On Agnes Martin and Mapping the Pathways Out of Schizophrenia and Obsession

On Agnes Martin and Mapping the Pathways Out of Schizophrenia and Obsession
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Agnes Martin remains on view at New York's Guggenheim Museum through January 11, 2017. See the museum website for details and location.


It isn't enough to say that Agnes Martin crafted what may be the perfect minimalist paintings. Rather, we do her life and work a far greater justice by acknowledging that in her own complex yet elegantly psycho-therapeutic solution to grappling with schizophrenia, Agnes Martin imposed on her life and art an obsessional ritual program of mapping successive pathways to renewed sanity and persistent order in her life. Schizophrenia and obsession were the treacherous Scylla and Charybdis that life forced Martin to circumnavigate. And she ultimately managed not only to find her way through the twin dangers, she did it by converting her personal and plaguing disconnection with space and discontinuity with time into a structural mapping of the most elegant and minimally-contained mannerist art likely ever produced.

I only partially mean mapping as a charting and identification of space. For Martin it is a mapping of the mind (or the painted mind) that secures personal and social connectivity and continuity -- the very things that schizophrenia would deny her through its severely-imposed disconnection and discontinuity. "Mapping" is a concept that comes from R.D. Laing's theory of the territorial claim on social roles that compel people to adopt lifestyles that might or might not fit them. It's a mapping of lifestyles that comes with considerable social pressures, in terms of the mapping of individual vs. collective expectations -- one mapped over the other. But Martin was quite literal in her interpretation of theories, in her work, mapping becomes a meticulous and exacting physical labor that enables her to counter the disconnection of schizophrenia, while embracing the safety of obsessive compulsion -- all with the meshes of the grid. In her own complex yet elegantly psycho-therapeutic solution to grappling with schizophrenia, Agnes Martin imposed on her life and art the structure and motif of the grid as an infinite and eternal if obsessional ritual program of mapping successive pathways to recovered and renewed sanity and persistent order in her life.


While Martin was alive there was no public mention of the artist's diagnosis, though we are told that most of her friends and acquaintances knew. I first discovered her work as an undergraduate in the mid 1970s and soon after encountered her work in several New York shows and read numerous reviews throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when her acclaim was becoming a kind of apotheosis in the artworld after long years of her marginalization. I remember no mention of a disorder or affliction of any kind in all my discussions with artists and art professionals about her. There certainly was no telltale sign of the disease in her paintings, what counts among the most disciplined and rigorously programmatic work in the history of Modern Art. Only with the release of two seminal books on the artist and her work in the past two years did the public come to know of the extent of Martin's malady. The first of these books, Agnes Martin, is the exhibition catalogue that has been shared by Tate Modern, London, The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and The Guggenheim Museum in New York and was written by several curators and critics. The second, and the more intimately revealing biographically, is Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Art In America critic, Nancy Princenthal. Published in 2016 by Thames and Hudson, the book recently won the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. Both books confirm the rumors that began to circulate since Martin's death in 2004.

Princenthal has voiced opposition to considering schizophrenia as having much to do with Martin's work. Yet her choice of words leaves room for doubt. In an interview with Carolina A, Miranda of The Los Angeles Times, Princenthal relayed that Martin made it clear that she believed her illness had nothing to do with her work.

It is understandable that Martin would believe this. It is also admirable that the people who continue to care about the artist's reputation these twelve years after her death would guard against it being diminished by a mental disorder. But such sentiments, despite their good intentions, don't help society to overcome the stigma of schizophrenia even for those who, like Martin, succeeded in building a reputation for possessing a formidable artistic insight and commitment. It is also hard to imagine an analyst accepting the defensive stance that Princenthal and other of Martin's champions assume or relay in discounting the influence of the disease. The fact is that Martin covered for her disease successfully enough for us to want to continue doing it for her by airing her discovery that working in the studio on a regiment of continual, seemingly ceaseless, variations on the grid was, in addition to her medication, a liberation from her disease.

