Brain Pickings

Iconic Painter Agnes Martin on Art, Solitude, and the Secret of Happiness

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“Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.”

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) — legendary abstract painter, revered minimalist, celebrated reconstructionist — would have celebrated her 101st on March 22nd. She has arguably done for modern art what John Cage has for music. In this short 1997 interview by Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama, an 85-year-old Martin shares her wisdom on art, solitude, and the secret of happiness. Highlights below.

Martin makes a case for finding your purpose and doing what you love:

There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want. … Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.

Adding to history’s famous definitions of art and echoing Susan Sontag on music, Martin observes:

Art is responded to with emotion … and the best art is music — that’s the highest form of art. It’s completely abstract, and we make about eight times as much response to music than any of the other arts.

She admonishes against the egocentricity of the artist:

The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself.

Seconding Maira Kalman on the value of the empty brain, Martin professes:

I’m an empty mind. When something comes into it, you can see it.

She echoes Hemingway’s insistence on solitude:

The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone.

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