Portraits of Two Iconoclastic Women


Film Forum’s pairing of these two documentaries— Kiki Smith: Squatting the Palace and Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World—is an inspired study in contrast and complement, one each of the subject-artists would no doubt appreciate. Structured similarly as informal portraits of the artist at work, directors Mary Lance (Agnes Martin) and Vivien Bittencourt and Vincent Katz (Kiki Smith) circle their subjects with unobtrusive deliberation; both documentaries were filmed over the course of several years and reflect the process of finding inspiration. Agnes Martin, who passed away in 2004, fills Lance’s frame with confidence. At 91, the Canadian-born painter was still working (or waiting) every day in Taos, New Mexico, and though the veteran of the abstract expressionist movement was famously enigmatic, as hostess she fields questions patiently, moving over her canvas in a striped T-shirt (horizontal, naturally) and jeans. Almost hypnotic in her clarity, you’ll be compelled to jot down nearly everything Martin says. “I gave up facts entirely,” she sighs, explaining her pursuit of an empty mind in the service of inspiration over ideas. “You’ll never find out the truth about life by guessing about facts.” Smith, 52, whose work is as thematically and aesthetically opposed to Martin’s as it’s possible to be, is a more elusive presence on
screen. In perpetual, almost pathological motion, Smith fills her Lower East Side home with sketches, sculptures, and people in preparation for an ambitious installation in Venice. Both films refuse to investigate the personal lives of the two iconoclastic women, insisting instead to look at their lives through the portal of their work.