Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thoughts on beauty

"All artwork is about beauty: all positive work represents it and celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives." (Agnes Martin , 1989)

"When I think of art, I think of beauty," she wrote. "Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind." Agnes Marin

"I think that our minds respond to things beyond this world. Take beauty: it's a very mysterious thing, isn't it? I think it's a response in our minds to perfection. It's too bad, people not realizing that their minds expand beyond this world." Agnes Martin

The art, life and musings of Agnes Martin gave artists much to think about. When I want to rebut anyone who questions the role of beauty in art, Agnes Martin is one of the artists I depend on to help me in the debate. Her life and her art were one and she spoke bluntly and often about the role of beauty in art and life.

Born in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, she was a contemporary of Georgia O' Keeffe, and a strong woman who lived her life and created art her way. She was never swayed by current trends in art. Matt Schudel, Washington Post wrote in her obituary.

"Ms. Martin was admired for the purity of her artistic vision and was considered a symbol of integrity in the materialistic, sometimes venal world of modern art. In addition to her deceptively simple, gridlike paintings, she also wrote and spoke of the deep spiritual purpose of the artistic life, saying that an artist's goal is not to make political statements but to create lasting beauty ...... She also disavowed politics and any connection with the feminist movement. In 1967, when she was honored by Harper's Bazaar as one of 100 "Women of Achievement," she came to the luncheon wearing moccasins and an unironed skirt and blouse."

Hilton Kramer, critic and editor of the New Criterion, described Martin's work as "like a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer."

It seems Agnes Martin found her artistic voice and continued to produce in a very minimalist style until she died. I find her work strongly patterned in a structured, austere way and it gives me the same sense of peace that I spoke about in previous posts about art that uses pattern. You become one with the work by focusing on the repeating elements; calmness pervades the experience. It is beautiful in a profound way.

You will find these letters written by Joanne Hunt in response to Agnes Martin's work and life" teachings" very interesting I think. They are posted on Red Revine blog.

See more of Agnes Martin's work, a bio and a critique here.

You may also want to check out Katharine Cartwright's blog post on The Role of Beauty in Art . We have been having an interesting discussion back and forth about the role of beauty in art. Where do you weigh in?


Kathy said...

Agnes Martin's comments are inspiring and wonderful. However, I cannot agree that "all artwork is about beauty." Rather, I believe that artwork is about the artist's personal relationship with the world. This is not always a beautiful experience. For instance: the "Ash Can" school of painting, the Dadaists, Picasso's "Guernica," the works of many contemporary artists, are not based on the beautiful but are still works of art. So, I return to Arthur Danto's opinion that for something to be deemed a work of art it must have meaning and embody that meaning. That being said, I am personally attracted to beauty and reflect that in my work most of the time, but that may change in the future since my experiences with life aren't always beautiful.
Nevertheless ... I appreciate a good discussion and you've given us all much to think about. And, thanks for mentioning my blog!

Margaret Ryall said...


I think Agnes Martin meant that in the absence of beauty in artworks they are indirectly about beauty. At least that is how I take the first quote.

I am one of those people who defines beauty very broadly. It is not always associated with "pretty". For example, I find my Remnant series works (wallpaper fading, decomposing, ripped and shredded to the last layers) profoundly beautiful as are the objects I've paired the wallpaper with. (See my website) This precarious beauty hovering on ugly is one of the major forces in my work. I want beauty (broadly defined) and meaning in my work.

Kim Hambric said...

I'll be thinking of that first quote for a long time. Perhaps forever.

For a few, hopefully a very few, "All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives, may not necessarily be true. There are some who see great beauty in what most see as negative and ugly. Perhaps they are not protesting the lack of beauty but are reveling in it.

I, for one, like some beauty in my artwork. Rarely, do I like it to be merely pretty.

ybonesy said...

Dropping in from red Ravine. My blog partner and I (and several of our guests, like Joanne Hunt) are reate admirers of Agnes Martin.

I was glad you provided a clarification of your interpretation of beauty in art. It's a loaded word these days in that there are many who select art based on decoration--how well will it look hanging over my sofa?, for example. Funny how words get confused like that, how our interpretation of "beauty" might spill over into something else altogether.

I'm not sure even after that clarification that I believe that all artwork is about beauty. Hmmm, I'll have to ponder that statement further.

Kathy said...

Thanks for the clarification, Margaret. I'll keep thinking about it! Makes and lively and informative discussion.