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When Agnes was under the age of ten and still small enough that it was acceptable to jostle with boys, she saved her pocket money to buy art postcards. Agnes and her older brother, Ronald, sat together at the kitchen table in the evenings and with a few basic color crayons set about reproducing the postcards on wrapping paper salvaged from the local convenience store. Ronald was a better draftsman, though he had an unfair advantage, being four years older than his sister.
In 1919, when she was seven, Agnes bought one of these postcards, a reproduction of Jean-François Millet's The Angelus. Though it had been painted sixty years previously, this scene (a man and woman praying in a field at sunset) could easily have been from Agnes's own early years in the expansive central plains of Canada. As the granddaughter of Scottish Presbyterians, the heads of the laborers bowed in prayer was a familiar profile to Agnes. The young girl would also have identified with the tools of labor and the plain dress of the workers, though it would be some years before she could put into words the language of Millet's brushwork, the luminosity of the sunset, and the inescapable heaviness of the high horizon line that would resonate with her as an adult.
Agnes was the third child of Margaret Kinnon and Malcolm Ian Martin. Agnes's paternal grandfather was a prosperous wheat farmer and her maternal grandfather, a rancher and fur trader. The Martins and Kinnons were respected families from the county of Kirkcudbright in the southwest of Scotland, and the Isle of Skye. Both families immigrated to Canada around 1875, first settling in Mount Forest, Ontario. Malcolm Martin and Margaret Kinnon later journeyed in covered wagons to Macklin, Sasketchewan, deep in the heart of the Canadian prairie.
To the Martins, Kirkcudbrightshire was wild and desolate and its coast was rocky and gray; it was a dynamic landscape, and it was home. The plains of Sasketchewan by comparison, were foreign and vast: a train that came into view on the horizon at nine in the morning only disappeared from view at noon. For Agnes, this recollection evoked a land that was stable and sublime, but for her mother it signified a land that was static and boring — there was little frivolity in Macklin. If it had not been for its location at the intersection of two Canadian Pacific Railway lines, Macklin may never have had a chance to prosper and achieve town status, which happened just eight months after Agnes was born. Even during the Martin siblings' childhood, the town consisted of little more than imposing wooden grain elevators, hardware stores catering to the homesteaders, and rivers of mud, otherwise known as the road.
Agnes's father arrived in Macklin in his mid-thirties, a survivor of the Second Boer War and a soldier of the British Crown. In traditional accounts of Agnes's upbringing Malcolm is described as a farmer, which is not strictly true. He was a businessman and a successful manager of a wheat elevator and chop mill, and his position, as well as Margaret's upwardly mobile ambition, made the Martins middle class — almost. While Malcolm escaped to Macklin and farther afield for business, Margaret was left on the three hundred and twenty acre farm caring for three children. No sooner was the first child born than the next was on its way: Ronald was born in 1908, Maribel in 1910, Agnes Bernice in 1912, and Malcolm Junior in 1915.
Margaret was frustrated by Macklin's oppressive landscape, her lack of social standing, and the lack of opportunities to make a better and more comfortable life. These feelings were exacerbated in 1914 with the death of her husband. Suddenly Margaret had to fend for herself and protect her three — about to be four — children; she was pregnant with Malcolm Junior when Malcolm Senior passed away.
There are different and conflicting accounts surrounding the death of Malcolm Martin. One account states that Margaret left her husband before he died and moved with her children to Calgary, Alberta, to the homestead of her father, Robert Kinnon. This version claims she left her husband when she found out he had syphilis, which ultimately killed him. However, most biographical accounts of Agnes suggest that Malcolm died of injuries sustained during the Second Boer War (where he served with his cousin John McCrae, the poet best known for "In Flanders Fields"). To complicate matters, Agnes herself refers to both versions in interviews over the years, never offering a clear version of events, possibly because she never knew the truth. Meanwhile, the writer Nancy Princenthal questions the dates surrounding this episode, noting that in official land records Margaret claimed to have lived in Macklin until 1916, moving to Lumsden in 1917.
Perhaps all of the above is true? It's possible that Malcolm sustained war injuries, and contracted a disease, and his wife left him, returning to their land after he had died. Whatever the particulars of the family story, Malcolm Martin's death left its mark on the family: Agnes and Malcolm Junior never knew their father, and Agnes developed a fantasy that her father was the only person who ever loved her or had faith in her, even though she had no memory of him.
Agnes's childhood was solitary: she recalls that when she was six she traveled alone on public transportation to a hospital in order to have her tonsils removed. Although she was unaware that she would have to stay the night, she did so without a worry, returning home alone the following day.
When I was two, I was locked up in the back porch, and when I was three, I would play in the backyard. When I came to the door, my sister would say "you can't come in," and shut the door. All day I was out, all day, till five o'clock. When I was four I was in the yard. When I was five, I started walking around the town. Six — when I went to school I didn't come home from school, 'cause I wasn't wanted.
