Good Painters

On the occasion of an exhibition of Agnes Martin’s work at the Serpentine Gallery in 1993, Irving Sandler interviewed the artist for the popular “Talking Art” column in the British publication Art Monthly. Halfway through the interview, Sandler asks Martin about the artists that were in New York during the late 1950s, when Martin rented a studio on Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan. Sandler’s questions form a roll call of sorts, as he asked Martin her thoughts on Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Lenore Tawney and Jack Youngerman. Finally, Sandler gets around to Ad Reinhardt:

Sandler: Another artist we haven’t talked about that I would be curious to hear your response to is Ad Reinhardt.

Martin: I don’t see we have anything in common, but the journalists seem to think there is.

Sandler: He would have agreed with you.

Martin was right. Criticism of her work is shot through with references to Reinhardt. In many ways, Reinhardt is low-lying fruit for critics of Martin’s art. Both artists were part of Betty Parsons’ gallery in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Youngerman recalls “a major shift in Agnes’ art” when she encountered Reinhardt’s work. Lizzie Borden, who has written the best analysis of Martin’s early work, drew an extended comparison of the two artists in her 1973 essay. Borden locates the classicism of Martin’s 1958 paintings in Reinhardt’s work, and observes that both artists renounced all but essentials in their painting. More importantly for popular audiences, neither artist offered paintings with easy rewards. “Even before 1960,” Borden wrote, “both painters were moving toward paintings which would demand a higher degree of consciousness as the response of the viewer to almost invisible events.”

By the mid-1960s, Reinhardt had recommended Martin’s work to Virginia Dwan who, in turn, included Martin’s work in her landmark exhibition 10. Curated by Reinhardt, Robert Morris, and Robert Smithson, the 1966 exhibition functioned as a bellwether for Minimalism. Martin’s work went up alongside that of Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. Martin was thus labeled a Minimalist, a characterization that she spent the rest of her career disputing. (“I considered myself to be an Abstract Expressionist,” she told Sandler, “but they considered me a Minimalist. I couldn’t do anything about that.”) That same year, Martin abruptly gave away her paints and left New York, embarking on an extended hiatus from painting. Her hasty departure, as Lynne Cooke has noted, occurred within a week of Reinhardt’s death. “I was a good friend of Ad’s,” Martin said, “At least, I hope I was.”

Martin’s time in New York between 1957 and 1967 is thus bookended by Reinhardt, though the relationship between the two artists remains little more than a series of anecdotes in the current literature. Martin’s steadfast denial that she had anything in common with Reinhardt provides a point of entry for young scholars, who would do well to characterize their friendship in greater detail. Such exposition is fodder for art historians with an eye trained on the past, eager to discern more about each artist through comparative study. For Martin, however, Reinhardt was not an object of study but a friend. And for Martin, that was more than enough.

Joan Simon: You were good friends with Ad Reinhardt, weren’t you?

Agnes Martin: Yes.

Simon: Did you talk about painting together?

Martin: No, we didn’t. But we supported each other.

Simon: In what ways?

Martin: He thought I was a good painter, and I thought he was a good painter.

Contributor

Christina Rosenberger

CHRISTINA ROSENBERGER is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, New York.

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