Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World

Agnes Martin. With My Back to the World

This documentary on abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin clocks in at just under an hour.

Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World consists almost entirely of interviews with Martin when she was in her 80s, either just sitting in a chair facing the camera, or painting one of her large canvases at her home in Taos, New Mexico. Periodically the camera pans over one of her paintings, or there are some photos or film clips of her in the past or the places she’s lived, but mostly it’s just her talking.

She only talks a little about her personal life, but not necessarily because she’s being secretive or the filmmaker chose not to ask her about that. It sounds like she’s had very little of a personal life. She never married, she speaks like she’s spent most or all of her adult life as a recluse. There’s a little bit of talk of interactions with other artists, but if she had any significant romances or close friendships, there’s little evidence of it in these interviews.

She talks a bit more about her art, and probably most of all about her philosophy of life—her general attitude and some of the conclusions she’s come to.

First off, I have to say honestly I was more bored watching this than 90% of the films I’ve written about. It seemed far longer than its running time.

Beyond that I have mixed feelings about it. I think if you already are familiar with her and her work, and you already regard her as a brilliant and important figure in the history of art, you’d probably appreciate hearing her reflect on her work and getting to know a little more about her approach to life.

But without that background, without being predisposed to be interested in her and to interpret what she’s saying as insightful and important, I just don’t know that there’s much here.

Or at least no more than watching any kind old lady talk about herself. And that’s part of why I have mixed feelings about this; I actually think it’s interesting and important to have a record of regular people sharing whatever life wisdom they’ve come up with. I do that sort of thing with my personal history filmmaking.

So I didn’t respond to this like I was watching someone particularly important, but more like if someone other than a friend or relative of the subject watched one of my interview-based personal history films of a regular, non-celebrity, person. I would hope it would be interesting to some degree, but most of it probably wouldn’t be if you didn’t have a connection with the person.

So that’s kind of where I was here. She seems like a perfectly nice person, and a little bit of what she says here and there I found to be valuable, but really I wasn’t up for listening to her talk for close to an hour.

I’m kind of an open-minded skeptic about the art itself (or maybe about art in general, at some level). I would like to have learned more about the art in some way that would make me value it more, persuade me that there’s something significant to it.

Not that I’m convinced that because it’s abstract rather than being a recognizable painting “of” something that that makes it garbage or anything like that. I’m more on the fence, willing to be swayed if someone makes a good case.

That is, she talks for instance about how she broke with the “minimalists,” because they insisted on painting works that didn’t express their emotions, whereas she makes sure to express her emotions in her paintings. OK, here’s the thing. Take one of their monocolor squares with at most a few straight lines running down or across it, and take one of her monocolor squares with at most a few straight lines running down or across it, show them to a hundred people without telling them who painted them or giving them any background about the paintings or what they convey, and ask them which one does and which one doesn’t express emotion. I don’t know, but I think there’s a pretty good chance it would come out right around 50-50.

Heck, if you did the same thing with a hundred art experts who happen never to have seen these specific paintings, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were around 50-50 there as well.

But I could easily be wrong. Maybe they really do differ. I know people routinely make points like that about abstract art, that it’s basically indistinguishable from some three year old splashing paint on the canvas at random, but I’m pretty sure that’s just because we’re looking at it from the outside without the expertise to know what to look for and how to interpret it, kind of like if an uneducated person thinks a well-regarded work of academic philosophy is no different from someone sticking a bunch of big words together at random and making something incoherent.

Maybe this is the same thing. Maybe the people who agree with some or all of what she’s saying about art aren’t as delusional as the people who fell for the Alan Sokal hoax of having an article of gibberish accepted for publication by a journal of postmodernism.

But, as the Sokal case demonstrates, just because lots of people are very earnestly talking and acting as if something isn’t nonsense doesn’t guarantee that they’re right. Maybe her checkerboard pattern or whatever it is that represents “freedom” really does have some connection to freedom that a different geometric pattern chosen at random wouldn’t have, but maybe not.

I would have appreciated commentary, interviews with art experts, something, that explained to the lay person why there’s substance and value to paintings like this, how to know what they mean or what emotions they represent, i.e., what their cognitive or non-cognitive content is.

But again, if you already know all that, and you just want to celebrate and appreciate this artist, then this film might well speak to you. Just for me personally, given my background, given where I am, I needed instead for this film to have some “Intro to Art Appreciation” stuff to make her remarks more understandable and meaningful and persuasive.

But as I say, there’s probably as much or more of her talking about her philosophy of life as about her art.

And that’s a mixed bag at best. I think a fair amount of it is empty platitudes that will appeal to people of a certain mindset (she’s dismissive of “logic” and “facts,” and favors inspiration and emotion, which is the kind of thing people who don’t know what logic is tend to say), but otherwise probably won’t persuade many people.

There was an occasional remark where I could say, “Hey that’s pretty cool. I like that,” but that was more the exception than the rule.

Agnes Martin is a nice old lady with a little bit of wisdom and a larger portion of facile philosophy and confusion. As an artist, she and her ilk are either creating important works whose value is unclear to people like myself because we lack the relevant background knowledge, or they’re creating pointless random colors and shapes that only seem to have meaning to them and their followers because of an “emperor’s new clothes” collective delusion that if everyone else is taking it so seriously then it must deserve it.

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