There are times in life when events beyond our control have a disproportionate effect on day-to-day wellbeing, and the election results certainly qualify. Those of us who have lived through a number of presidential transitions (and who have observed the operation of government from a front row seat “inside the Beltway”) know that it takes a lot of players to make change happen, but a lot of worrisome noise can be made in the process. We can only hope that sanity will be injected into the transition process by laws that are already in place. Meanwhile we must focus on the things we can do something about—strengthening our connections to loved ones and renewing our commitment to purposeful activity. As a creative person, I’ve been thinking a lot about my output and asking what is meaningful work in difficult times. I’m very grateful that I just saw the Agnes Martin Retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, because her perseverance sets an example. Martin worked up to her death at age 92, and the exhibit spans her creative life in more than 100 artworks. Her canvasses are precise and spare, incorporating lines, grids, and stripes of translucent color. Though at first glance her work appears minimal, there is nothing removed about it; the paintings draw you in, inviting you, in her words, to “go there and sit and look.” One group of 12 large canvases, “The Islands,” look like identical white squares, but as you wait for your eyes to adjust, pale colors—blue, pink, yellow— begin to emerge out of haze, as if coming towards you. I could feel myself being enveloped by a painting, sinking into it. Critics have tried to file Martin with the minimalists because of the spareness of her canvases and her use of grids and repetition, but she believed her work was abstract and that it had the power to express positive emotions. She looked to her painting as a meditation, a way to cope with turbulent feelings (she struggled with schizophrenia), and her canvasses offer an antidote to chaos, anger, and confusion. “I believe in living above the line,” she said in an interview. “Above the line is happiness and love. And below the line is badness, destruction, and unhappiness. I don’t go down below the line for anything.” Seeing her retrospective has inspired me to keep working above that line.
Pictured: Falling Blue, 1963, oil and graphite on canvas