Agnes Martin memoirist opens SOMOS series

Yvonne Pesquera
Posted 7/20/16

The Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS) begins its Summer Writers Series Wednesday (July 20). The series then continues for six weeks until Aug. 24. Jan Smith, executive director of SOMOS, has been the curator of the seasonal series since …

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Agnes Martin memoirist opens SOMOS series

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The Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS) begins its Summer Writers Series Wednesday (July 20). The series then continues for six weeks until Aug. 24. Jan Smith, executive director of SOMOS, has been the curator of the seasonal series since 2009, with the exception of the winter of 2016, when Veronica Golos served as the curator.

“My goal for the upcoming Summer Writers Series,” Smith said, “is to present a diverse body of genres, cultures and authors – from iconic Southwest figures to a collection of dystopian short stories to poems about the nature of language and novels. The series will present programs for all aesthetics and audiences.”

SOMOS has hosted the Writers Series twice a year for the past 33 years. When asked why the literary event remains such an important offering to the community at large, not just writers, Smith explains, “SOMOS has recruited ... up-and-coming local writers, regional writers in the Southwest [New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Texas] and nationally known writers. With our contacts in the publishing field, we are able to invite writers who might not typically read for Taos audiences.”

For the opening installment, photographer Donald Woodman will read from his memoir, “Agnes Martin & Me,” at 7 p.m. at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St. Although SOMOS’ new location on Civic Plaza Drive can accommodate a large audience, Smith said, “Woodman’s subject has a natural affinity for the museum milieu.”

Woodman’s personal and frank memoir recounts the seven years he worked as Martin’s assistant and caretaker in Galisteo, New Mexico. He writes: “I first met Agnes Martin in 1977 and continued to be involved with her in a variety of ways until 1984. Since then I have struggled to understand what kept me in what turned out to be a very bizarre relationship.”

The book is lovely to hold and behold. As a trade paperback, it makes for an easy read. Its subtle cover design evokes Martin’s artwork. And upon opening the book, one is greeted by a snapshot of Martin. All of the photos in the book are taken by Woodman, who has been photographing for more than five decades. His photographs have been exhibited internationally and are included in numerous collections. In fact, his photo archives are being accepted into the New Mexico History Museum at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.

In a phone interview from his home in Belen, Woodman said, “This is the first and last book I’ve ever written. It was a real struggle to sit down every day and write. I’d rather pick up a camera and photograph.”

He explains that although other material has been written about Agnes Martin, “There haven’t been books by people who lived with her and had day-to-day contact with her as I did. It’s my story.”

The straightforward narrative deals with the “roller-coaster” aspect of their relationship for seven years. This includes the mental health issues that Agnes Martin experienced.

“Agnes would reference ‘my voices told me.’ She was a paranoid schizophrenic. She had obsessive voices going on in her head. Some people claim she painted what the voices told her. But I think that kind of visual language [in her later works] was a way for her to bring order to the chaos that occurred in her head all the time. She silenced that and got to the core of what she wanted to paint,” says Woodman.

Martin lived in Taos for many years and donated a series of paintings to the Harwood Museum for her eponymous room. The Taos audience will find this chapter of her life to be quite interesting, as it’s not from an outsider perspective. “I’m going to show photographs. I pried open the lid on my banker’s box and started going through my files, photos and slides to sort them out and [see] what there is,” Woodman says.

Since the book was published in May by Lyon Art Books, Woodman said he has been pleased with the response. He credits his wife, artist Judy Chicago, for providing motivation, encouragement andpractical writing tips. “For me, writing was a bold attempt.”

When asked how he imagines Martin might react to his book, Woodman doesn’t hesitate to say: “I have no idea. She was totally unpredictable. She could be absolutely brutal with me.”

Curator Smith said that “Kathleen Brennan, fellow photographer and also a filmmaker about Agnes Martin, seemed a natural to introduce Donald and to lead a Q&A for the audience.”

Well known in Taos, Brennan and former Harwood curator Jina Brenneman are working on a 54-minute documentary film called “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid,” which will have its premier Sept. 15 at the Taos Community Auditorium (tickets are on sale now). That film explores Martin’s life up until 1967, when she painted landscapes and portraits before progressing to abstraction and “the grid” (hence, the film title).

“I read Donald’s book even before SOMOS asked me. I’m always on the trail of Agnes. I found his book pretty fascinating; her struggle with mental illness, his willingness,” Brennan said. “If anyone is a fan of Agnes, they should come listen to Donald speak. There is so much mythology around her as an artist – a lot of it built by herself and the art world. This book brings her to humanity, not as an ascetic who lived up in the mountains.”

For more information on this event or the series, call (575) 758-0081 or visit somostaos.org.

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