It is my personal view that Martin did even more: that it was not just in spite of the disease, but likely because of it that she made great art -- without implying that Martin would not have been a great artist had she not contracted the disease. Yet the circumstance of her disease no less impelled Martin to compose her own unique if compulsive-obsessive ritual of mapping a linear and chromatic grid that stands in for the unity missing from Martin's life. We know the utility of the grid helped Martin to further alleviated the duress of her medically and personally managed schizophrenia enough to continue it to the age of 92.


What makes Martin's triumph even more formidable is that, as she was entering into the last decade of her life and work, neuroscience was confirming that schizophrenia wasn't just a psychological and cognitive disorder, but a physical disorder of the brain and neurolgial body. In a study conducted and published in 1995 with the article, "Schizophrenia: A Disconnection Syndrome?", the neuroresearchers Karl J. Friston and Christopher D. Frith published in Clinical Neuroscience their conclusion that "some schizophrenic phenomena are best understood in terms of abnormal interactions between different areas", not only at the levels of cognitive and sensorimotor functioning, as plagued Martin, but "at the level of physiology and functional anatomy".

The evidence is significant because it frees the schizophrenic from the popular view that somehow the individual is responsible for bringing on the disease herself. Or in the case of a famous artist, that she would have heightened and romanticized, perhaps even exaggerated her schizophrenia as an asset to her career. (I know of no one who knew Martin that thought this about her, but it is the kind of malicious fictions that celebrated figures attract.)

At the same time, the establishment of a physical cause for schizophrenia emphasizes that it is a disease that becomes a part of who the individual is to the extent that every action either becomes a struggle with or a victory over the disease each and every day. As life even for the well supplies an ample array of adversity that defines or denies the strength of individuals, so does schizophrenia supply or deprive the individual according to the many circumstances particular to that life. The limitations imposed on Martin would suggest their own counter measures which she would apply in her own uniquely brilliant way. Ultimately, Princenthal admits that she thinks the schizophrenia did affect Martin's work positively and negatively. "She had a number of psychotic breaks. She did hear voices -- she had aural hallucinations -- and she was subject to them throughout her life. She took medications. She undertook talk therapy. These were constraints."

Without further disclosures, we can only surmise by her success and artistry that for Martin, drawing horizontal and vertical lines, whether in grids or stripes, would be sanity-saving exercises that imposed the order and discipline required to achieve the longevity to make an unparalleled body of minimalist art. Similarly, while progressing from one chromatic value to the next, or when working in monochromes, from one shade and density to the next, Martin not only imposed a discipline onto her daily routine, she also, in reinforcement of her medications, mapped a continuity onto her habits that offset whatever inclination she might have to lose a sense of her own thoughts, speech, ability.


For a mind and body plagued by a disorder that imposes severe fragmentation and continual renewal on each and every one or the habits and endeavors of everyday life, turning to a structural repetition ritual was a solace and a support for Martin. In this way, Martin did learn to make the best of her schizophrenia and her obsessive compulsion for repetition. It was the only acceptable choice. For by the late 1970s, making stylistically-mannered breaks from the serial programming of her earlier work was being encouraged by the informed art society to which she belonged. But breaks from routines are what the schizophrenic fears, as the kind of breaks in temporal continuity and spacial connectivity that schizophrenia imposes also brings confusion, panic and for the severe schizophrenic, hallucinations. Ultimately Martin would find that the breaks in her art from one work to the next could be contained with the motif of the grid to provide a foundation to build from -- however immanently subject to dissolution that foundation might in the end prove. In Martin's case, the foundation, the grid, for her work never dissolved. And we may attribute that to the positively-obsessive ritual of mapping space with grids that supply connectivity to compensate for a disease of disconnection.

