Mary Lance, director of the 2002 documentary “Agnes Martin: With Her Back to the World,” spent time with Agnes Martin over a period of four years, when Martin was in her late 80s, at her home and studio in New Mexico. Lance was kind enough to answer a few questions about Martin and her experience making the film. There were a few questions that Lance declined to answer; she wrote: “During and following the making of the documentary, I wanted to respect Agnes’ privacy. Her privacy was very important to her and I continue to respect it.”
Bloom: Tell us about your initial interest in Agnes Martin and making a film about her.
Mary Lance: After I moved to New Mexico from New York, I read a ‘New Yorker’ profile of Agnes and thought that she would be a wonderful subject for a documentary. Later, in 1998, I decided to get in touch with her to see if she was interested.
Bloom: What was it specifically about Benita Einsler’s profile that sparked your interest as a filmmaker?
ML: Having just re-read that article, I can say that the opening sentence must have been a hook — “At eighty, Agnes Martin is probably the most famous unknown artist in America.” Beyond that, I think I was intrigued by her choice to live in obscurity.
Bloom: Given the life of solitude she chose for most of her adult life, did she resist the idea of being filmed? If so, how did you persuade her? If not, what did you sense was her motivation for participating in your project?
ML: Given what I had read about Agnes, I was not sure that she would to agree to have a documentary made about her, but I wanted to ask. I called her home a few times and no one answered the phone. About the third or fourth time I called, she answered. I introduced myself and said that I’d be in Taos the following week and that I’d like to talk to her about making a documentary. I was half-expecting her to turn me down but she said, “Would you like to have lunch?”
At our first meeting, she asked if I could make a film in two days. I said that I could make a short film in that time, and we began shooting not long after. Her main concern was that the filming not take time away from her work. It was a very productive time for her. We went on to shoot many more days, but the shoots were spaced out over long stretches of time and were always at times that were convenient for Agnes. Often I went alone and we filmed just for a couple of hours in the morning.
Bloom: You write in your directors’ statement that you felt it best to absent yourself and any narrative commentary from the film. Is there anything you learned or experienced about Agnes Martin during your time with her, over four years—something you felt was significant to who she was, and her art—that did not convey through the film?
ML: Because we worked on it over such a long period, I think the documentary really captures her as she was at that period (1998 – 2002). I was honored that she allowed me to film her painting. On other visits, she spoke about her ideas about art and life. I always went with a list of questions, but sometimes she ignored the questions and addressed something she seemed to have planned to speak about.
Bloom: In the film, Martin says, “It took me 20 years to paint what I wanted. I didn’t like the paintings [back then] they weren’t what I wanted. I didn’t show and I didn’t sell for 20 years.” Those years had long past by the time you filmed her, and she could talk about them as such—past. But did you speak with her about or get a sense of the substance of those years? Was she despondent or discouraged?
ML: I know that Agnes had some difficult times earlier in her life. In the documentary, she speaks about her frustration with her early work and about her satisfaction with her first grid paintings, which were done in the early 1960s. After that, there were times when she painted and times when she didn’t.
Bloom: I remember so distinctly when, in 2005, Susan York wrote an essay for the NYT Magazine about her brief meeting with Agnes Martin, in which Martin said to her: “Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work.” That meeting happened in 1983. Between 1998-2002, when you made the film, did she say similar things?
ML: She did. When I was working on the film, I lived alone and Agnes told me that she “approved.” The thing that she said repeatedly was that people, especially artists, should spend time alone. “If you’re alone and quiet, you see the new things.”
Bloom: You mention in your directors’ statement that it was difficult to film the paintings. Indeed, it seems to me impossible to experience her grid paintings in any other way than in person. Even in person, the skeptic might declare that the emperor has no clothes—so it’s a grid, so what? (Much of abstract painting could elicit this response, but Martin’s paintings perhaps invite it especially.) How did being present with Martin as she painted affect/inform your experience of her finished paintings?
ML: I should say that I was an admirer of Agnes’ work even before I started to make the documentary, but watching her expert hand flow the pale colors onto her canvasses has given me a deeper appreciation of the subtle beauty in those paintings. And watching her intense concentration while painting heightens their meaning for me.
Bloom: Martin says, “You’ll learn the truth about life by investigating your own mistakes and not worrying about the mistakes of others (laugh). Your own will be enough.” Her laugh there seemed full of backstory. Did she share with you what she’d identified as her own mistakes?
ML: I think she was using the word “mistake” broadly to mean “difficulties” and that she was talking about rising above life’s difficult times.
Bloom: “All this about ambition, striving forward [is wrong]…. I think all aggressive behavior is wrong – where you go out and do, and attack things, like an army. That’s aggression. I think aggression has to be given up entirely. . . I am absolutely convinced that with a soft attitude, that you receive more.” As an artist yourself, did you find yourself convinced by this philosophy? Martin spent a lot of time not painting. In her own words, “waiting for inspiration.” At one point she didn’t paint for seven years. Does it seem feasible that an artist could not strive forward these days and still have the kind of recognition and career that Martin had?
ML: She came to prominence in a different time and her situation was fairly unique. I think her gallery (Pace) made it possible for her to work the way she wanted without the distractions that many other artists face.
Click here to read Sonya Chung’s feature piece on Agnes Martin.
Mary Lance is an award-winning filmmaker with over thirty years’ experience in documentary production. Her documentary “Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo” (2011) is in distribution in the USA and abroad. Her previous documentary, “Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World” (2002), premiered at the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal, was shown at DokuArts Berlin, the Festival Artecinema in Naples Italy, the Santa Fe Film Festival, the Big Sky Documentary Festival, the Festival dei Popoli, and is currently showing at film programs and museums in the USA and abroad. It had a two-week theatrical run at Film Forum in New York in 2007 and was broadcast on Sundance Channel in 2009- 2011. For more about Mary’s films visit New Deal Films.
Agnes Martin photo: Elinor Carucci
An excerpt from “Reflections” by Agnes Martin
I’d like to talk about the perfection underlying life
when the mind is covered over with perfection
and the heart is filled with delight
but I wish not to deny the rest.
In our minds, there awareness of perfection;
when we look with our eyes we see it,
and how it functions is mysterious to us and unavailable.
When we live our lives it’s something like a race—our minds
become concerned and covered over and we get depressed and
have to get away for a holiday.
And then sometimes there are moments of perfection
and in these moments we wonder why we ever thought life was difficult.
We think that at last our feet are on the right path and that we
will not falter or fail.
We’re absolutely convinced we have the solution and then the
moment is over.
Moments of awareness are not complete awareness,
just as moments of blindness are not completely blind.
In moments of blindness when you meet someone you know well,
they seem hardly recognizable,
and one seems even a stranger to oneself.
These experiences of the mind are too quickly passed over and forgotten,
although startling moments of awareness are never forgotten.
Seeking awareness of perfection in the mind is called living the inner life […]
A work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present—
at the slightest hint… the work is alive.
Transcribed December 1972 by Lizzie Borden
First published in Artforum (April 1973)