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John Green reviews two works of visual art—a series of six paintings by Agnes Martin called “With My Back to the World,” and an untitled 2003 ink drawing by Hiroyuki Doi.

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Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing two works of visual art—a series of six paintings by Agnes Martin called “With My Back to the World,” and an untitled 2003 ink drawing by Hiroyuki Doi. 

But let’s begin with our backs to the world. The famous gallerist Arne Glimcher tells this story about the artist Agnes Martin: Glimcher says that once his 11-year-old granddaughter Isobel was visiting Martin. The little girl was holding onto a rose clipped from a bush outside Martin's house. And Agnes Martin took the rose and said to the girl, "Is this rose really beautiful?" And Isobel said yes. And then Agnes Martin hid the rose behind her back and said, "Is the rose still beautiful?" “Yes,” said Isobel. And then Agnes Martin said, "You see, Isobel. Beauty is in your mind, not in the rose."

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Martin had a hell of a life. Born in rural Saskatchewan, Canada, and she grew up feeling that her mother hated and resented her. According to Nancy Princethal’s book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, a fascinating if prosaically titled biography, when Martin was about six she needed her tonsils out. And Her mother gave Martin instructions on how to get to the hospital, and told her to take the streetcar. So six-year-old Agnes went through the operation, and the two-day recovery alone, and then took the streetcar back home. “God how she hated me,” Martin later recalled of her mother. 

Martin went on to become an elite swimmer, nearly making the Canadian Olympic team in the early 1930s before moving to the United States. She was briefly a chauffeur for the John Huston, who was about to become a famous movie director. She taught school in a one-room schoolhouse. And she often found work as a cook or a dishwasher. “Whenever I was really starving,” she said, “I always washed dishes because I got closer to the food.”

She was painting throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but little of that work survives because Martin destroyed nearly everything she painted in those years. She just wasn’t happy with any of it—not the dead-eyed self-portraits or the mountainous landscapes or even her early attempts at abstraction. She was over 50 years old the first time she really liked one of her paintings. Martin often cited a 1964 painting, called The Tree, as her first success. “I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees,” she recalled, “and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence.

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And so I painted it and then I was satisfied.” 

The Tree was painted on a square canvas. It’s a grid of long, thin rectangles painted over horizontal stripes that alternate between a lighter and darker blue. Weirdly, at least to my eyes, it really does look like innocence--it looks like how you feel when as a kid you know that magic isn’t real, but you also kind of secretly think it might be.

I find it interesting that Martin chose rectangles for so many of her paintings, because they are so common in the human parts of the Anthropocene and so rare in the natural parts. Like, when I wrote this, I was sitting on a rectangular couch with my feet propped up on a rectangular coffee table, looking out the rectangular window of a rectangular door. And through that window, I can see a maple tree, the last of its leaves clinging to branches. There was nothing rectangular about the tree, or for that matter anything else I can see in the woods outside. Nature is fractals. It’s curved, spiked, round, oblong, and porous. And so it’s very clear that Martin is not trying to paint a tree. She is painting the innocence of a tree. She’s not trying to paint a rose, but the beauty of a rose.


And this gets at an old problem in art--whether music or literature or visual art or whatever. It’s easy enough to paint a symbol of innocence. An unclothed newborn baby, say, or the unlined, softly lit face of a maiden, or a lamb, or whatever.

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But those are not pictures of innocence itself. Innocence has no face or shape; it’s an abstract idea. Of course, metaphor can be a way into those abstractions, but when over-relied upon, metaphor becomes not just a crutch but a falsehood. If we start to conceive of innocence as having the form of a lamb, then we have wrongly defined both “lamb” and “innocence.” Furthermore, these symbols aren’t universal; they’re highly dependent upon cultural context.


The question for Martin was how do you paint innocence without relying on those essentializing metaphors? And that endeavor—to paint emotion itself—was, and still is, highly controversial in the art world. Martin’s friend Ad Reinhardt once said that “Artists who peddle wiggly lines and colors as representing emotion should be run off the streets.” 


And I do get it when people look at Martin’s paintings of rectangular grids and say, “I could do that.” I mean, they couldn’t, but I understand the urge to walk past Martin’s paintings in a gallery or museum and roll your eyes. I did that for years, actually. 


