Agnes Martin Obituary Project (2005-)

The Agnes Martin Obituary Project

Karen L. Schiff

Though I never met Agnes Martin (1912-2004), she has been a major motivator in my work since the 1990s.  Her rigor and spare aesthetic encouraged me to return to making art:  the art world could accommodate that sensibility.  When she died in December 2004, I saved her obituary from The Boston Globe to read during “quality time,” so that the news of her passing would not get overwhelmed by daily details.  When I sat down to read the article, I found myself staring at the page … I was thinking about her work and life, and about why I had never written her a letter.  Through this mental fog, the article looked geometric: text columns coalesced with the image into an elegant whole.  The overall composition gave me a feeling of richly populated spaciousness, and reminded me of Martin’s work.  Thus the project was born:  it was a tribute begging to be made.

In a way, these tracings are the thank-you notes that I never wrote.  I had certainly considered writing to Martin, especially as I had heard that she had been generous with students she worked with from Texas.  But what could I say beyond “Thank you?”  It seemed like I had so much to say, and no way to sum it all up without sounding reductionist or glib.  And so, in the end, silence replaced any effort to do the impossible.

I have come to understand that it is the same with obituaries.  They try to sum up individual lives, but words can never do justice to any individual life.  Those we love, especially, always go beyond words, live beyond language.  Sometimes, in a quotation or a detail of an obituary, I could find a sliver of the sensibility I have come to think of as Martin’s; mostly the articles chronicle her life and career.  Perhaps these drawings can accomplish with images what the obituaries were trying to accomplish with words:  memorialize her spirit and contribution.

Ironically, Martin would not have shared my taste for a newspaper’s geometry:  her own right angles were confined to exceedingly regular grids or bands.  And at the time of her death, she claimed not to have bought a newspaper in over 50 years.  She believed newspapers “cluttered the mind.”  But the visual language of print media is familiar to me through years of newspaper layout, book design, and graphic production work.  The project is thus also about the distance between us.

I also believe that in tracing the spaces, I am noting the absences that Martin’s passing, or anyone’s, leave behind.  I work from actual articles, or from photocopies made at 100% scale – I never start with articles on the computer because they have no solid or consistent (i.e., mortal) form.  To find the print articles, I consulted electronic databases, and then ordered copies of periodicals directly from publishers if I couldn’t find them in the archives at the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, and libraries at Yale, Harvard, Tufts, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Massachusetts College of Art.  Most often, I have not traced headlines, bylines, or captions:  these incidental words distract from the fundamental building blocks of the composition.  And Martin, I feel, always strove to paint the meat of the matter.  Sometimes, however, design elements such as guidelines and borders help to articulate spaces. 

In this project, I used materials related to Martin’s work and to loss in general:  pencil (which she used in her paintings), charcoal (which was odd to rub over her face, as it is ash), x-acto knife, and some chalks and plastic films.  The red film is called “ruby lith” – it is used in newspaper layout to indicate where a photo will be spliced in later.  The red reads in a photostat camera as black, and it holds a space open.  The drawings are mostly on vellum, some on mylar; I like that its translucency makes it unclear where the drawing sits in space, just as it’s not clear where Agnes Martin now exists, or how I regard her.  (Reading the obituaries has helped me to learn more about her, yet they have also often called my ideas about her into question.)  Sometimes I put an extra piece of plexiglass behind the drawing, so light can bounce through it better and create the luminosity that I am drawn to in her work.  And sometimes a drawing looks better with various shades of paper behind it; mostly grey or black.  These somber tones also seem proper for a project about mourning.  

I do not aim for this project to be dour, however.  I hope that it can hold open spaces of potentiality and of contemplation.  These have become ever more necessary in our culture since the time, half a century ago, when Martin began making her canonical works.