Each painting was a mending of the breaks and tears in her vision; a memorial to the ruptures of continuity in time. On good days the paintings became meshes of reality. In making paintings so obsessively dominated by parallel lines or grids, we can be sure that Martin likely experienced them far differently than we do when viewing them, for feeling them emerging in her nervous system. If we wish to attempt to see them as Martin did, we might try to experience them as unified compositions, planar maps composed of myriad separate domains. Her schizophrenia accounts for why Martin chose not to represent gestalt visualizations that her minimalist colleagues did (Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Jo Baer) -- that is, to produce paintings or sculptures that we can summon to our mind's eye because they are simple geometric unities -- triangles, circles, rectangles -- or are seamless, illusionistically-drawn, painted or sculptural volumes -- cones, pyramids, cubes, spheres. Instead, Martin ritually painted broken up surfaces that from a distance look to be solid and unified planar fields, but upon close inspection reveal themselves as meticulously, truly compulsively-ordered, drawn and painted, programmatically-interrupted fields with rows and columns textured over with finely-brushed washes of muted color that upon close examination reveal shimmering yet minute brush strokes.

The difference may be simple to the well-ordered mind, but to the individual plagued by schizophrenia, even when successfully readjusted by a regiment of medication and therapies as have been relayed to us, such obsessively-mapped compositions even in their imposed order are symbolic of a sustained victory over the forces of disconnection and disunity perpetually and imminently threatening a reign of chaos on all that Martin rigorously strove to bring into being.


This is why it isn't enough for us to say that Agnes Martin had no equal in terms of composing shimmering formalist constructions of interstitial intricacy with a faithful commitment to the execution of her personal visions. In this second decade after her death, Martin's triumph as an artist who struggled with schizophrenia should be a bold declaration that forever banishes the hushed apologies, denials and silences of her peers during her lifetime, even when it was respectful rather than shameful.

Shrinking from acknowledging Martin's disease is tantamount to believing the disorder became her master. It did not, however much it threatened to at various times throughout her life. In fact it is the exact opposite. Martin, though fighting a battle with schizophrenia for most of her adult life, became the master of her disease, however tentatively and with however many disruptions, to the extent that, despite that it continued to make Martin suffer, she was able to continually convert her struggle with discontinuity, disconnection and disruption with a counteractive, daily, and programmatic exercise raised to artistic creation. It may not be a proof, but the fact that Martin lived to be 92 is indication that her art is at least one reason why she did not suffer the demise of so many schizophrenics, especially women, given that the suicide rate for women with schizophrenia is alarmingly high.

For a lesser artist, schizophrenia could have been a breakdown of the relationship between the artist and her art; between the signifiers she is to inscribe and the faculty that inscribes them. Whether the lines and hues she mapped out on canvas or paper were to be perceived as material objects, diagrammatic representations or a visual language of communication, the schizophrenic impetus would not allow the work, especially in the early phases of the disease, to proceed as a simple temporal flow of visual data or language as it would for the well individual. Rather it would impose a barrage of discontinuity and disconnections, whereby all forms of articulation and interpretation, linguistic, visual, symbolic, are severely impaired; for even the most simple sentence thought silently to oneself must move through time. The language effects of schizophrenia include the breakdown of all memories of the past, perceptions of the present, and inferences for the future. While medications may restore the brain's synapses, daily discipline also has to gradually increase to ensure the body's facility to maintain and sustain the skills that had been built up when she was young and well (or at least more capable). All would have to be rebuilt and redirected for new paths of capability, if not growing them into altogether new skills. And rebuilt time after time.


From what we are now being told, Martin's regimen was exercised from the late 1960s up to her death in 2004. It is news that reassures that Martin had succeeded in besting her disease despite its ever presence. Martin's bouts of schizophrenia may in fact have compelled her to resort to a ritual, or even an obsession, with repetitively replicating the grid in compositional structures signifying varying levels of tension and relaxation. In fact the schizophrenia would have made the compulsively repetitive and assured formula of the grid a comforting and structural assurance in the face of a life that faced complete break down of continuity. For the schizophrenic, maintaining a continuous present is necessary for retaining a self-identity, and for sustaining basic linguistic formulation and meaning.

