Arts & Culture

Arts Of The Week: Agnes Martin’s Happy Holiday

September 18, 2016

Introducing Agnes Martin, an American abstract painter known for her inspiring minimal paintings and subtle colour palette.

To be honest, I hesitated for a bit before deciding to feature Agnes Martin’s works this week because I can’t help getting personal when talking about them. Her art often bring back memories and complex feelings I couldn’t really pin down – looking at it easily became an addiction. What’s more, my admiration for her doesn’t stop at beautiful repetition and soft colours – I could almost see a reflection of myself in Agnes Martin’s visions and philosophy.

agnes-martin-on-a-clear-day-1973agnes-martin-friendship-1963On A Clear Day (1973) / Friendship (1963)

Agnes Martin’s Key Works

Known for her six feet high and six feet wide canvasses, meticulously rendered grids and repeat stripes, Agnes Martin’s paintings are simple and beautiful. At least, that’s what they appear to be. In reality, her works are more complex and experimental. Her signature minimalism had significant influence on artists of her time. Their representations of subtle feelings greatly inspire subsequent generations and contribute to the formation of minimal art, too.

The true beauty of her art is not in the eye, but in the mind and in the emotions they represent. Her art, which she described as a positive response to life, has the power to magically recreate even the most subtle feelings one’d experienced – which is equivalent to a whirlpool of emotions inside my case. Lucky for me, Agnes Martin spread radiant openness and positive vibes through her works. More often than not, I’d feel incredibly joyful and calm looking at them.

Her key works that have a special place in my heart include Happy Holiday (1999), On A Clear Day (1973), Friendship (1963), Rain (Study) (1960), Stars (1963), Night Sea (1963), and a series of Untitled pieces.

Morning 1965 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 Purchased 1974 (1965) / Untitled (2004)

Abstract, Minimal & Timeless

Agnes Martin’s art still stands remarkably apart among important figures of minimalism today. Influenced by Taoism and Buddhism as well as the natural surroundings of her home in New Mexico, Agnes Martin substantially expressed her personal beliefs in her works. Like her who abandoned materiality and the art world momentarily, her exquisite yet restrained paintings shared the same visions. They were designed to cut through capitalism and recreate the experience of simple joy in a world without materialism and distractions.

What I find most admirable is how she thought of her works as a pursuit of perfection. Challenging and merging the distinctions between drawing and painting, each of her works were meticulously hand-drawn and crafted with a ruler and pencil on square canvases. Every lines on the canvas were explicitly coordinated and every colours planned.

Unfortunately, these serene images didn’t come from a life full of love and ease. Like the pursuit of happiness, these calming art-pieces are ironically made out of turbulence and hardship. And like the strong will they portray, their neutrality becomes more tenacious the longer you look at them.

It’s a pity such neutrality and tenacity are not to everyone’s taste. Free from the limitations of representations, her idealistic paintings evade disclosure and question viewers in their search for recognizable forms and meanings in the abstract.

Her paintings are intended to trigger enigmatic experiences, open up discussions, encourage questions and manifest reflections. Unlike most, Agnes Martin’s art-pieces are intended to be felt and responded to.

Frankly, it’s just as difficult for me to put  their enigmatic emotions into words. But, I don’t see it as a problem. In fact, I think that’s what make them beautiful. I like the feeling of free falling – it’s like staring into an ocean of endless possibilities, I feel hopeful and at peace.

agnes-martin-grattitude-2001agnes-martin-untitled-3-1974Gratitude (2001) / Untitled 3 (1974)

Happy Holiday

Happy Holiday (1999) is a five-foot square abstract painting. Living up to its name, it is aimed to be a mimicry of joyful and relaxed experiences. Divided into fourteen bands, the painting is made up of pattern of visually pleasing horizontal coloured stripes.

At first glance, Happy Holiday (1999) might seem ordinary. It isn’t. You’d better understand it the longer you look at it. You’d notice how the lines are not uniformly straight, and grow to love its hand-drawn quality, produced by rigid geometric composition and the shuddering graphite pencil lines. You’d notice how the pale blue top and bottom bands centralize the joyous alternating pattern of white and peach, contributing to its vibrant luminosity. With some luck, you’d start seeing Agnes Martin’s intent of pervasive well-being and sheer beauty of life. And even after a long staring competition, you’d find yourself coming back for more.

Happy Holiday 1999 by Agnes Martin 1912-2004Happy Holiday (1999)agnes-martin-loving-loveagnes-martin-untitled-5-1998Loving Love / Untitled 5 (1998)

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