Living with Agnes Martin

Donald Woodman began his career by assisting architectural photographer Ezra Stoller, studying at MIT with Minor White, and working at the Sacramento Peak Solar Observatory in New Mexico. After relocating to an Albuquerque, New Mexico compound for young artists in 1977, however, everything changed. The owners of the compound briefly introduced Woodman to seminal painter Agnes Martin (who had moved to Albuquerque that same year), and a few days later, Woodman found a mysterious note tucked into his door: “Dear Donald, I am at 9311 4th. Would like you to call as soon as it is convenient. Agnes.” Without hesitation, Woodman visited Martin and began what became a seven-year long, emotionally tumultuous relationship.

Now, more than 30 years after meeting the painter and following numerous interviews by art historians for catalogue essays and biographies on Martin, Woodman has released Agnes Martin and Me, a detailed account of the pair’s journey. He tells monumental stories of traversing the Mackenzie River in Northern Canada during the dead of winter in nothing more than a metal fishing boat with two weak motors; of relocating to Galisteo with Martin, where he built both Martin’s adobe home and the teepee in which he lived for seven years; and of meeting the artist Judy Chicago, who is now his wife. More significantly, however, are the simple details that shed light on Martin’s declining state of health: embarking on the Mackenzie River journey in such an ill-equipped boat; not allowing Woodman to borrow her tools for construction; the pool that was built at the Galisteo property being filled in with dirt. In 151 succinct pages, Woodman recounts his relationship with Martin from start to finish, when she was committed to a psychiatric ward and he was ordered to never see her again.

Just after the release of Agnes Martin and Me (Lyon Artbooks), we spoke with Woodman over the phone.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: You referenced the research you did a few times during the book. Can you tell me what the research and writing process was like?

DONALD WOODMAN: It was challenging because writing is not the easiest thing for me to do. I’m a better photographer than I am a writer. I have to give a lot of credit to my wife for helping me put things in order. I learned that a good writer is accompanied by a good editor. Between Judy’s help and a fabulous editor, it whipped me into shape. I learned how a sentence is structured, which I never seemed to have learned in school. [laughs] Research was going through old diaries—I kept a diary from the Mackenzie River trip. It was dealing with the material I personally had. I jogged my memory about things that I hadn’t talked about so I could expand on stories. Other research included going through things that were written about Agnes, seeing what other people said and what some of the current writing was.

MCDERMOTT: You often share the Mackenzie River story, but what were some of the stories that you don’t talk about as frequently?

WOODMAN: The day-to-day activities, our interactions in a personal way. People want to hear about the exciting stories, like, “What was it like going down the Mackenzie River?” Activities like going out and cutting wood in the forest, or “What’s teepee life like?” aren’t [asked about as much]. But living seven years in a teepee—I have an aversion to camping now… When I was in the thick of that period of time, I wasn’t so aware of Agnes’s mental health issues. Sorting that out after the fact, and understanding how erratic and irrational she was, was one of the big challenges.

MCDERMOTT: Had her health issues crossed your mind while you were with her or were they never even contemplated?

WOODMAN: She told me about incidents when she was living in New York and her time at Bellevue Hospital, but I don’t think it made an impression on me until the incident in Colorado, when I had to get her out of the mental hospital. Subsequent to that, some of the notes she wrote me showed her mental health deteriorating.

One of the things that people have to understand about the intensity of someone with paranoid schizophrenic mental health issues is the fact that they’re very good at compartmentalizing things in their life. To integrate material—even professionals have a hard time breaking through with someone as severely as impaired as Agnes. People as impaired as her usually cannot be as creative as she was. It’s amazing she created the art that she did considering the limitations.

MCDERMOTT: In one part of the book you talk about fate versus safety. When embarking on the river trip, you wrote “Perhaps this was Agnes’s way of placing her lives in the hands of fate,” but you were “piloting the boat and deeply concerned about our safety.” Were you ever able to let go when you were with Agnes or did you always feel grounded?

WOODMAN: I’m a very grounded person, but I also take a lot of risks. There’s a balance. Considering some of the things I’ve done, it’s a wonder that I’ve survived. The Mackenzie River trip is one of those adventures. If someone jumped off a cliff, I wouldn’t go too—I’m not that kind of person—but I’ve raced cars and you can put yourself on the edge pretty quickly. There’s an element in my nature where I’m very grounded; that served me well in my period with Agnes because I don’t think she was grounded at all.

