Picasso's Ear and Martin's Gnosis
Joe Szimhart, 10 August 2016
Last weekend my wife and I visited LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for the first time. This museum initially came to my attention in 1986 when it curated an extensive show on The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting from 1890 to 1985. I did not see the show but I immediately purchased the massive catalogue edited by Maurice Tuchman. The art covered in this show included early spiritual and occult influences on Kandinsky, Kupka, and Mondrian. The articles ranging from the historical to the esoteric could have easily provided material for an entire university art course.
Thirty years later I was not expecting anything special at LACMA, but I came away very impressed by the layout and quality of all the current shows we took in. I will limit my comments to two items.
First, as we were browsing through the permanent Modern Art exhibit, I came to a wall of Picasso art. Picasso is always interesting if for nothing else being the most celebrated artist of the 20th Century. I was looking at this scribbled head study of a man with a cigarette by Picasso
when I overheard a middle-aged man telling his wife in certain terms, “This is the guy who cut off his ear.”
There was not a Van Gogh in sight.
The comment brought a smile to my face because somehow, in that man’s mind, Picasso had merged with Van Gogh who is perhaps the most celebrated Modern artist of the 19th Century. This was about modernist fame, not fact.
It also spoke of how confusing art can be unless we specialize in it. Hell, even artists I know with some schooling will confuse Raphael with Veronese or Velasquez with Titian.
The second event occurred when my wife and I took an escalator into another LACMA building to the 4rth floor. We came upon a retrospective of the work of Agnes Martin (1912-2004), a “pioneer” according to art pundits of abstraction among women if not also among men. I confess that I never paid much attention to Martin even when I lived in New Mexico the same time she did (I lived in Santa Fe from 1975 through 1992). Martin settled somewhat reclusively without running water or electricity near Cuba, NM on the Portales Mesa (1968-1977) before relocating to Galisteo, NM (1977-1993). She died in Taos, NM in 2004. Cuba is pronounced coo’-buh by locals, not queue-buh.
As a woman painter in NM, Martin was overshadowed by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) who settled in Abiquiu. O’Keeffe was never as reclusive as Martin, but as I discovered later there are good reasons for the distinction. I met O’Keeffe once in the late 1970s in an art supply store, The Artisan, where I was working on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. She was practically blind then, sculpting with clay more than painting. She retained her elegance with her black shawl head covering and black calf length dress. An entire museum was built to honor O’Keeffe in Santa Fe.
I spent time in Cuba painting and sketching. I was observant enough in 1982 in Cuba to notice a large pinon tree that I submitted to the National “Big Tree” registry. After verification, it was declared the biggest pinon in the United States. The pinon is New Mexico’s state tree, so I felt proud to bring the prize back to NM—it had been awarded a pinon tree in Colorado until then.
Martin’s early work as well as her more mature work struck me as derivative of many minimalist abstract painters of her era and before her time. J. Miro (1893-1983) and A. Gorky (1904-1948) came to mind as we perused her early period, and K. Noland, A. Reinhardt, and late Mondrian echoed through the grid-like works of her late period. What stood out for me was her delicate approach to line and color, certainly consistent and what one might recognize as a signature style. My wife’s reaction to Martin’s late work might reflect a norm: Polo shirts or fabric companies might find them useful, but otherwise they appear boring.
I can imagine what the gentleman who insisted Picasso cut off his ear might say: Hell, I could do that!
Well, maybe, but not as well and certainly not in context.
Of course, there is far more to Martin than meets the unsympathetic eye. She was in the mix among early abstract minimalists including Ellsworth Kelly in New York in the late 1950s. Kelly died in 2015. His larger pieces sell in the millions of dollars. This year (2016) Martin’s work Orange Grove (1965), a 6 feet square painting of dense quiet grid lines over an off-white color field, sold for $10.7 million at Christie’s auction.
The Picasso’s ear guy might begin to wonder why, if he knew that someone paid that much for a Martin. After some research, he might realize that Martin is “important” to art historians and elite collectors that trust the art academy and critics who establish the taste and value that is now imposed upon casual viewers like Picasso ear guy. He might begin to understand that art is akin now as it always has been to spirituality and religion, both of which rely heavily on human kind’s aesthetic response to life. The only proof Moses had when he came down from Mt. Sinai that he spoke with the I AM That I AM was the way he looked (hair turned silvery gray) and what he so eloquently said and showed his people. The people heard the mountain rumble and saw the smoke as if the peak were on fire. Then they heard that G-d “occupied” a burning bush while speaking to Moses. Tablets of stone inscribed with G-d’s commands gave the people evidence, but some may have believed that Moses inscribed them by himself. I mean, who really knew what he did up there on that mountain?
