Arne Glimcher talks Agnes Martin at the Tate
On the eve of a huge retrospective, the Pace Gallery boss remembers the artist who shaped his aesthetic
It's safe to say that Agnes Martin preferred solitude to mainstream exposure, so it's pleasing that Tate Modern is staging the first large-scale show of her work since the early 1990s. It's the first chance for visitors to fully engage with the full breadth of Martin's work, including much of her lesser known and very early experimental works. The exhibition spans her entire career from the biomorphic paintings of the 1950s to her very last drawing on paper in 2004. It opens tomorrow, Wednesday (June 3), runs until 11 October and really is something to be seen.
Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery and Martin's gallerist and close friend until her death, has been closely involved in putting the show together along with Tate curator Frances Morris and Agnes Martin Catalogue Raisonné editor Tiffany Bell over the course of the last five years. “I’ve been sounded off in the selection of the works and I’ve brought to the attention of Frances works which she wasn’t aware of. The show is going to be great,” he tells Phaidon on the line from New York. In this, the first of our three part interview with him, Arne reveals how the show came into being, the things that were so intrinsic to Martin's art and how she viewed art as the experience of the viewer - not what she put on the canvas.
So how did the retrospective come about? There have been rumblings from various museums that they were interested in doing a Martin show over the years but it came about via Nick Serota. I had a conversation with him and he said he wanted to do it and I couldn’t think of anywhere better for the show to start than at the Tate. I wanted the show to travel and to make sure it came to America as well. So Nick arranged the tour. It goes to Dusseldorf next, then the LA County Museum then the Guggenheim, New York. He’s been very involved. Frances and Tiffany are the curators and Tiffany, who’s written the catalogue, knows the work as well as I do. In fact, she knows where everything is better than I do!
What was the idea for the show? I just wanted it to be a retrospective so that one is able to view the origins of the work - that may or may not be as interesting as the later work, but inherent in those pieces is the development of the work. So they are inextricable from the career.
Was there one piece that just had to be in it? One thing I wanted very much is to include a series of works called The Islands - 12 large canvases that were painted together as a single work. I wanted very much for those to be lent. The Whitney wouldn’t lend them for the whole tour but they lent them for the kick off in London and, I think, the Guggenheim and I’m very happy about that because they are her masterpieces.
They’re these icy cool blue, white and pencil line paintings and they are variations on the horizontal grid with their intensities of colour. They are so pale; they’re like breathing in air! I like them very much because when you’re in the centre of a room surrounded by these paintings they actually transport you to another place. So it’s not a question of islands in the sea as much as islands in your mind.
Agnes was totally interested in the internal response not the external, wasn’t she? Yes. She did a cycle of six paintings that MoMA owns, they’re called With My Back To The World. The title was the expression of the fact that her work does not refer to anything outside the mind - that it’s all internalised. Every emotion we have may be a response to something but what we’re responding to is already in the mind. Martin felt very deeply that you could think of these paintings almost as a map. A map to the response that you have by looking at them. As the response itself is the work of art. The painting just makes it happen.
My 11-year-old grand daughter was visiting Agnes once and there was a beautiful rose clipped from the patch in front of her door. Isobel was clutching the rose and Agnes took the rose out of the vase and said to Isobel: 'Is this rose really beautiful?' And Isobel said, ‘yes the rose is really beautiful.’ And Agnes put the rose behind her back and asked, ‘Is the rose still beautiful?’ And Isobel said, ‘yes’. And Agnes said, ‘you see Isobel, beauty is in your mind not in the rose.’ That was very nice. And Isobel has never forgotten that. And those are the kinds of things that extend your perception and alter your vision. And maybe you think of things differently from then on.
By all accounts, as a girl she had a somewhat fraught relationship with her mother who would often 'go silent' on her. Do you think that's perhaps how she became so inward looking yet so resilient? That’s a good observation, I’m not certain. I just know this isolated childhood in Saskatchewan with long snowy winters and brutal weather would tend to keep someone in the house and she had to occupy her mind and maybe she mined her mind, so to speak, growing up. It's psychologically interesting to me but not as interesting as the paintings themselves.
She felt that her life and her paintings were two very separate things didn’t she? She felt very, very strongly that the paintings had nothing to do with her, that her life was meaningless and the paintings were all that meant something. She was this locus where the paintings happened. But you know, it’s not true. We are the sum total of everything and I think that her life did shape her art but it was a very strict life devoted to the art. The art took over everything. Decisions were made for the art. Where she lived, what she did. Then there was the 8-year hiatus from painting in 1968 where she stopped painting because the world around her interfered with her art.
Look out for part two and three of our Arne on Agnes interviews in which Arne talks about the first time he met Agnes, her flight from New York and disappearance for 18 months, her battles with schizophrenia, how she came upon the grid, and the songs Arne sang to her her during her final days. And meanwhile, be sure to check out his very poignant beautifully written Agnes Martin book in the store.