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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


Regular readers will know that a hobby-horse of mine is the – in my view, unfortunate - collective expectation that abstract art must signify something.

This is not an across-the board perception, of course, but it does raise its tedious head from time to time; that niggling urge bubbles up, in the art-consuming public-at-large, to ask “but what does it mean?”

At its worst, such a state of affairs manifests as a belief that, when something is free of tangible, definable or representational meaning, it must be 'meaningless'.

To go a little Victorian on you: forgive me, dear Reader, if I re-tread some well-worn steps, for today I want to to visit this subject yet again. Yesterday I chanced upon a beautiful interview with the American minimalist/abstract artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004) in which she articulates several moving and apposite convictions about Art and Life. I want to call them 'Truths' as, for me, they are; but naturally, many may disagree.

abstract minimalist painting by Agnes Martin

UNTITLED - Agnes Martin (c. 1960)

I urge you to watch the interview. Perhaps you might like to respond in the form of a comment on my article today – I'd love to get a more regularly interactive, discursive slant going in this column, so do go ahead!

Agnes Martin in her studio


I would like to highlight a few statements from the interview mentioned above which are, to me, piercing in their simplicity and correctness.

Agnes Martin asked herself every day what she was going to do next, answering “I want to do exactly what the inspiration calls for”. I melt when I hear such words, for they endorse the beating of my own artistic heart when it calls out to me “Damn 'consistency', damn 'phases' and 'groups'! Paint what your soul moves you to paint!”

Ms Martin goes on to note that “from Music, people accept pure emotion, but from Art, they demand explanation”. Regular followers of this column will not be surprised to learn how strongly this sentence resonates with me when I have my musician's hat on. It would indeed be ludicrous to enquire as to the meaning of, say, J.S Bach's ART OF FUGUE or of any of Beethoven's or Schubert's sublime late Chamber Music or Piano Sonatas. Yet people – well-meaningly, I charitably assume – still desire to know from me about what I was thinking when I painted that picture!

Go on – watch the interview! It brings a great sense of peace. Listen particularly to Agnes Martin's advice about how to acquire a clear mind.

Also please allow me to quote from her twice more:

We experience a tremendous range of abstract feelings, but we don't pay attention to them” and, most wonderfully, “The worst thing that you can do while painting is to start thinking about yourself.”

To bring things crashing back down to earth, with apologies, WIX (the platform on which I operate this blog) has changed things a little. It seems not to offer me hashtag options for new posts, but is now pushing simple SEO settings, including one where I may need to make my titles a little wordier. You may have noticed this already in my post yesterday, so don't be alarmed! In fact it seems like a good thing as the footfall on yesterday's article has been substantially better in a short space of time than in the 'old days'.

Now go and watch Agnes Martin! Here's the link again.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2024

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Apr 06
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I find it almost impossible to comprehend that idea: That there is no thought, just inspiration.

I can see that abstract art is pure- not trying to represent anything, but i can’t see that it doesn’t represent a concept in any way?

She says she doesn’t think at all ( when painting), but how can that be? She must be making decisions all the time ( colour/ brush stroke, etc. Doesn’t that involve thinking?

🤯 My mind is blown!

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