Despite these scenes of neglect, Agnes was happy being alone. When she walked to school with Ronald and Maribel she would trail behind, lost in daydreams, inventing stories or trying to remember the names of flowers and weeds.
In 1919 Margaret Martin moved to Vancouver, a bustling city at the time. Since Malcolm Martin's death she had been dusting off the Macklin cobwebs and re-inventing herself as an industrious businesswoman, buying old homes, renovating and reselling them. Margaret had four children to raise, so in order to be successful she relied heavily on her father for support. Both Robert Kinnon and Margaret Martin believed that children should be left to their own devices to bring themselves up. Agnes interpreted this attitude as benevolence on the part of her grandfather and neglect on the part of her mother:
My mother hated me, because I interfered with her social life ... She's a fierce, fierce woman. She enjoyed seeing people hurt. Her favorite television program was boxing, and she got right up close to the television, and just watched them smacking his head ... as a matter of fact, she hated me, but I liked her ... I liked her because she worked so hard. She made a good house clean, she was a good cook, she sewed, and I felt sorry for her making my clothes when she hated me so much.
Perhaps Agnes reminded Margaret of Malcolm Senior, particularly as she grew up into a young, outgoing woman? As a teenager, Agnes didn't possess the fine fingers of her mother and sister, who would sit together in the evenings knitting and stitching and weaving. Agnes was rustic, not domestic. She knew how to fish, hike, and chop wood. Maybe she couldn't follow a quilting pattern from a magazine, but she had imagination. As a young girl she would make boats out of apple barrels that she would then try to sail up the Fraser River in Vancouver; an ambition defeated by scale.
The young woman was drawn to water, perhaps inspired by stories of cold black mountain lakes in Scotland, the family voyage across the Atlantic, and tales of illegal smugglers in the Bay of Auchencairn. Swimming was a favorite pastime for the Martin children. Water could either quench your thirst or drown you — to tread it and understand it was a thrill. Agnes competed against her brothers in swimming races, often defeating them with ease. It was not long before Ronald and Malcolm Junior played coach to their athletic sister, keeping a record of her times and testing her stamina. The efforts of the children paid off. Malcolm Junior and Agnes became provincial champions and local medalists, both runners-up in Olympic tryouts (Agnes in 1928) in their teenage years, with their pictures in the local paper. As a result Agnes became known around town as Iggidy Martin, the famous swimmer. Neither Agnes nor Malcolm Junior, however, would realize their Olympic potential: Margaret Martin thought that being competitive was an unattractive trait in a woman, and the family did not have the money to encourage the children's athletic aspirations.
If Agnes's early childhood was solitary her adolescence appears to have been anything but. Agnes was handsome, with thick brown hair parted on the left. She had a long feline brow and high cheekbones. Boys and girls liked her because she flittered between shyness and exuberance. Agnes might dance with you one moment, or beat you in an arm wrestle the next, and just as soon as she had, withdraw to a pier, dipping her toes in the water and ruining her white cotton stockings. The only thing she loved more than swimming was dancing and going to parties. Though a staunch Calvinist, her grandfather was relaxed in his attitude toward his grandchildren. When Agnes would argue with her step-grandmother about what time to come home from a party, her grandfather would intervene, saying she could stay out as late as she wanted as long as she was home before they woke up the next day. This casual approach to child rearing and discipline made Agnes naïve in other ways. She explains:
When I was in high school, I don't know what struck me. I was, I guess I was promiscuous. But I got over it. I started young, too young to get into trouble. I didn't menstruate till I was about 16 and a half, and so I never got pregnant or anything, but I just, umm ... I didn't care what they thought. But what stopped me was a boy, three boys it was, they called me a slut. And so I stopped dating. I stopped this 'every night out.' But I don't regret it, my gosh, I don't think a thing of it.
Agnes called her behavior "absent-minded," but this does not reflect the dogmatic rhetoric she was accustomed to as a child, which she would use later in life. For instance, Agnes frequently uses the word debasement as a substitute for sex in her later interviews and writings. This throws some light on the sermonizing she experienced growing up. It's worth remembering that though her nights were spent dancing at parties, her mornings and afternoons were spent listening to the voice of her grandfather reading Robert Burns, The Song of Solomon, and The Pilgrim's Progress. At night, Agnes was a teenager of the Jazz Age, but during the day she was a student versed in the philosophy and romanticism of Scottish nationalism and the allegory of scripture. Later in life these influences would resurface in her writings and lectures, sometimes in the form of The Willie Stories, a series of spiritual koan-infused parables co-authored with the artist Ann Wilson.
By the end of the 1920s Agnes's world was changing. Margaret Martin remarried in 1928 and was looking toward the future: three of her children were adults and she was eager to start a new life with her new husband, a dashing barber named William Frith. Agnes's friends were also getting married and the Great Depression was debilitating all of North America, including Canada. With no family base, no job prospects and no relationship Agnes moved to the U.S. in 1931 to Bellingham, Washington to help her sister Maribel through a difficult pregnancy. Agnes brought with her the baggage of her childhood: hardship, solitude, never-ending plains, and a love of swimming — pastimes and experiences that would inform her art and personality the rest of her life.
