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May we suggest

Features / September 19, 2016

Agnes Martin, Style Muse

Agnes Martin, poster child for spartan living, finds a following in the fashion world. But what does it mean to make a creative recluse into a style muse?
A model, in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, wearing a piece from COS’s forthcoming Agnes Martin–inspired collection. A model, in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, wearing a piece from COS’s forthcoming Agnes Martin–inspired collection.

In early October, a collection of knit tunics in shades of oatmeal (yes, there are multiple shades), draped navy trousers and faintly striped T-shirts will start shipping to retail locations of COS, the elevated younger sibling store of Swedish retail juggernaut H&M. The 12 articles adhere to COS’s signature style, which renders boxy shapes elegant. Jackets that seem utilitarian are dressed up with small details: a lone contrasting button, or a perfectly rectangular flap pocket. Restricted to a palette of blues, greys and creams, a few pieces bear a gridded pattern that nods to the collection’s inspiration: Agnes Martin.

Martin makes an unusual muse. Photographs of the reclusive artist give some sense of her sartorial leanings: quilted boiler suits, buttoned-up cardigans, the occasional smock. It would not be an insult to say that she demonstrated scant interest in fashion during her lifetime. And, unlike her contemporaries Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois, she eschewed textiles in her work (unless a canvas counts). But she’s the one getting the capsule collection.

“We had admired Martin’s work for a very long time, but then, when we saw the exhibition last year at the Tate, where they showcased the whole spectrum of her work, we fell in love again,” said Karin Gustafsson, COS’s creative director.

COS doesn’t exclusively use artists as source material, but it uses them with enough frequency to establish an art-aligned status. The store will even sponsor the Guggenheim showing of Martin’s retrospective, which opens in October. “Many people have said that COS dresses the creative world, and I really think there’s something in that,” says Gustafsson. Past collections have nodded to Japanese Mono-ha or included colour palettes from Renate Aller and Alex Hanna, but Gustafsson notes that, “We have never really done a collection that is only focused on one artist before. In that way, this is new for us.”

Where does an Agnes Martin–inspired clothing line fall in relation to the artist’s work proper?

It’s not merchandise—COS and the Agnes Martin Foundation, which owns the rights to her works, did not want to reproduce her work wholesale. “It was important that we didn’t take her work and apply it on a T-shirt,” said Gustafsson. “We wanted it to be more of a diffuse take on her work—more about the atmosphere.”

Instead of sticking to the officially defined work of Martin, COS’s line whispers, What if? It offers a loving ode. In a sense, it’s the artistic equivalent of fan fiction. The COS line will not be added to Martin’s catalogue raisonné. And yet, consider the broad strokes of the Martin clothing collection in comparison with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new and supposedly final addition to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter canon that was not actually written by the Potter creator herself, but by another writer named Jack Thorne.

Both the COS line and the eighth Potter book are objects with marked continuity to an original work that nonetheless take a new form. And, in both cases, this new form has received approval from the governing bodies of the original work.

Calls for expanding, or discarding, the art-historical canon are common. These drives are usually revisionist history: attempts at including overlooked and marginalized artists, or reconsidering the terms of inclusion, which have favoured the white and male.

But what about reconsidering what constitutes an individual artist’s body of work entirely? We think of works as lists, but maybe a corpus could be a constellation, instead.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child constitutes a high-water mark for unorthodox additions to a canon. But questions of attribution have been rife in recent years. The boundaries of bodies of work are increasingly malleable—not in an abstract, Foucauldian sense, but in concrete debates about the legal limits of authorship. There were rumours this year that Cady Noland disavowed yet another work, on the heels of her renunciation of an aluminum print, Cowboys Milking, in 2011, just before the print was auctioned by Sotheby’s. Thankfully for owners of the sculpture Log Cabin, Noland “merely wanted the value to be depreciated.” Peter Doig spent his summer suffering the indignity of going to trial to prove that he had not created a painting.

Plenty of skeptics in the art world would balk at the very notion of a Martin-inspired clothing line, let alone the suggestion that it merits consideration in relation to her canon. But art itself has commerce at its core, and preciousness about the market only obscures this.

Of course COS aims to turn a profit. Producing a capsule collection and sponsoring a Guggenheim retrospective hardly replicates the earnest relationship of an adoring fan writing in parallel to their favourite series, expecting neither remuneration nor attention. Martin appeals to fashion designers for more than her formal elements—she stands as a signifier, an item of interest for the demographics of these brands.

The COS woman might be a graphic designer, public-relations worker, copywriter. She visits galleries, and might be peripherally aware of the COS-sponsored Guggenheim retrospective. She dabbles in nail art, but nothing gaudy, reads Elena Ferrante, posts underlined passages of books to her Instagram, toys with centre parts and braids and loves a good plant—generally palms. Why does the COS woman care about Martin’s work? “I think it’s because it recalls a Southwestern aesthetic (all those bleached pinks and blues) that pairs beautifully with hammam towels, wicker accent furniture and succulents in terracotta pots,” my friend Rosie suggests. And by tapping into Martin, COS taps into all of these elements.

But it would be foolish to dismiss a Martin-inspired clothing line as meaningless because it’s motivated by retail; this is not a one-way transaction. These blouses will influence the lens through which a particular, but influential, crowd relates to her. In some circles, it will do more for Martin than a retrospective ever could.

Perhaps art critics should review the clothes as well.