Saturday, April 24, 2010

Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Agnes

By no means am I an expert on Saskatchewan art, but I did imagine myself, until quite recently, to be somewhat clued in.
My wife and I for about 30 years have collected works by Saskatchewan artists. My parents collected works by Saskatchewan artists. I rarely miss a show at the Mendel Art Gallery. My wife for years wrote a regular column in this newspaper on local galleries, which we often visited together. We personally know a number of professional artists, including my own sister and my niece. My brother-in-law is a senior gallery curator.
So I'm pretty much steeped in Saskatchewan art. And yet, when I learned this week from an article in The StarPhoenix that a painting by Saskatchewan-born artist Agnes Martin is expected to set a record for the highest price ever paid for a work by a Canadian painter, I said, "Who?"
Somehow, with all my artsy-fartsy pretensions, I managed never to have heard of Agnes Martin, only the most sought-after of artists from this or any other province in the country.
Others certainly have heard of her. One of Martin's paintings is expected to fetch between $4 million and $6 million when it goes up for auction next month at Sotheby's in New York. That could eclipse the previous record price for a Canadian painting, reportedly $5.1 million for a 19th century landscape by Paul Kane. Him, I've heard of. But Agnes Martin, a contemporary artist, born in this very province, whose canvasses likewise are worth millions, not. That's almost like never having heard of Joni Mitchell or Gordie Howe.
Susan Shantz, head of the art department at the University of Saskatchewan, took some of the sting out of it. Shantz says Martin, although she was born in 1912 on a homestead near Macklin, is not really considered a Saskatchewan or even a Canadian artist. Rather, she is grouped with abstract expressionists from New York such as Barnett Newman, who painted the controversial Voice of Fire for which the National Gallery of Canada infamously paid $1.8 million.
Martin was just a child -- if you can imagine a child named Agnes -- when she moved with her family from Saskatchewan to Vancouver, where she grew up. She studied art at Columbia University in New York, where her work captured the imagination of the well-heeled arts elite. Shantz says her style reflected the meditative spirit of Zen Buddhism that in the 1960s was just catching on in popular culture. Eventually, Martin would settle in Taos, N.M., while her abstracts sold in the highest of high-end New York galleries.
Shantz, who teaches about Martin in one of her art history courses, is a fan. Martin, she says, was a delightful woman who made a living from her art and worked almost right up to her death at age 92. Her only concession to age was downsizing her canvasses from six- to five-feet square when the larger format became too much for her to handle.
In a video documentary shot when she was in her late 80s, Martin is insightful, funny and self-deprecating. Who else made a living for 40 years painting little rectangles, she asks.
Shantz describes Martin's paintings as subtle and intricate. They are said to reward the receptive viewer with a Zen-like calm.
"People are rhapsodic about them," says Shantz.
The typical Martin canvass is washed in pale colour with a superimposed geometric grid, rather like homemade graph paper, but somehow made to appear almost three dimensional. Sadly, their appeal is lost when the works are reproduced. Reduced to 150 lines per inch on newsprint, the Martin painting on auction at Sotheby's looks like a sample square of yellow countertop laminate. It really is a masterpiece, says Shantz.
Vincent Varga, executive director of the Mendel, actually met Martin about 15 years ago when he was living in New Mexico. He introduced himself after she gave a talk on painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. She was thrilled when Varga acknowledged her Saskatchewan origins. Talking of her childhood on the prairie almost moved her to tears.
"Her art has a very interesting and profound relationship to this place," says Varga.
Unfortunately, we in Martin's home province have to go elsewhere to appreciate her work. No Saskatchewan gallery owns one of her paintings, says Varga, "although we would very much like to."

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