s so little actually there that I’m surprised I can spend so much time with them. I still love her paintings, and in fact Jill gave me a catalogue of her paintings for my 46th birthday.
For anyone who’s ever struggled with mental illness or know someone who has, I encourage you to read her biography as well as look at her paintings. She led a long and productive career in the visual arts despite her struggles.
When I started painting again, I painted in stripes and grids for purely pragmatic reasons, but always with those early experiences of Martin’s paintings in mind. Freed from the need for a subject, I could focus on basic elements of design: line, colour, without worrying too much about form. I also got to explore the physical elements of paint, water, and paper. I tried folding, tearing and ripping the paper in preparation for the paint, noticed how these preparations affected the absorption rate of water and pigment. I played with fairly thick layers as well as almost completely translucent washes.
In the end, I suspect I found something of what Agnes Martin’s process must have been like. It was very meditative, the mind getting quiet enough to contemplate little other than what colour, size, opacity and form the next line should take.