But then one day, I found myself in a room of six Agnes Martin paintings called “With My Back to the World.” She painted them in 1997, near the end of her life. They’re just horizontal bands of faint color—pastel pinks and yellows and blues. In some cases, the colors are barely visible. And when I first saw them at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, they cracked me open. They made me cry.

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Looking at them, I remembered how it felt to be content, and although I wasn’t content, the paintings seemed to promise that someday I would be again. Martin once said, “If you wake up in the morning and you feel very happy, about nothing, no cause, that’s what I paint about, the subtle emotions that we feel without cause in this world.” 


She also said, "From music, people accept pure emotion. But from art, they demand explanation." Being in that room, I felt pure emotion, and I didn’t know why, and I didn’t care why. But now years later, I inevitably want to explain it to you. Offering you that quote, or snippets of her biography, are forms of explanation. It is explanation to say that after a decade in the New York art world, Martin famously abandoned it in 1967, traveling for over a year before eventually settling in New Mexico, where she lived in an adobe home she built herself. It’s explanation to say that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, or that she lived alone for most of her life. And it’s explanation to say that at the time of her death in 2004, Agnes Martin claimed not to have read a newspaper in over 50 years. She painted with her back to all that, or at least tried to, and instead focused intensely on inspiration—finding it, listening to it, and painting it. 


Martin was self-aware and very funny—observing a river, she once shouted, “I like your plumbing, Lord.”

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But she was not unfamiliar with misery. She knew intense psychic pain, and wrote about it with stunning clarity. Of panic, she wrote, “One feels as though something terrible has happened without knowing what it is.” And in her life, she was not disengaged with worldly suffering. After she became wealthy, she continued to live modestly—aside from indulging in fancy cars—and anonymously donated millions of dollars to organizations working with marginalized kids and domestic violence victims. I’d argue her paintings don’t ignore suffering; they just argue that while suffering is real, so is much else. They paint the feeling of beauty that survives the world’s ugliness, and the innocence that can’t be wholly crushed by experience. 


We often talk about how difficult it can be to render pain in art—Picasso’s Guernica, for instance, is celebrated as a masterpiece because it found a way to communicate the jumbled horrors of mechanized warfare. In an essay about Picasso’s work, the French writer Michel Leiris wrote, “Everything we love is about to die, and that is why everything we love must be summed up with all the high emotion of farewell in something so beautiful we shall never forget it.” That kind of grandiosity is indeed what we’ve traditionally heralded as genius in art, but it seems to me that finding direct expression for something other than the high emotion of farewell is also valuable. How do you paint the beauty that is in your mind? That was the challenge Martin set for herself. I know it is easy to dismiss canvases lightly painted with bands of pastel color.

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But if you ever find the opportunity to commune with Agnes Martin’s paintings, and you take some time to be in their presence, you may find--as I did--that they make visible a joy you know but cannot name. 


I give With My Back to the World four and a half stars. 


After the break we’ll turn our attention to obsessive drawing, and your narrator’s own history of repetitive mark-making, but first.


So one weird thing about me is that I have signed my name over 500,000 times. This effort began in earnest back in 2011, when I decided to sign the entire first printing of a novel I’d written.

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The idea was that I would sign sheets of paper that would then be bound into copies of the book as they were printed, and so over the course of a few months, signing between six and eight hours a day, I signed around 150,000 of these sheets. Sometimes I listened to podcasts or audiobooks while signing, but a lot of the time I just sat there, alone in my basement, signing my name over and over again. I never really found it boring, because each time I was trying to achieve some ideal form that I have in my head of what my signature looks like, and I can never quite achieve it. 

And paying attention to the slight variations was also engaging in a way I find really difficult to explain. There is a very specific itch within my brain that repetitive action scratches. I realize there may be some connection there to my having obsessive-compulsive disorder, but then again, lots of people enjoy doodling, which is really all my signing boils down to. Doodling is good even for healthy brains—it relieves stress in ways similar to pacing or fidgeting, and it can actually aid with attentiveness. A 2009 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that people given license to doodle recalled more information than non-doodlers, perhaps because doodling requires just enough brainpower to keep the mind from wandering. 

