Life makes very little sense. In the past year, people in my life have experienced abortions, miscarriages, divorce, adultery, debilitating illness, death and as of last night, suicide. And here I am 7,000 miles away in London, cobbling together a life, wondering at the chaos, often feeling completely helpless, trying to understand what to do, how to help, how not to feel a bit lost.
A few months ago I visited an exhibition at the Tate Modern of the work of Agnes Martin. I had never heard of Agnes Martin before and had never seen her artwork. It was a rainy Friday evening and the museum was very quiet.
Agnes Martin did not begin making art until the age of 31, that's when she felt she was ready. She traveled the United States extensively throughout the course of her life, making art where ever she went. She was a schizophrenic and often spiraled into deep bouts of depression. She created until the day before her death at the age of 91.
In the large airy galleries, I was surrounded by immense paintings that could be described as zenlike. Martin stacked soft, faint colors on canvases, living blocks, breathing into each other. She lined up thousands of tiny dots on guilded canvases, and created cathedral windows out of slender pencil lines. There was order, care, grace and dignity in each piece. They felt effortless, like breath clouds exhaled into a chilly morning, yet the amount of control and discipline they must have taken to create was astounding.
She worked with fickle materials. Water colors that ran, gold leaf which breaks if you breath too heavily, and drew her lines by hand with rulers. To Martin, her lines were never straight enough, her application of colors never even enough. She sought perfection. She destroyed pieces that did not meet her standards.
Her last drawing that she ever made is on display. It's very tiny 2x4 white card with a pencil line on it, barely more than a squiggle. She drew it the day before she died. At the start it looks as though it was drawn with a shaking hand. At the top of the line, there is a small flourish, a gentle curlicue, a dance of the pencil. The innocence, the playfulness, the joy in that small flick of the wrist, after seeing the huge masterful canvases created over the course of 60 years reduced me to a puddle.
This is how Agnes Martin stayed tied to the earth, how she controlled the chaos and found her peace. She found her joy in creation. That's how the best of us do. Some of us build things. Others, like my friend Shane who just lost his mom, find stories that need to be told. We spend time alone to understand what we want, and we collect people we hope to hold onto. We laugh, and go surfing, play ping-pong, keep in touch, make phone-calls and cook food that tastes good. That's all we can do.
The Agnes Martin retrospective closes at the Tate Modern on October 11th.