Being Agnes

Agnes Martin has been a particular spiritual and artistic inspiration to me lately. Her paintings are deceptively simple — minimalistic constructions of a humbling precision and luminescence. The test pattern of my mind is composed of such geometric constructions. And I find that imitating Agnes Martin’s geometric minimalism is to me what playing scales is to a pianist.

“Being Agnes” takes me down to my test pattern, to a primitive visual language of space, color, line, and contrast. And in that language I find a sort of chant, a sacred word, which I can use to center myself in prayer. Centered in an awareness of perfection and divine inspiration.

Agnes writes:

“Moments of awareness of perfection and inspiration are alike
except that inspirations are often directives to action.
Many people think that if they are attuned to fate, all their
inspirations will lead them toward what they want and need.
But inspiration is really just the guide to the next thing
and may be what we call success or failure.

The bad paintings have to be painted
and to the artist these are more valuable
than those paintings brought before the public.

A work of art is successful when there is
a hint of perfection present —
the slightest hint… the work is alive.

The life of the work depends upon the observer,
according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration.
The responsibility of the response to art is not with the artist.

To feel confident and successful is not natural to the artist.
To feel insufficient, to experience disappointment and defeat
in waiting for inspiration is the natural state of mind of an artist.”

— Agnes Martin

I feel the truth in Martin’s words, though by looking at her sublime minimalist paintings it is hard to imagine her feeling insufficient.

But I know personally that art entails humility — you’re a slave to inspiration (just try to do art when the inspiration is not there), you’re in a state of vulnerability to the observer, and I find I’m always accepting and expecting failure to the point of being surprised by the occasional success.

Trying my hand at my own brand of precise geometric minimalism in imitation of Agnes Martin is a particular source of humility for me. It requires of me a certain level of attention and precision that seems beyond me in other matters. I find that when I sit down and focus on the details of the art, I reach a flow state stronger than my most dedicated attempts at meditation have ever achieved. My hands, my eyes, my inner mind are at once focused and empty of all distractions, and I build my capacity for awareness and humility in the process of striving to a minimal perfection I will never attain.

But the bad paintings have to be painted. It’s in that striving for perfection, subsequent failure, and striving again that I find my deepest prayer of late — a metaphor for my struggle to imitate the perfection of Christ.

So if you see me sitting in a cafe or at my desk drawing and coloring squares or squinting over a straightedge and pencil, I’m not playing, I’m praying.

Or maybe it’s both.

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