I had a slightly bizarre experience last night courtesy of the artist’s rooms research project. The evening was billed as an evening with Agnes Martin and as she died in 2004 I already suspected an idiosyncratic approach to the delivery of the event.
I was further wrong-footed by the evening being part of a series called ‘clips’ which led me to believe that I would be watching clips. There are los of delightful clips of Agnes Martin in her later years talking about life and painting and so I suppose that was what I thought I had signed up for. I was being far too literal and in fact we watched one long near silent film (78mins).
Many of you will know Agnes Martin as a painter, and in fact this is not only the only film she ever made but also one which she made with almost no technical prowess or understanding whatsoever in terms of the mechanics of operating a camera or even really of cinematography more broadly.
The film is called Gabriel and is of a little boy walking rather stoically through some pretty incredible countryside. Most of the time is spent watching the boy enter from one side of the shot and walk past off the other side, only to reappear in the next ‘scene’ doing the same thing. Martin is still (behind the camera apart from a moment where she accidentally gets her hand in the frame) and he walks past. The central section has no boy in it and is a series of vignettes of flowers, trees and water, She seems unable to operate the focus of her camera and I think I was the only person who actually laughed during the screening as I found real pleasure in the extended shots of single daisies or flowers where the flower head was completely blurred and out of focus and an adjacent anonymous part of the underbrush was pin sharp. Very Hans Peter Feldman.
Her lack of skill reminded me of the Portsmouth Sinfonia – an orchestra where all the players are musicians but are playing an instrument other than the one in which they are proficient. Because I also really like them and similarly find them funny and moving, I enjoyed spending time watching someone with real love for structure and mystery partially trapped inside technical inadequacies which then seem to drop the register of the whole thing down into something rather tender and vulnerable – also a much more accurate analogy to human communication as how many of us are virtuoso at that?
Rosalind Krauss apparently criticised the film being made public as she suggested it limited our reading of Martin’s paintings to landscape and that Martin had failed to consider the effects of a possible ‘backwash’ of interpretation following the film.
My own feelings on this are hard to pin down and relate to something very intimate about being a modern painter. Paint acts, when you are working with it in the way that Agnes Martin does, as a kind of universal substance. It can be turned into anything but its mercuriality (if that is a word) and its underlying sameness is what gives it its power as a substance for me and for many painters. Being out in what was then such an ‘unspoilt’ and massive landscape, or even watching a small boy traverse it from the not such comfort of a small art cinema, again brings a sense of massive potential, huge diversity interacting with an underlying universality. It is easy to poo poo universality sitting at a desk whilst man made surfaces quietly off gas me to an early grave, but in a New Mexico expanse without a single pylon, dwelling or even source of water as far as the eye can see – maybe not so much.
To me, what Agnes struggles to focus on in this film is moments in nature where complex intricacies proliferate across the surface of unknowable expanse and detailed observations coexist with an appreciation of mystery and the unknowable.
It’s a shame that Martin didn’t get organised with a few film lessons as I would love to see a film she made where she was more able to do whatever it is she had hoped to do. There is a lot that makes it into the film (particularly the slapstick depth of field adjustments) that she probably would have rather not been. It’s so technically poor that I feel pretty sure that this film only made it out into the public realm because Agnes Martin was already a renowned painter. Having said that, it operates rather like a student’s logbook. It is Agnes Martin taking us on a derive if you will, and I am happy to have made that journey with her.
Featured: Agnes Martin Gabriel 1976, Film still, 16mm, 2 reels, Answer Print, Negative printing rolls, 78 minutes. Photographs by Bill Jacobson, courtesy Pace Gallery © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York