Even for an artist who is well adjusted, the minimalist endgame paradoxically supplies a potentially endless continuation and repetition of variations on a grid that would not merely relieve tedium with the format but energize it. Certainly for the lover of minimalist composition, while scaling the Guggenheim's ramp upward Martin's compositions echo the inlets and niches off to the sides of Wright's rising spiral. And really, Wright's helix never seemed better reinforced by the desert art it contained, what with the architect and the painter sharing minimalist parallelism, and eons-old metaphorical contrasts and complements (Wright's seashell amid Martin's desert scapes.) that collaboratively and thrillingly infer an invisible continuity and repetition to infinity. That Martin had brilliantly mapped her work to accord with architectural surroundings in mind never seemed more assured. Simultaneously, the message of both the museum and the art suggested all the discontinuity and disorder in the world could not disrupt this union of artist and architect. The apotheosis came with the final painting of Martin's life, placed perfectly at the end of Wright's spiral, and it was as exhilarating an encounter (at east for this viewer) as it suggested perfection.


Standing before Martin's last painting compelled me to wonder about Martin's personal testimony to having precise visions of the work before she is about to execute it. Visions, of course, are the curse of the schizophrenic. But they also have been mythically considered the mystic's claim to salvation -- the "all the way to heaven is heaven" ticket of which Catherine of Siena spoke. But Martin's visions, she herself tells us, were of her works she was yet to make, and made. As if flashes of her future visited her. It is no doubt the unique condition of Martin's schizophrenia that each vision of her work came to her, as she states in one of the films playing on the Guggenheim ramp, in the size of a postage stamp. Martin then made it her responsibility to recreate that vision iconically on paper or canvas as precisely as was within her power.

Given that in a secular age a culture's most illuminating mystics are found among its artists and poets, we should not be surprised to learn that the mystics of ages past were prone to having distinct and vivid visions in manners consistent with schizophrenia. If it seems strange that a present day "mystic" (Martin would probably disdain the term being applied to her) would be so inclined to visions of a stationary and formal import, we might consider that the abstract Tantric art of Rajasthan made between the 5th-to-17th centuries appears very much like certain 20th-century paintings based on planar geometry. For much like Martin's signature art, the Tantric art of geometric abstraction is particularly well suited to launching and sustaining the ritual practice of meditation and the mental liberation that for the dedicated follows. Of course there would be such a correlation given that both abstract Tantric art and the Zen and Taoist art that inform Martin's minimalist aesthetic are all derived from the same Vedic meditation techniques.


In reflecting on the history of schizophrenia and obsession as topics, themes and impetus in the last century-and-a-half in art, it is altogether ironic that though the issues and theories of schizophrenia would become a sometimes obsessional motivation for much of the significant art made under the banner of Modernism, we still shy away from openly discussing the effects schizophrenia has on the art made by artists afflicted. Considering the major contributions of schizophrenia and obsession in the modernist canon of art history enable us to appreciate both how schizophrenia theoretically informed many of the artists Martin knew personally and likely contributed to the niche she found for herself in art history at the same time that her life mirrored, if not embodied, much of that history.

Of all the literature available on mental health, it is R.D. Laing's devastating criticism of the social and institutional malevolence toward schizophrenics, and his call for more personalized care, that Martin appears to emulate. In fact, it can be said that Martin's life and art serve as a paradigm for all the best that Laing predicted a schizophrenic could achieve outside of the institutionalized setting that once lobotomized, imprisoned and shock-induced patients with mental disorders. But despite the divide between therapeutics and aesthetics, all of the giants of classical psychological theory -- Freud, Jung, Lacan, Klein -- still have much to contribute to the art historical review of the art made under their once fashionable influence. That includes controversial speculations that are of greater facility to the artist and critic of formal and iconographic visual systems of art, symbolism and myth, than to medical, therapeutic and analytic professionals.


