There is no halfway with art

history lesson

Agnes Martin’s notes for “On the Perfection Underlying Life”

lecture originally given at the ICA on February 14, 1973 on the occasion of the exhibition, “Agnes Martin”

Some say she is rather esoteric in her writing, but I’m not sure I agree – just go with the flow and see what happens. In line wit Martin I would claim; it’s not about how other people might (mis)understand her, it’s a personal matter, it’s up to you to decide whether or not her writing works for you –


The process of life is hidden from us. The meaning of suffering is held from us. And we are blind to life.


Work is self-expression. We must not think of self expression as something we may do or something we may not do. Self expression is inevitable. In your work, in the way that you do your work and in the result of your work yourself is expressed.


I will now speak directly to the art students present — I want particularly to talk to those who recognize all of their failures and feel inadequate and defeated, to those who feel insufficient – short of what is expected or needed. I would like somehow to explain that these feelings are the natural state of mind of the artist, that a sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work.


Perfection, of course, cannot be represented. The slightest indication of it is eagerly grasped by observers. The work is so far from perfection because we ourselves are so far from perfection. The oftener we glimpse perfection or the more conscious we are in our awareness of it the farther away it seems to be. Or perhaps I should say the more we are aware of perfection the more we realize how very far away from us it is. That is why art work is so very hard. It is a working through disappointments to greater disappointment and a growing recognition of failure to the point of defeat. But still one wakes in the morning and there is the inspiration and one goes on.


The more we are aware of perfection the more we will suffer when we are blind to it in helplessness.


Being an artist is a very solitary business. It is not artists that get together to do this or that. Artists just go into their studios everyday and shut the door and remain there — The solitary life is full of terrors.


We will all get there someday however and do the work that we are supposed to do. Of all the pitfalls in our paths and the tremendous delays and wanderings off the track I want to say that they are not what they seem to be. I want to say that all that seems like fantastic mistakes are not mistakes and all that seems like error is not error, and it all has to be done. That which seems like a false step is just the next step.


Perfection is not necessary. Perfection you can not have. If you do what you want to do and what you can do and if you can then recognize it you will be contented. You cannot possibly know what it will be but looking back you will not be surprised at what you have done.


I hope I have made clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect – – completely removed in fact – – even as we ourselves are.

This lecture was originally given at the ICA on February 14, 1973 on the occasion of the exhibition, “Agnes Martin” which was held at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, January 22 – March 1, 1973. copyright 2009 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Sigrun… Mange Tak! I especially needed to be reminded this day…

    “The process of life is hidden from us. The meaning of suffering is held from us… “

  2. Thanks again Sigrun- a strange logical and illogical lecture trying to describe the indescribable ,fascinating for me

    1. Sigrun says:

      trying to capture things there are no words for can be a strangely meaningful project

  3. Rio says:

    I think there is “perfect expression” but so often we miss it or we try to own it. This same sort of grasping can be the cause of suffering.

    Suffering in itself has no meaning.

    But I do understand how an artist can throw herself onto a spike, wrestle off it, write, paint or sing about it and then throw herself back on to it again.

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