In early summer 1976, Agnes Martin and a 14-year-old Peter Mayne embarked on the first of a series of trips to the untouched landscapes of California, Colorado and New Mexico with the photographer Bill Katz. These weren’t leisurely excursions; Martin had decided to film her first – and only fully realised – feature film. The subject, she professed, was happiness, and the result, ‘Gabriel’ (1976), is currently on show at Lévy Gorvy in a rare screening, accompanied by a selection of her paintings.
This is an artist who spent her life in the pursuit of abstract painting: grids and stripes, minimal yet expressive abstractions, imperfect horizontal lines in soft, pastel shades and faint, pencil-drawn grids. A similarly meditative, light-bathed atmosphere pervades the film, and it is a revelation to see Martin’s artistic vision realised in the bread-and-butter reality of the physical landscape.
‘Gabriel’ opens with Peter facing the ocean, a lyrical echo of Martin painting ‘with her back to the world’, a nascent romantic rückenfigur. The stripes of the surf and sky are reminiscent of the broad bands of faded colour seen in her paintings. The film follows the boy as he walks, the camera pausing frequently to focus for minutes at a time on the accidents of nature as he climbs: a rushing stream, delicate flowers shivering in the wind.
The film is unscripted and has no real narrative, which, at 78 minutes long, is quite a challenge. Yet it provides a fascinating insight into how Martin saw the world. The glances are long; each quiver of a leaf or passing shade of dappled light on water is lovingly savoured. Taking this lingering approach to looking into the second room of the exhibition, where a small selection of paintings are displayed including a grid and a sunset-hued canvas entitled ‘Innocent Love’ (2001), is rewarding. With each moment, the sensations diffuse into your psyche a little further, letting a little more light in.
The film is interspersed with scatterings of Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’. Martin once entered a trance on hearing just the first few notes of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – her schizophrenia or perhaps just her incredible emotive receptivity unable to cope with the force of the music’s effect upon her. In ‘Gabriel’ the ‘Variations’ feature in short bursts, perhaps to manage this emotive effect. It is notable that Martin chose Gould’s recordings, punctuated by the performer’s hums and grunts as he plays, piercing the geometry of Bach’s music with a disarming humanity. This quality of irregularity in the otherwise perfect clarity is redolent of the small tremors in the lines of Martin’s grids, her pencil moving as she breathes, or the shaky camera work of ‘Gabriel’, as she later reflected: ‘trembling for joy because of the beautiful flowers’.
‘Gabriel’ works best as a real world accompaniment to Martin’s abstract meditations, an open doorway into her distinctive way of seeing. As the artist described in her extraordinary essay-cum-spiritual manifesto, ‘Beauty illustrates happiness; the wind in the grass, the glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds, all speak of happiness.’