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Meditating With Agnes Martin

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Over on Prufrock’s Dilemma’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/pages/Prufrocks-Dilemma/292303424216900), Susan Scheid shares this link:

“Junior Fellow Grace Ambrose invited 50 current and ex-Philadelphians to write about an object of their choice from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Taking shape as an edition of 50 postcards, the writings will comprise an alternate history and guide to the museum’s holdings, seen through the eyes of the artists, writers, musicians, and friends who live alongside them.”

As an enthusiastic follower of her blog, I have hopes that Susan will write her own response to the invitation. And, after mulling over the subject for a while, it has occurred to me that I might even try my own. Having considered the museum’s vast collection, and a small selection of personal favorites, I decided to begin from the other end and work my way back. This is a practice begun with a fellow student while in high school. We disagreed about a certain artist whose paintings she admired but I thought worthless. I appreciated her intellect and wit and decided to challenge her to write a short essay criticizing his work; I would oppose her and write his praises. She seemed doubtful at first but accepted the duel, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Returning to PMA, I thought I would try the old approach and begin with art that decidedly did not appeal to me. And that took me to minimalist Agnes Martin’s painting “The Rose.” This is supposed to fit on a postcard, so I’ll try to write small.

First, there is an outside. Then there is an inside. From the outside, especially from sitting at a distance, the painting is apparently just a soft pink canvas. Anyone could paint it; it is pointless. You have to walk up to it, view it intimately, let your mind climb inside of it, and then go sit down again. Now you have learned that this is one of Martin’s grid paintings, a graphite grid echoed by a rose-colored grid. Viewing close up, you see the delicate lines; but start pulling back a little, and the grids begin to float. By the time you have seated yourself again to gaze from a distance, you see the pink glow of the whole six-foot square painting, and now you realize that you, yourself, have been drawn into it. When we see a rose, we automatically lean to inhale its fragrance. The scent distracts us from even the most beautiful vision of rose. Martin’s painting is the essential journey into the rose, on the molecular level where the rose, and you, begin losing your edges and become one. You’ll want a chair or a cushion, because this is meditation.

Perfectly enhancing this experience, for me, is Yo Yo Ma’s performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. One is fully absorbed, immediately, into the music, as mesmerizing as a chant, and sustained in the space of it long after the musician has put down his bow:

I invite anyone who reads this to add your own response to Grace Ambrose’s invitation, and post it on my Facebook page(https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/elizabeth.newleaf?fref=ts). Can’t visit the Museum on the physical plane? They have a big website!

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2 thoughts on “Meditating With Agnes Martin

  1. I remember so clearly when I first stood in a room of Agnes Martin paintings at Dia:Beacon. On the one hand, it seemed as if she was doing practically nothing; on the other hand, the stillness was transformative. Do you know the documentary about her? I think it’s called “With My Back To The World,” or something similar. It’s quite illuminating, literally as well as figuratively. I like your choice of the Bach Cello Suite. Something by Arvo Pärt, perhaps Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, would also fit, I think.

    • Thank you, Susan, for sharing your experience. Because you describe standing in a room of Martin’s paintings, and use the word “stillness,” I can picture the moment through your eyes .. or perhaps feel it. That’s the thing about someone who seems to be doing “practically” nothing: simply being in their presence, or the presence of something they have created, does alter you, if just subtly. The key to finding music that evokes the same mood is making sure that it improves on the silence – clearly, you agree.

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