After Picasso and Braque found inspiration for Cubism in the simultaneous, multiple perspectives of schizophrenics cited in early literature on schizophrenically-disconnected visualization, the Dada and Surrealist artists found Freud's theories of psychosis equally useful in terms of applying his notions of the fetish and the uncanny to their crafting a revolutionary new visual and conceptual art. The Surrealists particularly admired Freud when he described the circumstances whereby people of moral conscience find themselves awakening to desires that they know should be suppressed in accordance with the moral authorities of their period's social enclaves. Freud also proposes that even the most conscientious people unconsciously yet willingly channel forbidden desires into fetishistic (that is protective and disguised) condensations of psycho-somatic energy. The more superstitious and fearful (those often of a religious caste) perceive the fetish to be their desire's effacement in accordance with the presiding authority or faith.

The Surrealist in particular championed Freud for revealing that we unconsciously protect our forbidden desire for random and impersonal genitalia by transferring that desire to objects that can pass inspection with the moral authorities of the day -- the fetishistic hat whose folds secretly arouse memory of and desire for the furtive vulva; the cigar whose heft fills the void and yearning for the real but absent penis. Although not schizophrenic in themselves, the fetish and the uncanny become full-scale delusions in schizophrenia. In the world of contemporary art, however, what seems delusional in the everyday world becomes a marketable commodity in the high-financed world of the secondary and auction market for art, as witness the success of such artists as Robert Gober and Louise Bourgeois, both of whom extensively fetishize their art.


More applicable to Martin's art and schizophrenia is the development of the collective unconscious by Carl Jung, given that the grid that Martin favored above all else is a structure of the unconscious order. It may be a prominent graduate thesis that one day demonstrates how the grid in Martin's paintings is the visual and formal equivalent of Jung's collective unconscious. As any animator or 3D artist can today attest, just as all conceptual contents proceed from the collective unconscious, all visual, formal variants proceed from the collective grid, or what is today called vector graphics in digital visualization and animation. Similarly, the interpretation of these visualizations proceed as new formulations of very ancient archetypes -- images and objects initially dreamed up by the unconscious mind, and that through Jung's investigation of the visions and voices that plagued his schizophrenic patients, came to inform us today of why we so readily appreciate the same motifs, however moderately evolved, as did our Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors. Which is why Jung had such a strong impact on the earliest Abstract Expressionists with whom Martin identified herself even more than with the Minimalists. We communicate with, and perpetuate our languages and arts through the inventions of our ancient ancestors by modernizing their motifs for new generations.

Although the Surrealist's eroticization of schizophrenia seems not to have impressed upon Martin's mid- and late career, it certainly did on her early paintings in the 1950s, a too-small representation of which are also included in the exhibition. And we certainly see this influence on the artists who impressed upon her early work -- certainly that of Miro and Baziotes, but also the early work of Pollock, Krasner, Gorky, Rothko and Gottlieb. All of these artists grew out of Surrealist explorations of schizophrenia, particularly the automatism that inspired the theories of Andre Breton and Georges Bataille for presuming to lead more directly to the unconscious than planned out and theorized art. It was a generation that imparted to the young Martin the understanding that the immediacy of associative symbolism is more directly reflective of the unconscious than are planned and studied sketches. Jung's comparison of the schizophrenic mind when awake to the dream states of the healthy also introduced the notion that the collapse of identity in the schizophrenic disconnection is similar to the fluidity of identity in the dreams of ordinary people. Such free association of personas in dream states led Jung to proclaim that all characters in dreams represent not other personalities, but more often facets of the dreaming self. Hence a fluid or associative identity assumption became a technique found amply in the works of such artists as René Magritte, Frida Kahlo and Francisco Clemente, in which the artist's own self-portrait is grafted onto rival characters, animals and even objects.


