November 1, 2019

When Inspiration Cuts Deep: Agnes Martin

The photograph here is my favorite from a summer adventure into Los Angeles last year with my daughter, Ashlyn. We played tourists hitting food hotspots on Sunset Boulevard, ascending the winding roads to Griffith Park, and shopping the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

But the highlight for me was a few hours spent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and discovering Agnes Martin. Agnes’s work was wholly new to me. Ashlyn was a good sport that morning accommodating my slow pace, but was tired standing and sat down. I took the opportunity to compose her squarely between two of Agnes’s paintings wishing to convey quiet contemplation. It was a perfect visual representation of what was a profound experience for me.

From the moment I entered the exhibit hall, my awareness was keenly heightened. What…is…this…I asked? Curiosity expanded to wonder and, with continued exploration, I felt hit with a gut punch of resonate connection and inspiration. The truth I felt in the work enveloped me and penetrated down to that level I can only identify as the soul.

For 30 minutes of so, I was elevated to a different plane of existence.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is a Canadian born American abstract painter. Often referred to as a minimalist, Martin described herself as an abstract expressionist. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, more as code of life ethics than a religious practice, Martin sought to pare down her compositions to reductive elements of simplicity that conveyed a transcendent reality. These truths, as she expressed them, were represented as hand drawn, painted lines, grids, and fields of fine ethereal color.

Martin was one of the few female artists who gained recognition in the male-dominated art world of the 1950s and ’60s. An elevated artist, she was also human. Agnes struggled with mental illness; she was diagnosed at one point as schizophrenic. She lived her adult life alone and held her homosexuality a secret. Martin’s later work is regionally associated with Taos, New Mexico. The desert environment and clarity of light must have been tremendous inspiration much as it was for Georgia O’Keeffe, another strong influence of mine.

Even now, writing this, I fondly remember that day. I acquired one of Martin’s coffee table books and while I cherish it, the book experience is a shadow of the museum experience. I believe that experience was one of those rarer moments in Life, where the inherent power of an artist’s work breaks through our clouded lives and shines light on our connected experience and understanding of the world. For me, my style and what I aspire to in my own work was affirmed and clarified. What I hold dear and truthful in my life felt celebrated. And, for 30 minutes, all my doubts and fears were erased.

We all deserve such an experience. Thank you Agnes Martin.

I cannot finish this post without acknowledging the political times (2017) we now live in with respect to art. The current administration is threatening dramatic cuts, even defunding of many arts and cultural programs. I doubt any of these mostly old crotchety white men have ever remotely experienced what I did that day in LACMA. If they did, they’d understand the essential role art plays in society and our understanding of history. It is, I believe, fundamental to our collective evolution as human beings.


I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream.

Bruce Springsteen