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Agnes Martin:Gabriel - The Open College of the Arts

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Agnes Martin:Gabriel

I had a slightly bizarre experience last night courtesy of the artist’s rooms research project. The evening was billed as an evening with Agnes Martin and as she died in 2004 I already suspected an idiosyncratic approach to the delivery of the event.

I was further wrong-footed by the evening being part of a series called ‘clips’ which led me to believe that I would be watching clips. There are los of delightful clips of Agnes Martin in her later years talking about life and painting and so I suppose that was what I thought I had signed up for. I was being far too literal and in fact we watched one long near silent film (78mins).

Many of you will know Agnes Martin as  a painter, and in fact this is not only the only film she ever made but also one which she made with almost no technical prowess or understanding whatsoever in terms of the mechanics of operating a camera or even really of cinematography more broadly.


The film is called Gabriel and is of a little boy walking rather stoically through some pretty incredible countryside.  Most of the time is spent watching the boy enter from one side of the shot and walk past off the other side, only to reappear in the next ‘scene’ doing the same thing. Martin is still  (behind the camera apart from a moment where she accidentally gets her hand in the frame) and he walks past. The central section has no boy in it and is a series of vignettes of flowers, trees and water, She seems unable to operate the focus of her camera and I think I was the only person who actually laughed during the screening as I found real pleasure in the extended shots of single daisies or flowers where the flower head was completely blurred and out of focus and an adjacent anonymous part of the underbrush was pin sharp. Very Hans Peter Feldman.

Her lack of skill reminded me of the Portsmouth Sinfonia – an orchestra where all the players are musicians but are playing an instrument other than the one in which they are proficient.  Because I also really like them and similarly find them funny and moving, I enjoyed spending time watching someone with real love for structure and mystery partially trapped inside technical inadequacies which then seem to drop the register of the whole thing down into something rather tender and vulnerable – also a much more accurate analogy to human communication as how many of us are virtuoso at that?

Rosalind Krauss apparently criticised the film being made public as she suggested it limited our reading of Martin’s paintings to landscape and that Martin had failed to consider the effects of a possible ‘backwash’ of interpretation following the film.

My own feelings on this are hard to pin down and relate to something very intimate about being a modern painter. Paint acts, when you are working with it in the way that Agnes Martin does, as a kind of universal substance. It can be turned into anything but its mercuriality (if that is a word) and its underlying sameness is what gives it its power as a substance for me and for many painters.  Being out in what was then such an ‘unspoilt’ and massive landscape, or even watching a small boy traverse it from the not such comfort of a small art cinema, again brings a sense of massive potential, huge diversity interacting with an underlying universality. It is easy to poo poo universality sitting at a desk whilst man made surfaces quietly off gas me to an early grave, but in a New Mexico expanse without a single pylon, dwelling or even source of water as far as the eye can see – maybe not so much.

To me, what Agnes struggles to focus on in this film is moments in nature where complex intricacies proliferate across the surface of unknowable expanse and detailed observations coexist with an appreciation of mystery and the unknowable.

It’s a shame that Martin didn’t get organised with a few film lessons as I would love to see a film she made where she was more able to do whatever it is she had hoped to do. There is a lot that makes it into the film (particularly the slapstick depth of field adjustments) that she probably would have rather not been. It’s so technically poor that I feel pretty sure that this film only made it out into the public realm because Agnes Martin was already a renowned painter. Having said that, it operates rather like a student’s logbook. It is Agnes Martin taking us on a derive if you will, and I am happy to have made that journey with her.

Image Credits:

Featured: Agnes Martin Gabriel 1976, Film still, 16mm, 2 reels, Answer Print, Negative printing rolls, 78 minutes. Photographs by Bill Jacobson, courtesy Pace Gallery © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Posted by author: Emma Drye

10 thoughts on “Agnes Martin:Gabriel

  • It has been interesting to read this post Emma, as a student nearing the end of my degree in Painting, but who also included some video work in my assessment submission and now working towards organizing and curating an exhibition of my work. I have found myself thinking hard about what to include, wondering weather to include the video piece, thinking about if it really fits with the other work, or is a distraction, or perhaps the beginnings of another body of work, or area of investigation. And your words- ‘organizing a few film lessons’, seemed to stand out for me. that’s something I might pursue. I would be quite interested to see the Agnes Martin film.

    • Hi Sue, Sustaining your Practice is such a great opportunity for students to explore the curatorial possibilities of their developing practice. Exhibiting video alongside painting can be hugely rewarding. There is no need to become an accomplished film maker – in fact there are many valuable things to be gained from avoiding that. The trick is to make sure you know what you need to know to make what you want to make – that may lead to a requirement for an extensive knowledge of cinematography, or it may simply be that you need a little bit of editing know how. Don’t allow the technicalities to overwhelm the artitistc focus – remember that you have just made that journey with paint!

  • I feel somewhat conflicted by this Emma. I don’t know this artist’s work, but you say that she ‘made’ this work. And from that I suppose, for example, she made certain decisions about editing, about the ‘flow’ of narrative, about scenes, about aesthetics. I also get the sense from what you say that it was a work that she was prepared to disseminate, to release and not confine it to the cutting room floor, otherwise why were you able to view as part of an audience?
    As you say film acts, much as film acts, in a technical way – to exposure to light and to chemical development, both analogues and analogous to painting. But it also responds to the artist’s will in many ways, it will combine with the optical properties of the camera and the results might be both predictable and hapticly (if that’s a word) whimsical. And because of that, those out of focus shots, that apparent inability to operate the camera, were perhaps purposeful and that she had had some lessons in camera work? Just thoughts…

    • Hi Jsumb, yes I agree that ‘mis’using the technical aspects of a process is an essential part of an artists tool kit. We had an introduction to the film for a researcher who is just completing her PhD on the film and so I was able to hear quite a bit of the background to its production and reception from her in advance of viewing the film. Agnes Martin herself certainly did want it to be disseminated much more widely than it was – she made it apparently as a rebuttal of commercial cinema at the time (start wars etc) and would have preferred it to be shown in mainstream cinemas as an alternative. In terms of how purposeful her apparent ‘mistakes’ were, the critical concensus at the time was that they were not, and watching the film I had the strong sensation that I was watching someone struggling to manage a camera. I suppose you would need to look at the film yourself to have an opinion there but fingers on the lens and various other things like long lingering shots on single flowers which were completely blurred whereas others were in focus just kind of built up a certain amount of circumstantial evidence.
      I do also think, and this relates to Sue’s point, that using a different material or process than usual can open you up to be fresher and more raw about how it is used as you are not as interested, or perhaps even aware, of levels of finish or habits within the discipline that have accrued and that can elicit exciting freedoms. To a point, I had no need for Martin to be an expert film maker, it was just that at some points the film just didn’t have enough power – it wasn’t able to evince the specifics of experience or whatever with the same degree of power and accuracy that her paintings do or that a film mamker with a similar vibe like Seaumus Harahan.
      one of these weblinks shows a film with droplets of water moving down a wire and if you watch it you will hopefully find yourself glued to the droplest! The film is not polished but artistically speaking it is focussed. He is on vimeo and if you can find the video of the boy trying to get under the gate anywhere online I recommend it, it is gripping!

    • as a child growing up on a red brick council estate I remember tiny red spiders that just seems to be little balloons of red juice, as if they were drinking from the bricks. I look for them as an adult but I never see them. It was such a weird mystical experience watching animated pieces of brick juice crawling on bricks apparently without heads. I do worry for my daughter, probably needlessly, that her access to digital information 24/7 means she doesn’t get time for these odd moments of what I suppose now is called mindfulness.

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