Now that the documentary film about abstract expressionist artist Agnes Martin has been out for a few months, how has it been received? That’s the first question we asked Kathleen Brennan, co-director with Jina Brenneman of “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid,” which is set to receive an encore screening Thursday (March 16), 7 p.m., at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
“Locally, it’s been fantastic,” Brennan said of the film that premiered in Taos Sept. 15, 2016. “Even everywhere, it’s been fantastic. Locally, though, because so many people knew Agnes and some of the characters in the movie, it has made a lot bigger impact. But, you know, we’ve shown it in New York and people there were enthusiastic. It was a private screening, so it was a lot of artists, critics and museum people, so it was, I would say, overall for people who have an interest in Agnes or interest in art. When they see the movie, they go, ‘Wow!’ And I think it just speaks to how art is for a lot of people. You don’t understand something, but when you go and you do research or know the person who created this, it has a different kind of impact.”
What sets this film apart is its focus on Martin as not only an influential and innovative artist known the world over, but as a woman with a real life, real loves, real thoughts and emotions and imperfections. Through interviews with people who personally knew her, Brennan and Brenneman delve into the personal side of an artist who, for the most part, has been characterized as reclusive and an enigma to the art world.
“Agnes Martin is one of the most important artists of the 20th century,” text from the film’s website (beforethegrid.org) states. “Before she died in 2004 at the age of 92 her paintings sold for millions of dollars and were displayed in the world’s greatest museums. Martin was respected and achieved the art world’s highest awards. She painted for 23 years, until she reached a style she was happy with in 1964. Her time in New York in the early 60s saw her create what are now called her grid paintings. Despite many interviews, very little was known about her life. This Taos screening of the documentary film captures little known stories of Agnes Martin’s life prior to 1967 when she left New York City. Shared by friends, lovers and classmates who knew her well, these oral history interviews give insight into Martin’s personality and the development of her creative process.”
The film is an expansion of a 2012 exhibition — also titled “Before the Grid” — mounted at the Harwood Museum in Taos by its former curator, Jina Brenneman, as an homage to Martin’s 100th birthday. The kernel of the idea was rooted in the belief that no one had ever really explored Martin’s work before she adopted “the grid,” a stylistic convention for which she is most noted. In digging, Brenneman discovered a whole other side to not only her work, but the woman herself.
Then, in 2014, Brenneman called up Brennan and told her she had an idea about making a documentary film about Martin’s years “Before the Grid.”
Not exactly an “exposé,” the film reveals elements of her personality that the artist did not publicly disclose during her life. Brennan said the artist was a lesbian who worked, grew up out of poverty and who had to live with recurring mental illness. When asked bluntly if Martin would have approved of this film telling this side of her life story, Brennan said, “She probably would have hated it. But, you know, does that matter today? … She probably would have tried to stop it or she might not have cared. I don’t know.”
Brennan said it remains important to tell this side of the story, lest it be forgotten or obscured by time. In the long run, she said it helps enrich our view of an artist whose work is appreciated the world over and is now seen with greater clarity and understanding.
Doors will open at 6 p.m. for a meet-and-greet reception with the filmmakers. A question-and-answer session is also scheduled following the screening.
Tickets are $20 per person. They are available at the Taos Community Auditorium box office, by phone from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at (575) 758-2052 or online at tcataos.org.
The screening is sponsored by New Mexico Foundation for Human Enrichment (nmfhe.org).