While in Bellingham, Agnes attended Whatcom High School, where she found the education superior to her high school education in Canada. Upon graduating from Whatcom in 1933, Agnes received a swimming scholarship at the University of Southern California, which she dropped out of after a few months, returning to Bellingham.
While in Los Angeles Agnes became the household cook to Rhea Gore, the mother of soon-to-be film director John Huston. In 1933, when Huston was involved in a car accident that killed a pedestrian, it was rumored that Agnes was, for a short time, his chauffeur. Agnes was twenty-one and John was twenty-seven and it's probable that they took a liking to each other given their hardy and outgoing natures. John, like Agnes, was a sportsperson (he had been a promising boxer in his teens), as well as the earliest known artist Agnes encountered (at that time his career was screenwriting). Agnes, the rough and pretty prairie girl driving around Hollywood during the golden age of silent film — the year Greta Garbo first "spoke," and John Wayne first galloped, on screen — conjures an amusing spectacle of those times. Hollywood, however glamorous, even during the Depression, did not change Agnes's life in any meaningful way and she almost never spoke of it in interviews. Instead, her life would be forever changed upon returning to Bellingham and enrolling in Washington State Normal School (Bellingham Teachers College), where she befriended four exceptional young sisters.CHAPTER 2
The Kane Sisters
The Kane family lived in a big house on Tacoma Street in Portland, Oregon, with a large black car in the driveway and a small house in the shadow of the first. Mr. Kane was a greengrocer and Mrs. Kane was a homemaker, and they had four daughters, Margaret, Harriet, Mildred, and Elizabeth. By the time the Depression had swept with force into Oregon in 1929, the Kane family were, in theory, better positioned than most to withstand its impact: Mr. Kane had links to farmers and suppliers in the state and could guarantee his family basic produce. While the Depression was challenging for the country as a whole, the Kane sisters soon had more personal hardships to overcome. In the Depression's early years, Mrs. Kane passed away from cancer, and Mr. Kane died of a heart attack. The sisters were bereft, and the two eldest, Harriet and Margaret, were forced to withdraw from Reed College where they had been studying, and move back to Tacoma Street to put the family affairs in order.
Any other quartet of young ladies might have settled down with the first eligible suitor who sauntered up the sidewalk, but the Kane sisters were a different breed. The women were raised to be independent thinkers and they had each other to rely on. In order to offset the devastating effects of the Depression they sold the larger family home on Tacoma Street, keeping the smaller house on the property. With the income from the sale of the big house, Harriet and Margaret enrolled in Bellingham Teachers College (today, Western Washington College of Education) to study for certificates in teaching. It was there that they befriended Agnes. The three women sat together in classes and shared lunch while they discussed their lessons. Margaret and Harriet found Agnes intriguing and turning to her one evening said, "You know, we have another sister that we think you might like."
Mildred Kane was studying for her undergraduate degree at Reed College when she first met Agnes. Mildred, like her sisters, was a libertarian with "strong and uncommon views" on the potential of women, and Agnes had never met anybody like her. So often in Vancouver and certainly within her own family, Agnes had struggled to be understood. Smart and excitable, Mildred encouraged Agnes to think for herself; she was always patient and nurturing of Agnes's ideas.
The Kane family became the first of many surrogate families to Agnes, and her studies improved under their influence. Agnes's entrance test results for college were poor despite repeating high school in America. She received a C+ for general aptitude for higher education, C's and D's in spelling, math and history and an F each for English and penmanship. However, with encouragement from Mildred and the Kane sisters, Agnes's grades improved to B's and A's in English and history, and in her one art class she got an A. Subsequently, Agnes graduated from Bellingham in 1937 with a certificate in teaching that allowed her to teach both elementary and junior high schools, which she set about doing immediately.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Agnes Martin"
Copyright © 2018 Henry Martin.
Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
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Table of Contents
A Note On Artwork 11
Prologue: Who Was Agnes Martin? 17
Pioneer: (1912-1957) 25
1 Millet's Horizon (1912-1933) 31
2 The Kane Sisters (1933-1946) 39
3 All The Way To Albuquerque (1946-1951) 49
4 Daphne Cowper Vaughn 59
5 Personages (1951-1954) 65
6 Taos, New Mexico (1954-1957) 79
7 Kristina Brown Wilson 85
Painter: (1957-1967) 103
8 Betty Parsons 109
9 Coenties Slip, New York 119
10 Lenore Tawney 147
11 Leaving New York 165
Icon: (1967-2004) 181
12 Becoming Someone Else (1967-1973) 187
13 Cuba, On A Clear Day (1971-1976) 195
14 Gabriel 221
15 Galisteo (1977-1993) 231
16 I Came Home (1993-2004) 247
17 Studio Life 263
18 The Storyteller Cinema 273
19 An Unlikely Benefactor 283
20 The Peach Tree (2004-2012) 291
Epilogue: Serendipities (2014) 297