Was Moses inspired or crazy? The question is moot when we realize that it was how Moses behaved and what he produced thereafter that dictated whether he was crazy or not. Moses did not go off the rails completely despite leading his grumbling cult following through deserts for a generation. Cult became culture and despite its many flaws that culture has influenced and benefitted the entire planet in many ways since. By his fruits do we know how G-d led Moses. And by her fruits in the art culture, we know Martin’s value.
Martin had a spiritual side enhanced by her ascetic lifestyle in New Mexico. She struggled with mental stability, often hearing “voices,” highlighted by several hospitalizations. She was saddled with schizophrenia and gender identity conflicts: “…one who also had to contend with mental illness (she was diagnosed with schizophrenia) and retrograde attitudes toward her sexuality (she was a lesbian).” (LA Times, 4/11/2016)
Martin’s work, like Rothko’s, demands a meditative approach. She once told a critic that her art needs to be observed for some time before it begins to have impact. When asked “How long must one observe it?” she quipped, “About a minute.” And, “A minute is a long time.” Indeed, it is in our attention deficit culture.
A minute of staring can place one in a kind of trance. The brain function shifts radically when peripheral awareness shrinks and the focus of attention, be it a mantra, an idea, or an object like a painting splits awareness away from the immediate environment. Things start to happen, mystical things. You are part of the movie, no longer aware of sitting in the theater. The effect may not be the same for everyone, but a significant minority will feel absorbed into another dimension for some moments and interpret that as connection with spirit, perhaps the same spirit that inspired the artist. Martin wanted her viewer to share in her gnosis. And that is what collectors buy and sell, a potential share of gnosis as manifested through a work of art. Martin, like so many minimalists, stripped away distraction, allowing the senses to fix on primary things of being through an atmospheric grid or horizontal stripes of gentle color.
Persons with schizophrenia tend to “split” (schiz- means to split) from what we call reality in the social, intellectual, and material environment. Many people along the schizophrenia spectrum never get diagnosed, having mild or eccentric symptoms that they manage well enough. We might view these folks as a little nutty, reserved, solitary. Many patients with schizophrenia that I met at the psych hospital where I worked since 1998 became religiously or spiritually preoccupied. So it is not surprising or special that Martin in her illness and out of natural inclination adopted a personal devotion to non-sectarian Buddhism and Taoism early in her career. She read D. T. Suzuki on Zen, for example. Sometimes symptoms flair up and then schizophrenia needs treatment to get things back under control. Martin was among the latter, but not among those with chronic dysfunctions of hearing voices or feeling paranoid and acting severely suspicious and needing to be heavily medicated to function at all. I knew a competent psychiatrist with an M.D. who would check himself into the hospital where I work when his schizophrenia symptoms would flair up.
The joke here has a punch line.
The joke is that anyone can stare “for a minute” at the New Mexico sky or into a wall of green trees on a Tennessee hillside or at stacks of pallets outside a factory in Royersford, PA
to experience that same effect of gnosis or spirit represented by an actual, museum-imprisoned Rothko or Martin, but more cheaply—for free.
The punch line is that I may have paid $10 to find gnosis in a Martin painting at LACMA, but someone else paid $10.7 million to own one piece of it, namely gnosis through a filter.
Jon Atack, a former Scientologist, wrote a comprehensive book exposing his old “new religion.” His title, A Piece of Blue Sky (1990), aptly describes what we really buy when we buy “gnosis” (Self-realization) workshops peddled by imperfect prophets. We also buy a piece of sky or color in modern “spiritual” or minimalist art produced by “purists” in the art world. Indeed, some artists have sold purely blue canvases, and if that artist had a Name like Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) who was within Martin’s milieu of artists in New York in the 1950s, it might cost you a cool million dollars or more today for the privilege of owning a piece of (his) blue sky.
Blue, 1952, by Ad Reinhardt
Owning and defining history is fun, but big money is primarily interested in art as commodity whether in private collections or in museums. Fine art like entertainment at the high end is a business. The general public is pluralistic in taste, a good thing, but Joe Six-Pack’s daughter in art school has little inclination to own expensive art because owning, securing, displaying or storing, and insuring a $10 million painting is not cheap.
