Cultivating a sense of presence through creative works

Insights from the visionary abstract expressionist Agnes Martin

“The Islands” by Agnes Martin. Image: WikiArt

Like many, when I first saw a painting by Agnes Martin, I felt a stillness,

a pause,

a presence.

It’s a peaceful feeling you feel in your body. It sits in a striking contrast with other works in the space of abstract expressionism, which instead come with an aggression and loudness.

For Martin, the quality is not only about the art, but of the feeling and perception of the work in the viewer. “We have a tremendous range of abstract feelings,” she says, “but we don’t pay any attention to them.”

In her studio, she cultivated a stillness that allowed her to be able to notice and create works of these feelings. And then through these works, she invites viewers towards this stillness and subtler perception. The shift in perception engendered by the work can remain well after leaving the gallery, casting an aura around otherwise unremarkable everyday things.

Consider this story from Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery and Agnes Martin’s dealer:

My granddaughter was about 11 years old and she was in Agnes’ apartment, and there was a rose in a vase. She was mesmerized by the rose.

Agnes saw that and picked up the rose, and said “Is this rose beautiful, Isabel?”

Isabel said, “Yes, this rose is beautiful.”

And then Martin put the rose behind her back, and she said to Isabel, “Is the rose still beautiful?”

Isabel said, “Yes, the rose is still beautiful.”

And she said, “You see, the beauty is not in the rose. The beauty is in your mind.”

The experience of a work of art is not just in the moment, but in the way it lingers and changes your perception after. You can imagine this well beyond IRL visual art — into the realm of music or writing. In a way it almost recalls moments in our lives where things line up and we feel some sort of heightened awareness. Often this can be around some experience in nature. For me, it happens when I watch a sunset.

Sometimes it’s even more subtle than that, and that’s where the real magic is. It’s less about what we actually see, and more about how we see.




Author of “Feeling Great About My Butt.” Previously: Creators @Medium, Product @embedly, Research @NECSI.

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Kawandeep Virdee

Kawandeep Virdee

Author of “Feeling Great About My Butt.” Previously: Creators @Medium, Product @embedly, Research @NECSI.

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