Thursday, June 02, 2005

Agnes Martin Remembered

Charles R. Rushton • Portrait of Agnes Martin, New Mexico • 1992

On December 16, 2004, Agnes Martin passed away at the age of 92. Amidst all the academic renderings and theoretical canonizations exists the life of a simple, down to earth artist. Moving from the New York scene to the stark beauty of Taos, a certain self-imposed monastic exile, was Martin’s reaction to the art world. Art or Idiocy? asked artist, and fellow Taos resident, Ben Meisner, to recount the story of how he met the late Agnes Martin.

Ben Meisner

I met Agnes Martin for lunch in late May of 2002. I had written her a letter a month earlier explaining that I was graduating from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and that I would be returning home to Taos within a few weeks. I asked her if she would be interested in meeting with me when I came into town. Soon after I sent the letter, I received a message on my answering machine. I wasn’t quite able to make out the message on the first listening, but from a second listening I was able to decipher the slow raspy voice; “This is Agnes Martin. You can call me when you get to town.”

Agnes ate lunch at the same restaurant every day. When she suggested that we eat at the Trading Post Café, I wasn’t too surprised. She asked me to meet her at her apartment at around 11:45. When I arrived, I quickly found her door which was nestled into the back section of the Plaza de Retiro retirement community. I knocked on the door. Agnes welcomed me in. She was wearing the turquoise-blue shirt she is often photographed in. Her apartment was small and simply furnished. A small still life painting was the only thing on the wall. She told me that it was given to her by one of her friends. After a few moments of introduction, she suggested that we go eat. I offered to drive, but Agnes insisted on driving us in her car. She owned a large white Mercedes, which is a fairly distinctive car for Taos, New Mexico. After pulling out onto Camino de la Placitas, we made a right onto Ranchitos Road. “I like going this way,” she said. At the light near Larry Bell’s studio, we made a quick left onto Salazar.

The rumble of motorcycle engines is a familiar sound in Northern New Mexico during the Memorial Day weekend. Bikers from all over the country converge on Taos to ride around the mountains and visit the Vietnam Memorial in Angel Fire. The motorcycles seemed to put Agnes in a nostalgic mood. As we blasted through each intersection without stopping, she told me a story. She told me about the night she had been at a party and decided she wanted to go for a ride. She hopped onto one of the motorcycles that was parked outside the party and drove off. “Whose bike was it?” I asked. “I didn’t know,” she said, “I just took it.” Later that night she picked up a guy, and the two of them cruised around the neighborhood. It was getting late, and somehow they lost control of the motorcycle. “He was hurt pretty bad,” she said. “I don’t really remember what happened. The doctors came to help. Nobody noticed that I was lying by the side of the road. I was in a daze. I just sat there. When everyone left, I just got up and walked home.” Agnes sensed that I was gripping the armrest tightly as we blew past another stop sign, and she tried to reassure me, “Oh, don’t worry about the stop signs. I do this all the time.”

We arrived at the Trading Post just past noon, and we were quickly shown to a shaded area on the back patio. Agnes wasn’t very interested in the menu. She ordered the soup of the day and the special chef salad. She seemed a bit preoccupied as we sat waiting for our food. The silence became slightly awkward, and I asked her if she could tell me a little about her early years in New York. After a few minutes she began telling me about how Betty Parsons bought her paintings and convinced her to go to New York. She told me how cheap the rents were on “the Slip” in those days. She told be about the bums who lived at the bottom of her stairwell. She told me that she only painted for about three hours each day now that she was getting older. She told me about inspiration and patience. Mostly she told me what I had already read in the literature. Her answers seemed well ordered and well rehearsed. It was strange to hear her tell stories verbatim the way I read them in books and magazines. I sensed that being at the restaurant had put her into “interview mode.” She presented me with her official persona. Once our food arrived, her priorities quickly shifted. The time for talking was over. It was time to eat. We ate our lunches mostly in silence. Occasionally Agnes would comment on the food. I decided not to push the subject of art any further.

I came away from my lunch with Agnes feeling a bit stunned. After a relatively quiet ride back to her apartment, I thanked her for lunch. She wished me luck. I said thanks again. “You can wish me luck too,” she said. So I wished her luck and said good-bye. She didn’t leave me with any advice or words of wisdom. Instead, she had shown me what it means to be a real artist. Her presence and manner had spoken volumes. Agnes Martin was a great artist. She had no interest in her celebrity or status. She lived a humble life, and she left us with her great paintings to remember her by.

Ben Meisner is a Taos born artist who has lived in New Mexico for most of his life. He is an alumnus of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and has attended Yale’s summer art program in Norfolk, Connecticut. His work has been shown in galleries in Chicago, Norfolk, and Taos, where he was most recently included in the Harwood Museum’s Contemporary Art Taos: Finalists show at the All Points Gallery. Although he continues to maintain a studio in northern New Mexico, he is currently working at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas as a conservation assistant and an instructor in the Museum’s summer art program for children.

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