Happiness by Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin

Happiness, 1999, Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm, Dia Art Foundation, New York; Partial gift, Lannan Foundation, 2013, 2013.014, © Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York; Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

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Simple Joy

Read by Ben Quash

In Happiness, Agnes Martin layers strokes of paint joyfully yet with careful nuance. The painting is punctuated by the single horizontal ribbon of a line halfway down the canvas, which suggests a vista. It is as if we are looking at the horizon of the New Mexico desert, experienced with an intensity that borders on the ecstatic.

Martin’s work can evoke a ‘near death’ perspective, perhaps even seeming to cross the threshold from life to death, and then from death to life. The love-filled lines in all of Martin’s works are precise as a surgeon’s knife, cutting through malaise, or psyches paralyzed by ennui. She might be inscribing the psalmist’s awe:

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
  How vast is the sum of them! (Psalm 139:17).

One of the great mystics of our time, Martin writes eloquently of her own desert exile, literally and figuratively. After establishing her career to acclaim in New York City in the 1960s, she gave away her possessions, including her painting supplies, and went on a long journey, eventually building a home in New Mexico, where she wrote and, seven years later, returned to painting. She identified beauty as ‘the mystery of life’ and ‘our positive response to life’. ‘Beauty and perfection are the same’, she stated; ‘[t]hey never occur without happiness’ (Campbell 1989). Such a statement might seem startling to hear from someone who operated for over fifty years in an art world that can often seem cynically focused on wealth and celebrity.

Now her works are honoured with their own dedicated space. The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco has given them a semi-permanent ‘chapel’ at the end of the contemporary art wing, where they invite deeper introspection, even prayerful reflection, on the interconnection of beauty and happiness in response to God’s perfections. Psalm 139 is a perfect companion to her humble, joyful work:

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
  it is so high that I cannot attain it. (Psalm 139:6) 



Campbell, Suzan.1989. ‘Oral history interview with Agnes Martin, 1989 May 15’, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, available at https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-agnes-martin-13296

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