So, how do we reconcile the art appreciation worlds between Picasso ear guy and the spiritual drives of any serious artist? Martin was serious about what she did, as serious as any monk or nun might be about their vocation. Not much has been written about Martin since 1992, but a new biography by Nancy Princenthal promises to flesh out whatever was behind Martin’s spiritually oriented marks on canvas and paper. I have not read more than an interview about the book with the author who recognized that Martin avoided all public inquiries of her private life while she lived. Martin had reason to be cautious—her mental instability and lesbian nature would attract a double-barreled social shotgun to her reputation, especially in her early years when homosexual behavior was listed as a mental illness and sexual dysfunction. During the 1950s, her social set among artists like Reinhardt and Kelly lived and met in the cafes and bars along 10th St. in Manhattan at the Coentis Slip area. The Slip sub-culture tolerated homosexuality and other eccentricities, and it gave Martin a place to grow and breathe among creative peers without being “outed.”
At the start of this essay, I made reference to LACMA’s 1986 massive, 435-page catalogue on The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting from 1890 to 1985. Out of curiosity, I just looked to the index for Agnes Martin. I found one minor entry on page 315, but no images.
“Many abstract artists have increased silence by abandoning even geometry, except for the minimal geometry of the canvas shape, which is sometimes echoed in the order of a grid, as in works of Agnes Martin.” (“Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art” by Donald Kuspit in Tuchman, 1986)
Kuspit quotes the philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969): “The more spiritual works of art are, the more they erode their substance” (315). Martin followed that trend to minimize most likely because it suited her nature to withdraw from substantive life and limit self-expression, not living with materialistic yearnings and not cluttering her art with unnecessary imagery. In Zen Buddhist aesthetics, the value lies in what is natural and what is not there—emptiness is a Buddhist virtue.
Martin’s grids and layers speak more from a Japanese tea house than a German Gothic cathedral.
Wassily Kandinsky features prominently in Tuchman’s 1986 catalogue. Kandinsky wrote prolifically about and professionally taught art. His ideas and his famous essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” are a cornerstone to the LACMA 1986 exhibition. In another essay, “Reminiscences” first published in Germany in 1913, he writes:
“Painting is a thundering collision of different worlds, intended to create a new world in, and from, the struggle with one another, a new world which is the work of art. Each work originates just as does the cosmos—through catastrophes which out of the chaotic din of instruments ultimately create a symphony, the music of the spheres. The creation of works of art is the creation of the world.” (R. Herbert, 1964. Modern Artists on Art, 35)
We can sense this thundering collision in this work by Kandinsky at LACMA
Martin’s work tends to speak or sing of that collision when the chaos has settled back into the music of the spheres reflecting that symphony of singularity spoken of by mathematicians when the universes as we know them began.
Father Georges Lemaître (1894-1966) was the mathematician credited with convincing Einstein in 1927 that the universe began with a “singularity” that we popularly call The Big Bang. Lemaître was a Catholic priest who carefully kept realms of science and religion in separate epistemological domains. He made no claim that his theory proved any statement in the Bible that God created the world out of “nothing.” Lemaître was wise enough to know that we cannot claim to know That. Artists like scientists are explorers who at times find solutions to ways of knowing, ways of seeing, and ways of doing.
The practical value of Lemaitre’s math is proven in what we call physical reality every day. Every physicist and math geek can use Lemaitre’s precise formula. Not even Picasso ear guy can dispute that. The minimalist solution to art expression of reality that was Martin’s is not practical by extension into a universally applicable tool because art in that light retreats from reproducible reality (think portraits of George Washington or the Matterhorn) because the art object begs to be reality. Agnes Martin placed grids on a canvas that silently echoed I am that I am and not I am George W.
The “object” of minimalism is and has been the spirit of being itself. It is an effort to “eff” the ineffable for its own sake. But as art, it has a signature of a god that created it and that god, if only by attribution, owns that creation forever. If you were to precisely copy an Agnes Martin and sign your name to it, you could end up in jail. If you use Lemaître’s math precisely and well, you will get an A in calculus, but you cannot claim to have discovered it. So the question remains: Can Picasso ear guy, who says I could do that, copy a Martin painting precisely, sell it for a million dollars and call it “Picasso ear guy copies Martin?” Martin’s estate lawyers might have something to say about that and he could lose more than an ear of net worth. There is the rub of difference between art and science: Art as object is owned; science as method is practiced. The sameness is in the patented product or in intellectual property. In other words, if you can prove that something is your property, your invention, or your creation you have rights to it unless you sell.
