Art Minimalism and Spirituality

A Grid of Lines by Agnes Martin

The artwork shown above was created by Agnes Martin (1912-2004). It is a line grid. 

The video which follows is an interview with painter Agnes Martin at her studio in Taos in Nov. 1997. (Youtube: Chuck Smith)

It is fascinating to hear Agnes Martin say, in this video interview, when asked if she meditates, that she stopped meditating when she stopped having thoughts. The reason this is fascinating, is that the end point of all spiritual traditions is to attain inner divine union by stopping the endless monkey mind of thoughts. 

When the Tate Museum had a large showing of Agnes Martin’s works in 2015, Nancy Princenthal, author of Agnes Martin: Her Art and Life, gave a talk related to the exhibit. In her talk, she did not make a connection to the possibility that Agnes Martin’s spiritual enlightenment may have explained her art. Instead she describes a very private person with a history of mental illness who sought refuge in producing her body of work. Obviously, considering the combination of spiritual enlightenment with mental illness is a complex albeit very interesting subject. In an excerpt of Princenthal’s book here, she describes Agnes Martin’s inspiration process as being psychic automatism.

Art critics describe minimalist artworks as lacking any emotional expression, or might even label it “cold”. Sometimes minimalism in art is described as a rebellion against normal art that seeks a shock effect from its viewer. 

Not all minimalist artists may claim an inner emptying from spiritual practices as the inspiration for their art, but, consider that at least some minimalist art creators have transcended the average person’s attachment to things and to thoughts and this is expressed in their art. With spiritual growth comes a desire for simplicity in one’s surroundings, possessions, and lifestyle. The goal of Eastern traditions and contemplative prayer and mystical saints like Saint Francis was non attachment. Agnes Martin was a student of these traditions. She had an interest in the saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, who on her deathbed said, “I only love simplicity” and her challenging spiritual process was one of subtraction.

All spiritual seekers find out that spiritual growth through practices like meditation are processes of emptying and subtraction, not about adding. Spiritual seekers seek to be surrounded by positive energy, or avoid negative energy. As in the monastic life, isolation and prayer or meditation in austere but naturally beautiful surroundings provide this environment. As Agnes often chose solitude and isolation, the sages of the East spent lifetimes in solitary living, sometimes in caves. 

If the artist produces the artwork while in a state of meditative bliss and perhaps while listening to godly music, some say that the viewer picks up on this energy when viewing the work or being around it. Viewing minimalist artwork is known to relax the viewer, spark creativity, and lead to contemplation. Martin’s works at the Tate captivated viewers. 

Below is an oil painting by Agnes Martin with faint pink lines. 

Pink Stripes by Agnes Martin

Another New Mexico artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, painted in a minimalist and simplistic style and towards the end of her life she lived more and more austerely in her surroundings. She attended local Catholic churches upon occasion, spent time with Thomas Merton, and mostly, found awe and transcendence in all forms of beauty and in the natural landscape. To follow, is a photo of the simple interior of her home in Abiquiu.

Georgia O'Keeffe Living Room

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