To those who encountered Agnes Martin in her later years, she could be as inscrutable as a statue of Buddha. But, there was a vast and complicated world behind those pale blue eyes, one that a new documentary film seeks to illuminate.
“Agnes Martin: Before the Grid” is set to premier Thursday (Sept. 15), 7 p.m., at Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. Doors will open at 6 p.m. for a meet and greet with the film’s directors Kathleen Brennan and Jina Brenneman. A Q&A will take place after the screening.
Agnes Martin is undoubtedly one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Before she died in 2004 at the age of 92, her paintings sold for millions of dollars and were displayed in the world's greatest museums, a press release states. Martin was respected and achieved the art world's highest awards. She painted for 23 years, until she developed a style she was happy with in 1964.
Her time in New York in the early 1960s saw her create what are now called her grid paintings, the release continues. Despite many interviews, very little was known about her life. This Taos screening of the documentary film captures little known stories of Agnes Martin's life prior to 1967 when she left New York City. Shared by friends, lovers and classmates who knew her well, these oral history interviews give insight into Martin's personality and the development of her creative process.
It’s not so much that Martin’s early life was so much hidden, but it was surely unexplored. Most people knew of her work after the grid and maybe saw her time before as merely unimportant, her growing period. But, in some respects, it was a time that helped define her, according to Brennan and Brenneman.
“It is focused on a specific time period in the life of one of America’s greatest 20th Century artists,” Brenneman said. “This years are the years before she started creating her famous ‘grid work,' so it’s a film about the life of an artist that has not been documented."
Haven’t there been other documentaries done on Martin? Brenneman said, "Yes, and there’s been a lot of writing about her, in the academic world. The only scholarship that was really done of this period of time was done years ago by a curator named Lynne Cooke from Dia Center for the Arts (New York City, N.Y., 1991-2008). It was largely not scholarly investigative.”
The idea for the film began in 2009, when Brenneman was curator at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. She was told that Agnes Martin was going to have her 100th birthday in 2012 and they needed to do something to celebrate the occasion. “Jina began researching and investigating, and along with (the late trustee) Charlie Strong, they started thinking what could they do, and because they had no money in their budget to really do something about her ‘grid work,’ Jina and Charlie came up with the idea of doing the show about her early work.”
What they discovered was an every-bit-a-mystery story that only became more compelling the deeper they dug.
The show they curated opened in 2012 and then traveled around the country a bit. “It was a great success,” Brennan said. “It really had an impact on her ‘before the grid’ images out in the art auction world.”
Then in 2014, Brenneman and Brennan brainstormed on an idea to explore Martin’s personal life before the grid. Finding the artwork was one thing, but now they wanted to bring Martin’s world to life in a documentary film.
Brennan is an award-winning multi-disciplinary artist with an extensive background in photography and video, an online bio reads. Her video work has focused on documenting and preserving cultural traditions and the stories that gather around places. Brennan knew Agnes Martin and has a passion for her art and beliefs. She lives and works in Taos and is the director, co-producer, and editor of “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid.”
Brenneman is an award-winning artist and curator who now lives and works in Denver, Colo. She is former Curator and Exhibitions Director of the Harwood Museum. During her tenure, she researched and created the Harwood’s show “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid.” Brenneman is the co-producer, researcher and scholar behind the film.
The filmmakers used their extensive knowledge to seek out people who could speak about Martin from personal experience. These included:
• Susan Sharp, who was niece to Mildred Kane. Kane was a lover then friend to Martin for 30 years. Sharp details her childhood memories of visiting the two women in their home in Oregon. Photos, letters, paintings and their personal history are shared.
• Artist Jim Wagner, who grew up in Oregon and his parents were close friends of Mildred Kane. He recalls childhood stories of Kane and Martin. He met Martin upon moving to Taos in the 1960s and shares his recollections.
• Louise Sause is a retired educator and former classmate of Martin when they attended Columbia University. At the time of the interview in 2014 Sause was 102 years old. She speaks to the Columbia years and her visit to Martin in Taos in 1955, where Sause sees the beginnings of Martin’s "grid" paintings.
• Martin Ryan was a retired educator and classmate of Martin when they attended Columbia University. Ryan was interviewed by his son Sean, one month prior to his death in 2014. Ryan recalls the school days, the interests and studies that students were engaged in.
• John De Puy is an artist living and working near Taos. De Puy was close friends with Martin and shared studio space with her and others in the early 1950s. He describes her work, character and difficulty with poverty and mental illness.
• Kristina Wilson was a fiber artist living in Taos for many years. She died in 2015. Wilson was lover then friend to Martin until her dying day. She shared studio space with Martin, De Puy and others in the 1950s. She speaks to Martin’s character, likes, dislikes, her struggle with mental illness, her lesbian life and her desire to make art and become known in the art world.
• Marcia Oliver is an artist living and working in Taos. She first met Martin in 1958, the year of Martin’s first show at Betty Parsons Gallery, in New York City. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Oliver and Martin became friends which continued until the artist's death in 2004. She delves into the artist's mind and her need to "do the work" in order to keep her sanity. Oliver recounts stories that Martin shared as well and her own encounters with the artist.
• Frances Morris is director of Tate Modern, London. She came to Taos to research the life of Martin for the exhibition that took place in London in June 2015. While in Taos, she interviewed Kristina Wilson for the film.
See the film, and learn about this fascinating artist – a woman for all time, and for all Taos.