In Kandinsky’s mind, the artist mimics God in creating a world out of chaos. Thus, each artist is a kind of a god, in God’s image. No matter how closely we copy a Martin, we can never call it our own, no more than Father Lemaître could claim that his singularity is an exact copy of God’s creation formula. This is the dilemma and the awkward Modernist trend toward spiriting art by erasing expression with expression. At some point we end up with nothing much or live an enlightened Zen monk’s simple life of chopping wood and carrying water with nobody noticing us thinking about nothing.
Artists by any name live for fame in any amount, even reclusive minimalists like Martin, if only for Warhol’s famous fifteen minutes.
Let us get back to the good priest for a final word about this quandary of how close we or our arts can get to being in itself without calling it being in itself—without uttering a blasphemy.
If I had to ask a question of the infallible oracle…I think I should choose this: “Has the universe ever been at rest, or did the expansion start from the beginning?” But, I think, I would ask the oracle not to give the answer, in order that a subsequent generation would not be deprived of the pleasure of searching for and finding of the solution. (John Farrell, 2005. The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology)
If art is a matter of taste, we need something to taste. Minimalism drifted into Conceptualism which fell into dangerously dead territory with nothing to taste.
I spoke of Martin’s gnosis or her search to echo deep awareness of being in her art. Schizophrenia is an odd disorder with no static definition. My appreciation for what Martin went through comes not only from working nearly twenty years in a mental hospital. Bob Anders, a roommate of mine in college who took art courses with me—he was an elementary education major that never taught a class—wrote a paper in 1969 titled “Impoverishment in Modern Art.” He indicated that Modernism was erasing meaning by erasing form, but to him that was not necessarily a bad thing. His art amounted to delicate marks on paper floating in amorphous color fields—think Mark Rothko meets Cy Twombly on small sheets. He rarely attended classes save at the end making an effort to con teachers into giving him a passing grade because he was always practicing his guitar. He performed old blues and new folk songs in local coffee shops. Bobby was also mentally ill, a condition that may have emerged from the spinal meningitis he suffered as a child. He was a somnambulist—I recall guiding him back into our second floor flat at night off the roof outside several times. He eventually would not show his work anywhere because he was afraid that people would steal his ideas.
I met Bobby once more, 15 years later, when he drifted by bus into Santa Fe in 1984 with his guitar. He was floridly schizophrenic. When we met in a hotel lobby at 2 a.m. (was was working as night auditor) he asked me for a knife so that he could remove a government-installed chip out of his head. Bobby did not immediately recognize me. He had a small, self-inflicted cut on his forehead already. A mutual friend helped him get back to Maryland where he had been in treatment under his father’s care. Bobby told me he yet kept all his art hidden in special drawer.
As far as I know, Bobby’s work has never been "discovered," meaning represented by an agent for high prices. I doubt any agent would have taken on Bobby who abused drugs and alcohol continually and could not be trusted to keep any appointments had he even agreed to show his work. Of course, what we know of many early abstract expressionists, dysfunction and substance abuse has no bearing if the artists could sustain production at an acceptable level. Typically, any agent that agrees to promote an abstract or modernist artist will ask that artist to work larger if they are not already. For example, I can envision Bobby’s works being quite effective on 6 ft. x 8 ft. canvases just as Agnes Martin’s work has way more power and presence on large formats at the LACMA exhibit.
I’m not sure where this essay is leading, but I want to wrap it up. I mentioned that minimalists as conceptualists dabble with elimination dabble with death. Some performance artists sliced pieces of their own bodies, while other might risk dying by fasting for weeks while living on a platform atop a pole. Like a Buddha or Jesus fasting for gnosis, Martin depleted her imagery to what she could tolerate without killing expression altogether. I am reminded of a sacred ritual practiced by some Gnostic sects nearly two thousand years ago called the endura wherein an adult would choose to stop eating and drinking until death ended the sacrament. The idea then was to release the divine spark within to be absorbed back into the Pleroma or cloud of eternal Light. Early Christian fathers condemned the practice. I can imagine that no art gallery or museum would condone or support an endura as performance art, no more than displaying mothers actually beating children. In the end, beauty in art tends to celebrate life, not death.
Marshall McLuhan once quipped that art is anything you can get away with. Maybe he was wrong--we should not get away with just anything even in the name of art.
As for me, this entire exercise of writing amounts to an inspiration to paint a head study of Picasso with a bandage over his missing left ear.
A visit to Los Angeles County Museum of Art with my wife promted this article.
Agnes Martin's impressive retrospective and a comment oa a Picasso sketch stimulated the content. Any flaws or errors are my responsibility to correct, but this is a matter of opinion.
Agnes Martin in New Mexico
"Picasso cuts ear not in Blue Period maybe"
oil on board 24x18 2016 szimhart