With Her Back to the World and Her Face to the Camera

There is a wonderful documentary called Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, produced near the end of the artist’s long life by the filmmaker Mary Lance. Stolid, weathered, blue-eyed, soft-spoken, Martin says many things she had said before, and also more than a few she hadn’t. She talks about her childhood, her work, her methods, her convictions. She paints on-camera—a first, for Martin—and explains her methods for executing the luminous bands of pale color that dominate her post-1960s work. I know from talking to Lance, and from reading a transcript of the interviews from which those in the hour-long film were excerpted, that there are interesting things she chose to omit. This is to be expected.

But the question of tact, of discretion, cuts exceptionally close to the bone with Martin. If all art-making is a communicative act, there is little visual expression as tight-lipped about individual experience as the kind of reductive geometry Martin chose. Indeed few artists have made artwork—or statements—that reveal less about themselves than Martin, who was exceptionally vigilant about maintaining her privacy. If she is legendary for anything, on a personal level, it is her heroic solitude. By middle age, she was quite comfortable exploiting the legend. (In telling a museum director that she would not take questions from the audience after delivering a lecture, Martin instructed, in writing, “Tell them I’m a hermit.” One imagines her adding a chuckle, as she often did if pressed to reflect on herself.) While her quest for isolation has been greatly exaggerated, there is ample reason to believe—her presence in Lance’s film notwithstanding—that she would have hated being the subject of a biography.

I’m writing a book about Martin that will address her life as well as her painting, so these conditions matter to me quite a lot. One thing I tell myself is that we turn to art—of every kind—for answers to the question: How do other people see things? And in trying to account for any work’s particular strength, and its meaning, we naturally consider the context in which it was made, the influences it reflects (and exerts), the politics and place of the communities in which the artist lived. These are not unfamiliar to art history, even to the formalist art criticism that reigned when Martin’s work was first shown and celebrated.

It’s not a big step from such contextualization to personal history: family, friends, lovers; emotional states; hardships and triumphs. And from there to gossip is not a huge step, either. The slope is steeper and more slippery in a culture as focused as ours is on personality and lurid drama. Obviously, it is not impossible to avoid the plunge. Lance, for instance, managed admirably.

Film footage of artists has tended (at least until the age of social media) to dwell on their later years, by which time they are well enough known to invite the camera’s attention. They have also had the time to shape a public persona. Films made with a living artist almost always involve the subject’s willing participation. Artist and filmmaker are involved, then, in a duet. In any case, making art is one way to engage in the effort—a universal one—to shape one’s life story. Reciprocally, in looking at art, our focus is generally somewhere between the object (or event) itself, and the experience to which it points. This is as true of abstract painting—or of socially engaged community-based projects, for that matter—as of self-portraiture. That art is transactional is a point on which Martin insisted. Throughout her extensive writing and many public talks, she contended that her paintings expressed states of mind—happiness and innocence, primarily—and also that they were incomplete without the response of a viewer.

It goes without saying that any documentary is partial, in both ways. Each subject draws a distinctive group of commentators, and each chorus of speakers reveals, in its collective character as well as its individual voices, something about the artist in question. In Lance’s documentary, Martin’s is the only talking head we see. A few times, we hear the filmmaker questioning Martin, softly and off-camera. Martin prohibited having anyone else around during the shooting, so Lance held the camera, too. Those choices speak volumes: Martin’s preferred social interaction was with one person at a time. She spoke quietly but with fervor. She favored monologue over conversation, although she could be deeply compassionate and perceptive. Her syntax inclined toward the sermon and the epigram, and not infrequently toward flights of radiant poetry. Various spiritual systems left their traces, as did a sharp sense of humor. Sometimes what she said made no discernible sense at all. The coordinates of her language, her physical presence and speaking voice, could be laid across the geometry of her paintings without much disruption—and with no small benefit to their understanding. Or so Lance’s documentary convincingly suggests.

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Nancy Princenthal

NANCY PRINCENTHAL is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.