Now, I wouldn’t say I enjoy repetitive tasks, exactly, but I do benefit from them. Sometimes, when I feel really burnt out and exhausted and I don’t know what to do with myself or whether my work matters or if I’m ever going to do anything of use to anyone,

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I ask my publisher to send me ten or twenty thousand sheets of paper, and I sign them just to have something specific and measurable to do for a week or two. I don’t even know whether those sheets end up in books. I hope they do, and I hope they make readers happy, but to be honest, I do it for myself, because it makes me …. Not happy, exactly, but engrossed. Which is what I want to feel most of the time, I think. It’s such an ugly word, engrossed, for such an absolutely beatific experience.

I first saw the ink drawings of Hiroyuki Doi in 2006, at the American Folk Art Museum’s show about obsessive drawing. Doi’s drawings are epic conglomerations of circles, thousands--or maybe tens of thousands--of tiny circles tightly packed together, combining to form vast, wildly intricate abstractions. Some people say they look like teeming masses of cells, or like galactic nebulae, or like souls trans-migrating. The one that struck me most was a 2003 drawing, shaped vaguely like a human eye turned on its side, 55 inches high and twenty-seven inches wide. Like many of his works, it is untitled. At times, the circles branch off from each other like blood vessels, at others, they seem to swirl around centers of gravity. And as I looked longer and longer at the circles, it took on a third dimension, and I felt like I could step into the drawing, like the circles were not just before me but also above and below and behind and within.

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Doi didn’t set out to be an artist; he was a successful chef when in 1980 his younger brother died of a brain tumor. Overwhelmed with grief, he began to draw circles, and found that he could not stop drawing them, because they helped him find “relief from the sadness and grief.” 

What fascinates me about Doi’s drawings is partly the glaring obsessiveness of them. They look like circling, recursive thoughts made visible. And they are deeply engrossing. You can lose yourself inside a Doi drawing, which is maybe the point. But they also communicate the desire to find relief from the consuming pain of loss. Doi uses that word regularly in interviews: Relief. And that is what I’m also desperate for whenever I get knocked over by grief or pain or panic. 

When I was young, a friend of mine died, and afterwards, I would wake up each morning and for a moment I would not be aware of her death, and I’d feel normal for just a millisecond before the great stifling curtain of grief descended. Sometimes, I would try to go to sleep just so I could wake up and have that precious moment of innocence, of relief. We talk of grief in stages—denial, bargaining, acceptance, and so on. But for me at least it is mostly a series of tightly packed circles that fade over time like ink exposed to light, until you can’t remember what you want to, until there’s no you to do the remembering. 

Why have I signed my name half a million times?

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Why has Hiroyuki Doi spent the last forty years drawing tiny circles? I don’t know. Here’s what Doi says about it: “I have to keep on working, otherwise nothing will be brought into existence.” And I guess that’s true. But sometimes I feel like the paper is better before we get ahold of it—when it is still wood. Other times, I love the marks we leave. They feel like gifts and signs, like trail markers in the wilderness. I know we’ve left scars everywhere, and that our obsessive desire to make and have and do and say and go and get—six of the seven most common verbs in English—may ultimately steal away our ability to be, the most common verb in English. Even though we know that none of our marks will really last, that time is coming not just for all of us but for all we make, we can’t stop scribbling, can’t stop seeking relief wherever we can find it. But I am nonetheless glad that Hiroyuki Doi keeps on working, bringing things into existence, “creating out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before,” as William Faulkner put it. I am glad to be unalone in those cramped circles of restless yearning. 

I give Hiroyuki Doi’s ink drawing four stars. 

Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Tony Philips. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Hannis Brown makes the music.

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Thanks also to Leah, who wrote in to share with me how thoroughly human rectangles are, and to my wife, Sarah, who suggested the topics of today’s reviews. If you’d like to suggest a topic, or just say hi, please email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. We get such wonderful emails, and I apologize for not responding to any of them, but please know that reading them makes me feel like an Agnes Martin painting does. Thanks again for listening; we’ll see you again on the last Thursday of next month.