To keep the creative juices flowing in our naming hearts and minds, we here at Zinzin like to explore topics tangential to our task at hand — creating powerful, evocative names to help brands build positive, emotional connections with audiences. While it’s well known today that the strongest brands make emotional connections, I think artists figured this out a long time ago. Namely, one of the most influential American abstract painters of the 20th century: Agnes Martin.
Famous for her grid paintings born from an ordered process approaching science in its rigor, Martin’s goal was to evoke emotional states that connect with the viewer. What’s awesome, Zinzin friends, is that we use a similar approach to naming.
Moreover, Martin had specific opinions about naming (giving titles to) her paintings. So, let’s explore some of the work of the infinitely fascinating Agnes Martin, draw inspiration from it, and see what naming lessons we can learn.
First, a little about Agnes Martin
Here’s a biographical introduction from Agnes Martin Life & Work by Christopher Régimbal, senior exhibitions manager at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (This is the primary source for the blog post, unless otherwise noted.)
Agnes Martin (1912–2004) is best known as a painter of grids, where pencil lines and bands of colour fill square canvases and subtly evoke a variety of emotional states. She is a major figure in postwar American abstraction, and her work is collected and exhibited by museums of modern and contemporary art the world over. Born and raised in Canada, she moved to the United States as a young woman and considered herself part of the American art movement known as Abstract Expressionism. In recent years, her long-standing reputation within the art world as a “painter’s painter” has expanded into the wider culture. Some aspects of Martin’s biography—her family in Canada, her sexuality, and her mental health issues—have until recently remained obscure. What is certain is that over the course of a long life that was at times wandering and punctuated by moments of poverty, Martin developed one of the most rigorous, affecting, and coherent bodies of work of the twentieth century.
An overview of Martin’s paintings
Even though other artists and some critics tried to label her a minimalist, Martin considered herself to be an abstract expressionist. The art critic Lucy Lippard noted that Martin’s paintings had an emotional complexity that set them apart from the minimalists, calling them “unique in their poetic approach to a strictly ordered and controlled execution.”
It’s abstract expression
Martin did not intend for her work to be about the formal qualities of the grid; rather, the grid was a vehicle for her to make paintings that were completely without form. She wrote, “My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness.” Martin wished to create an abstract emotional experience; one that she likened at times to listening to music or being in the natural world.
Don’t call her a minimalist
Martin’s Leaves, 1966, was exhibited alongside Minimalist works by Robert Morris (b.1931), Carl Andre (b.1935), and Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition included monotone and grid-based paintings and sculptures that were stylistically similar to Martin’s work. Although this was a visually coherent exhibition, the artists could not agree on a statement or even a title that encapsulated their movement. Martin later stated, “They were all minimalists, and they asked me to show with them. But that was before the word was invented. . . and then when they started calling them minimalists they called me a minimalist, too.”
The evolution of Martin’s painting titles
Throughout her career, Martin went through alternating periods of naming — or giving titles to — her paintings, and leaving them untitled. The titles of her paintings evolved from being focused on nature in her early works to evoking more specific emotions in her later works. Of the untitled works, Martin wanted the viewer to make the meaning.
The 1960s (titles alluding to nature)*
In the 1960s, she tended to title her works after natural objects or phenomena—for example, White Flower, 1960, The Tree, 1964, or Tundra, 1967—although they were sometimes named after actions, such as Play. These titles anchor the viewer’s experience when confronted by the painting. … However, she realized the limitation that the titles of her work placed on the viewer. While discussing her painting Milk River, 1963, Martin wrote: “Cows don’t give milk if they don’t have grass and water. Tremendous meaning of that is that painters can’t give anything to the observer. … When you have inspiration and represent inspiration, the observer makes the painting.”
The 1970s – mid 1990s (almost all untitled works)*
So it is not surprising that beginning in the early 1970s, when this [see above] statement was written, through to the end of the 1990s, Martin largely stopped giving her paintings titles. She represented her inspiration and left it to the observer to make meaning…
In With My Back to the World and other canvases in the mid-1990s, Martin began to name her paintings after emotional states instead of the natural forms that elicited those emotions, laying bare her desire to make art about the intangible experiences in life.
The late 1990s – 2000s (titles evoking emotional states)*
Titles and critical interpretation of her work were antithetical to Martin’s vision of a still and silent art. Yet in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, Martin began giving her work titles again, eschewing the natural allusions of the 1960s for very specific, emotional states such as A Little Girl’s Response to Love, 2000, and Homage to Life, 2003. These late works direct the viewer’s response more than any previous works; rather than the almost indescribable feeling of the innocence of trees, for example, Martin takes us by the hand and leads us to an outburst of love in the last years of her life.
Despite the differences between Martin’s painting titles and the business of naming, one common thread is the power of emotions and making emotional connections. For Martin, it was everything — finding beauty, truth, and relating emotions on canvas. This is how she connected with the world and with viewers. For Zinzin, it’s a way to help brands stand out in the world and build a loyal audience.
Without carrying this comparison too far off the grid, I believe our naming process (from brand strategy, positioning, name development, trademark prescreening, linguistic connotation screening, name evaluation and adoption) is much like Agnes Martin creating her grid. When this naming process ends with an evocative name, it has the power to set minds reeling, ignite conversations, spur involvement, create brand loyalty, and become embedded in memory.
Finally, Zinzin believes that a great name is a word that paints a thousand pictures. They’re created from a specific naming process that approaches science in its rigor, but the result is pure art.
Agnes Martin: In Her Own Words
In this collection of interview and lecture excerpts, Agnes Martin speaks about inspiration, truth, perception, and the transformative power of art over the course of her lifetime. This track was published on the occasion of the exhibition “Agnes Martin,” on view at the Guggenheim October 7, 2016–January 11, 2017.
Thank you, Agnes! — From a fan of your work and your words.
* This is meant to be a representative, but not exhaustive, list of Agnes Martin’s painting titles. If you notice any I’ve forgotten or didn’t find, please add them to the comments below. Thanks!