A decidedly postmodern generation that ascended with Pop Art montaged together disparate, seemingly unrelated image vocabularies championed by Frederic Jameson as publicly modeling the schizophrenic who does not have our experience of temporal continuity, but is condemned to live a perpetual present. In such a present none of the individual moments or experiences in a life have any connection other than streaming by like a barrage of media images and sounds succeeding without their contents truly being understood. The Conceptual Art and Performance Art movements of the late 1960s and 1970s made much about obsession, compulsion, and schizophrenic break downs where homeless street people were accorded the attention of paradigmatic heroes, particularly by such artists as Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, Chris Burden, Ana Mendieta, Laurie Anderson, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Dennis Oppenheim, and in the 1980s, Mike Kelly, Karen Finley, Ana Devere Smith, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Kiki Smith and Sue Williams. Upon acquainting ourselves with the extensive correspondence between theory and art, it seems preposterous to perennially cite the mimicry of schizophrenia by non-schizophrenic artists and then step around the true schizophrenic experiences of Agnes Martin out of respectful deference or cynical renumeration. But if none of the theorists so far mentioned apply to Martin's art (and they don't in any way substantially) we find ourselves asking, whose theory does?

I believe that author is R.D. Laing, who no one concerned with Schizophrenia in the 1960s and 1970s did not know well. In "The Politics of the Family" (1969), Laing describes his notion of ritual 'mapping', which both well people and sick people largely unconsciously do, but do differently. In brief, Laing writes "A person 'maps' some accepted social definition of reality onto his or her experience and then acts as if that map reflects his or her experience. Or else feels terribly oppressed and unseen, if the personal experience is very different from the 'mapped' pseudo-experience."


Laing wasn't referring to a visual mapping. It was a mental and social, really a consensual and habitual, mapping of concepts and experiences that were regarded normal within a culture, yet are actually obsessively retentive and often undesirable, even detested. "Call experiential structure A, and public event B. Sometimes the product of A and B, in a marriage ceremony, is a marriage. Both people are married in all senses at once. . . One function of ritual is to map A onto B at critical moments, for example births, marriage, deaths. In our society many of the old rituals have lost much of their power. New ones have not arisen.... To preserve convention, there is a general collusion to disavow A when A and B do not match. Anyone breaking this rule is liable to invalidation. One is not supposed to feel married if one has not been married. Conversely, one is supposed to feel married if one 'is.' If one goes through a marriage ceremony, and does not feel it is 'real', if it did not 'take', there are friends and relatives to say: 'Don't worry, I felt the same, my dear. Wait until you have a child. . . Then you will feel you are a mother,' and so on. . . . So one feels, perhaps, frightened or guilty, and probably wishes to disavow A; to take refuge in B, where everything is as everyone says."

I can imagine projecting those very sentences by Laing onto Martin's paintings as a kind of guide for deciphering what she had in mind as she painted them. For from such a notion of social mapping, it seems perfectly reasonable that a visual artist faced with schizophrenia, and especially a visual artist who was a lesbian who sought a ritual mapping of human connection that is unlike a ritual mapping of heterosexual marriage, would turn to the idea of ritual mapping as something that provides comfort and control that she lacks over life yet which she finds in a ritually-repeated routine. That ritual routine for Martin proved to be a ritual visual mapping with lines and shadings conducive to making a visual map. And what better map would be available to a person who struggles to maintain continuity and connection than the structural guide of the map, that ultimate symbol and program of connection and continuity -- the grid. The obsessionally-repeated ritual of mapping a grid to a person who has structural difficulty in maintaining ritual proved to be Martin's epiphanic moment and process. Martin's ritual of charting out the map of the grid over and over until continuity and connection becomes so habitual, so indoctrinated in the muscles of the hands and arms, so engrained in the retinas and pupils of the eyes, so emblazoned upon the mind, even the mind of the schizophrenic she was. What better mapping, year after year, decade after decade, could better anchor the schizophrenic artist, especially an artist also inclined to obsessive-compulsive repetition, than the daily mapping of the grid?


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