Days of Abandon
Her Life and Art
by Nancy Princenthal
Thames & Hudson
$39.95 List Price
In Charles R. Rushton's 1991 black-and-white portrait, Agnes Martin (1912–2004) sits in a wooden rocking chair in the left third of the frame, beside the white cement wall of her New Mexico studio. One of her canonical six-by-six-feet canvases hangs low to the ground next to her, its horizontal pencil-edge bands running out of the picture to the right. She's dressed like a plainclothes nun, in comfortable white sneakers, flannel pants, and a collared shirt under a dark cardigan buttoned to the neck. Her hands are seton each armrest with a square assurance that recalls Gertrude Stein, and the photo's spare formality is reminiscent of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's 1871 portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1. These elements suggest theperfect stillness associated with Martin's profoundly absorbing minimalist abstractions and her devotion to painting the uniform square through an exacting process over half a century. Yet there are two subtle disruptions to the calm, details sometimes cropped out of the picture's bottom edge. That rocker! Those sneakers!
Is it our assumptions about Martin that create her apparent contradictions, or is it the other way around? She has endured the critical paring knife inflicted on all "pure" painters who insist the real world is far removed from their work: We love the smooth, monochrome skin but we also want to get to the juicy pulp, the bitter seeds. Nancy Princenthal's brisk biography Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art neatly lays out the incongruities: the Martin who insisted that nothing was more important to her than
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