MCDERMOTT: What initially prompted you to save all of her letters? I was amazed that there was a scan of the very first note she put under your door. I don’t know if I would’ve saved something like that.

WOODMAN: I kind of am a collector and [how I found those notes is] a funny story. We live in a small town in New Mexico and it’s used frequently as a site for movies and TV series. This new TV series called Preacher, which just came on AMC TV, was filmed in front of our building. I have a door in my office that goes out the second floor to nowhere, drops off into the street, and the director thought it would be cool do a stunt where the preacher walks out the door. I reluctantly allowed them to do it, which meant I had to clear out my office that had accumulated 20 years worth of stuff. It bordered on hoarding, but not quite. I came across old reviews and things that I stuffed away, not really filed or paid attention to. Those notes were there. There were other things from earlier on, correspondence with Minor White, Ezra Stoller, Ansel Adams. I guess I put things away safely enough because I understood they were historically important materials that needed to be preserved.

So did I know about Agnes? Yes. She was just becoming famous and well known. I certainly saw a lot of people who came to her in awe and speechless and fawning over her, but it’s not something she appreciated or wanted. When I started my career, I started atop the architectural photography ladder; I was around some of the top architects of the 20th century—Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, people like that—so being in that situation wasn’t abnormal. [Being around her] didn’t faze me. Fame, to me, is not a permanent thing. People come and go.

MCDERMOTT: I found it surprising when you mentioned doing an I-Ching: Book of Changes session in hopes to find some sort of direction for your life. It seemed like being the opposite of grounded. Can you tell me more about I Ching?

WOODMAN: In the ’60s and ’70s, people were chasing after Easter religions and philosophies, and the I Ching is one of the most ancient inheritances we have from the Chinese. I was exposed to a lot of that during my time in Boston and with Minor White. I have friends that still believe in it, and it’s not that I don’t believe in it, but I am a little more grounded now. [laughs] It’s like reading your daily horoscope, and a lot of people who hang on Agnes’s every word—you can take the material or words and say, “They have an enormous impact on me,” and twist it to deal with how you are psychically or to use it as motivation to do something. I’ve grown beyond that [belief] and part of that growth was the time I spent with Agnes. At a certain point I went, “A lot of this is nonsense, how do you sort out the nonsense from the inspirational stuff?”

I think the inspirational stuff comes from yourself. You have to believe in yourself. As you once said, in something I read about you, there’s a quote from Sylvia Plath: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” You have to trust your own voices and your own confidence, in spite of criticism. What makes an artist’s career is not the immediate trajectory, acceptance, or rejection; it’s being able to stay in there and have a career in art and stick to your voice, follow where your imagination takes you, and not respond to what sells or what people encourage you to do. For people who want to be artists, I think that’s the hardest lesson to learn.

MCDERMOTT: In the book, you detail your relationship with Agnes, but you don’t really talk about how you emotionally coped with it.

WOODMAN: It’s really hard; I was trying to deal with her and not paying attention to my own mental health and functioning. Living in a teepee, you’re sort of in survival mode—what do you need to do to get heat? What do you need to do to get food? Both the struggle as a creative person and the struggle to survive day-to-day was hard. I lived in New York for a while, and if you don’t have money in New York, you’re in survival mode—cold-water apartments or living in the street, that’s pretty rough.

MCDERMOTT: But living in a teepee in the middle of nowhere isn’t much easier.

WOODMAN: No, it isn’t. Fortunately, I like wide, open spaces. The openness of the West is mindboggling to people who are oriented to the East Coast. Judy says, “If I can’t drive 90 miles an hour on the freeway I get nervous.” [laughs]

MCDERMOTT: What has kept you in New Mexico?

WOODMAN: A lot of people came out to New Mexico to get away from the constraints of the East Coast. When I first came out here in ’72, it was a big sigh of relief [from] the anti-war movement, the Vietnam war issues, the competition of New York and Boston as a photographer. You’re away from all of that and you actually have the time and space to think and be creative. Until people have that opportunity, I don’t think they realize how important it is to the creative process. I can always get on a plane and go to New York, but being here, in the quiet, and being able to think about and spend time on what you need and want to do is important.

MCDERMOTT: Do you ever go back to the Galiesteo property?

WOODMAN: Galisteo has changed a lot. It’s now a hip artists community. Bruce Nauman’s there, Lucy Lippard’s there. The last time I was there, the house I built for Agnes had been put on the market and the realtor wanted some information. I had never really photographed the house, so I said, “If you let me photograph the house, I’ll come and talk about the structures.” That was eight years ago.