Agnes Martin


I am about to start working on an essay on the painter Agnes Martin.

Agnes Martin is currently (3 June 11 October 2015) on show at Tate Modern, London. Following the presentation at Tate Modern, the retrospective will travel to Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.
Agnes Martin

Due to … life … I will not get to see the London exhibition until September, but I have seen some of Martin’s work before. The first time at Documenta 12 in Kassel, 2007.

I’m deeply moved by her work. I think of her paintings and drawings not primarily as pictures, but more like meditations. Like timeless events of serene tranquility.

I recently learned that Martin was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in early adulthood. Those of you who have been reading this blog for years, might remember that I – a decade ago – worked on a research project studying language in psychosis. Trying to find out more about how being psychotic affected one’s language skills. I have since abandoned both research and the field of psychiatry.



Agnes Martin, Friendship (1963) incised gold leaf and gesso on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York


Discovering Martin’s situation triggered my old interest. Martin’s symptoms included auditory hallucinations, spells of depression and catatonic trances. Some say her voices directed almost every aspect of her life, sometimes punitive and sometimes protective. But there are different ways of understanding how the disease affected her work.

This is from Princenthal’s biography Agnes Martin. Her Life & Work (2015):

Although the voices didn’t tell her what to paint – they seemed to steer clear of her work – the images that came to her through inspirations were fixed and articulate enough to suggest a relationship between visions and voices: she heard and saw things that others didn’t

Martin’s mental health will not be the main focus of my text. But I must say this: I find it really very impressive how she managed to work, making the most beautiful art, having to struggle with such a severe disability. It makes my respect for her – if possible – even greater.


And so, dear reader, be warned: there will definitively be more on Martin in the weeks to come …

Agnes Martin (b. 1912, Maklin, Saskatchewan, Canada; d. 2004 Taos, New Mexico) studied at Western Washington College of Education, Bellingham, WA, prior to receiving her B.S. (1942) from Teachers College, Columbia University. A few years following graduation, Martin matriculated at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where she also taught art courses before returning to Columbia University to earn her M.A. (1952)

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Harriet Wood says:

    There seems to be a flurry of research and information on the connection between creativity and
    mental illness (should be called something else). Haven’t we always known this? How else to make sense
    of this world!

  2. Cochenille says:

    I’m deeply interested by this new work project on Agnes Martin I discover thanks to you. The article you links above is quite difficult to understand for me, but reading about this connection makes me think of Gerard Garouste, the painter, who have told a little about his bipolarity in an autobiography calls “L’intranquille”. He explains actually that, for him, his mental disorder is not some kind of a help, or an inspiration source, but clearly an obstacle for creating. Too many struggles. I’ve read also Philip K. Dick biography written by Emmanuel Carrère, where interactions between the writer’s books and the man’s delusions are told very precisely. By the way, thank you Sigrun, can’t wait to read you 🙂 !

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you! Very interesting comments. I’ve never even heard of Gerard Garousteand do not know Emmanuel Carrère’s biography – great to have new references, thoughts & ideas presented as I go along!

  3. LynS says:

    Thank you for this post, Sigrun. I’ve long admired Agnes Martin’s work in a very uninformed way. I knew nothing of her schizophrenia diagnosis. Her work is so calm and meditative, in contrast to what must have been the chaos of her emotions. I look forward to further posts as your work progresses.

  4. Beat Company says:

    Tanx from this side as well – and off to Düsseldorf !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.