Being in the flow and Agnes Martin

“The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self.” – Colum McCann

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.  Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” –  Rumi

“Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.” – Agnes Martin

There are many ways to quiet down the mind at times of fear and high anxiety; some are destructive in the long run.  Of those that are not, I am always drawn into making art, working with my hands, and letting the mind be in the zone.  There are days that it feels like being in the flow; on other days, it’s all about holding it together, like a cork in a bottle, gripping tight all that I don’t want to crack open or simply cannot, because often I don’t know what I am feeling until days, weeks or years later.  I can’t wait to be back on the dance floor with my dance community, where I can let that cork pop open and pour out some of that locked up energy, and maybe experience some freedom.

Since the beginning of this COVID-19 house arrest, I started a new series of paintings – colored stripes, one touching the other.  The vision is to create an analogous composition and to constantly remind myself that the way I see one color is almost never as it really is, but in relation to the adjacent color. There are infinite variations, many types of colors, and brushes; in other words – the exploration is endless.

When I reach the point of flow in this work, my mind is so concentrated on the brush’s tip that I am becoming one with it.  Sometimes, the paint’s viscosity is so soft, and even that it feels like butter and produces long uniform lines with one stroke.  Other times, the paint is thick like cement and must be laid dot by dot. 

“My paintings are not about what is seen.  They are about what is known forever in the mind.” – Agnes Martin

“When I think of art I think of beauty.  Beauty is the mystery of life.  It is not in the eye it is in the mind.  In our minds there is awareness of perfection.” – Agnes Martin

In the last few weeks, I have been thinking, looking, and studying Agnes Martin, an American painter (1912 – 2004).  She lived and painted in Cuba, New Mexico – a small and remote town in the middle of the vast and rugged desert.  In other words, at the end of the world.  Over the years, I have seen her paintings many times, as they can be found in many public collections in the United States; they always made me standstill.

One story told about her process is this: she would sit at her studio until an inspirational sensation came to her, usually in the form of one word, something like: Agony, Happiness, Love, etc. and then she would burst out of her chair, go to the canvas and start executing.  Another story about her, which I love is this: she once held a rose in her hand, showing it to a young girl and asked, ‘Is the flower beautiful?’ The girl said, ‘Yes, it is!’  Agnes then hid the rose behind her back and asked, ‘Is the flower still beautiful?’  And the girl responded, ‘Yes, it is!’  To which Agnes said, ‘You see, beauty is all in your mind.’

Little is being told about Agnes’ suffering from schizophrenia, the voices only she could hear.  These voices made her push away friends and lovers, and I don’t envy those who stood on the receiving side, as I can feel the shock of the unexpected rage – talk about gaslighting.  I am not surprised she chose to live in that remote town in New Mexico, secluded from humans.  Rumi, the 13th-century poet, said that the wound is the place where the light enters you, probably Agnes Martin’s suffering was the path to her greatness. 

From a distance, Agnes Martin’s work looks more like a blank square canvas than a painting.  They are always the same size, either 60″ by 60″ or 72″ by 72″; at best, you can see some layers of diluted colors, usually extremely light tones.  All that until you get much closer and you see the geometrical precision of lines both vertical and horizontal over thinly painted monochromatic surfaces.  Some critics say her paintings evoke the open land and skies of the American Southwest, but if you listen to Agnes’ words, and she has written quite a bit, her paintings are about “what is known forever in the mind.”  They are “concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.”  When I look at her paintings, the emptiness sounds like a loud, painful scream.  At the same time, they are mystical, Zen-like, and most definitely meditative.

“If you can imagine that you’re a rock

all your troubles fall away

It’s consolation

Sand is better

you’re so much smaller as a grain of sand

We are so much less

These paintings are about freedom from the cares of this world

from worldliness

not religion. You don’t have to be religious to have inspirations

Senility is looking back with nostalgia

senility is lack of inspiration in life

Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities

that’s the function of art.”

Agnes Martin, an excerpt from The Untroubled Mind (1972), see full text

More of Agnes Martin writings on this site

“We are living inside history.” Rae Godfredsen

A word of gratitude.  I am grateful for routines and the energy to maintain them.  Every morning, every single morning, I’m grateful for the 10-mile bicycle ride down Ballona Creek to the Marina and then south, along the ocean to Lifeguard Station 56.  Grateful to be with mother nature and the music of Sofi Tukker.  This duo’s electronic dance music and daily DJ session is an uplift.  During this time of physical isolation, many people and institutions quickly embraced technology and maintained a presence in our lives.  I want to give a shout out to our fabulous Iyengar yoga teacher, Christin Stein, whom we meet a few times a week via zoom.  Her sequences and her vocal cadence are both restorative and soothing.  I am grateful to Rabbi Naomi Levy, who is visiting with us during dinner every Friday night via Facebook Live, bringing spirit, traditions, and community.  She coined a new term in my vocabulary: “the discipline of restraint.”  I am grateful to my friend Bob Korda for our daily connection.  And last but far from least, I am grateful to my beloved Danna Sigal, who fills my life with love and acceptance.

“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, all that seems like error is not error; and it all has to be done.  That which seems like a false step is the next step.” – Agnes Martin

May 2020