December 17, 2004

"A fully abstract style based on tight grids and repetitive linear marks."

The painter Agnes Martin has died, at the age of 92. She was loved for her "fully abstract style based on tight grids and repetitive linear marks."

Ah, how well I remember in the 1970s, when a prominent magazine -- I've forgotten which -- analyzed the essential difference between male artists and female artists and declared that women's art tended to use a grid. Some key women like Martin did work with a grid, but to say that women used grids! As if it were biological! What a putdown! Without a grid, unlike a man, you'd be lost. You need a regimented structure to constrict you -- an artistic corset! And consider it, you younger women (and men): this is how major magazines wrote about women even after the great victories of the women's movement. This was considered a big step up from saying women simply could not be great painters. When I went to art school in the early 1970s, the school had a professor who told his students, year after year, that women could not be sculptors, and therefore the best grade a women could get in his class was a B.

None of this takes anything away from Agnes Martin, of course. Goodbye to the grand old painter, and thanks!

Martin seems also to be the patron saint for artists who give up their work:
In 1967, when her New York career was taking off, she abruptly left the city, wandered the country for months in a pickup and camper, and stopped making art for seven years. She finally settled in New Mexico, building an adobe house with her own hands on a remote mesa where in winter she was snowed in for weeks at a time...

Before leaving [New York] she gave away all her paint and canvas rolls, hoping young artists would use them. Once she starting painting again in 1974, however, she worked solidly until the end of her life, in a format that seldom varied: six-foot-square canvases on which she drew horizontal graphite lines and painted bands of color with subtly vigorous strokes. She changed her palette from series to series, using pale colors one year, and black, white or gray the next.

Everyone who has ever painted, then given it all up -- and I include myself -- might take inspiration from this grand old woman. Who knows if the day may come when you can find your way back to picking up the brush again?

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