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martin and heaneyA few days ago I sat in the Agens Martin gallery at the The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico. Seven paintings she created in 1993, late in her life and upon her return to Taos from Galisteo, New Mexico hang in the octagonal space. It is dimly lit, with benches made by the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd in the center under a skylight. During my winters in New Mexico I often head to Taos for errands and shopping, And sometimes on those days of running here and there I end with a visit to the Martin gallery to reconnect with my quiet side--because this room is one of the quietest places I know. The paintings, made up of pale bands of blue and white, some with subtle pencil lines, are powerful in their simplicity. And instead of lofty or obscure titles, they are called things like Love, Friendship, Lovely Life, and Perfect Day. In this way Martin reminds us of the spiritual aspect of our everyday lives and relationships.
I've also been connecting with the work of another creative soul I admire, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I'm working on paintings for a two-person exhibit with Jerry McLaughlin in February at Perlmutter Gallery in Lafayette, California. The theme of the exhibit is painting based on poetry, and I've chosen to read and respond to Heaney's writing. (Please check out this episode of The Messy Studio Podcast for more about working with Heaney's poetry for the exhibit.) After sitting with Martin's work earlier this week I wrote these notes in my sketchbook comparing these two influential people:
So much of what Agnes Martin expresses is also present in Heaney's work, but he arrives there is a very different way. I find his work to be a lot about contrast--the material and the spiritual, the earthy and the luminous. Dualities that need one another for their full expression. But Martin is pure light and space, no need for an opposite side that is more material. To enter her world your mind needs to be quiet and empty. To enter his requires thought, understanding, metaphor, and memory.
But as different as they may be, both speak to me; they both find essence. Nothing is extraneous, everything is honed.
Although Heaney's work contains a great deal of imagery, beautifully evoked, he seems to inspire my minimalist side when I respond in paint. Many of his poems contain powerful, sometimes enigmatic references to states of mind and human conditions, expressed in just a few carefully chosen words.
The painting below was mostly inspired by Section xiv of his long poem, Squarings. I love how he creates a sensory, earthy scene, and then in the last four lines takes you into a far more abstract realm. This led to a composition of a textural, luminous color field flanked by what began as railroad tracks, then morphed into simple bars of neutral color. That much said, there is more that I can't -- or see no need to -- explain, just as there are gaps in what I can truly grasp about Heaney's words. One afternoon I was seraph on gold leaf. I stood on the railway sleepers hearing larks, Grasshoppers, cuckoos, dog-barks, trainer planes. Cutting and modulating and drawing off. Heat wavered on the immaculate line And shine of the cogged rails. On either side, Dog daisies stood like vestals, the hot stones Were clover-meshed and streaked with engine oil. Air spanned, passage waited, the balance rode, Nothing prevailed, whatever was in store Witnessed itself already taking place In a time marked by assent and by hiatus.
Passage, 36"x48" oil/cold wax on panel
Here is a detail showing the surface texture, developed through many layers of oil mixed with cold wax medium:
Unlike Heaney, Agnes Martin's expression of essence is almost confrontational in its lack of imagery. For many people, her work is very hard to appreciate--they see it as nothing, just blankness. There's no story to tell, only very subtle colors and geometric shapes. Yet when approached with an open and quiet mind her paintings are profound. When my own work ventures in a minimalist direction, I appreciate her courage to leave things unexplained and mysterious, yet with clarity and definition in her use of form. Both of these great minds, Martin and Heaney, have played with dualities in compelling ways, and their work invites understanding and contemplation. In their lives they created intimate and challenging work that is moving, and inspiring.