JoAnna Novak


Contradiction Days

An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood

For readers of Rachel Cusk and Maggie Nelson, the rapturous memoir of a soon-to-be-mother whose obsession with the reclusive painter Agnes Martin threatens to upend her life

Five months pregnant and struggling with a creative block, JoAnna Novak becomes obsessed with the enigmatic abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin. She is drawn to the contradictions in Martin’s life as well as her art—the soft and exacting brushstrokes she employs for grid-like compositions that are both rigid and dreamy. But what most calls to JoAnna is Martin’s dedication to her work in the face of paranoid schizophrenia.

Uneasy with the changes her pregnant body is undergoing, JoAnna relapses into damaging old habits and thought patterns. When she confides in her doctor that she’s struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, he tells her she must stop being so selfish, given she has a baby on the way, and start taking antidepressants. Appalled by his patronizing tone and disregard of her mental health history, JoAnna instead turns to Martin for guidance, adopting the artist's doctrine of joyful solitude and isolation.

JoAnna heads to Taos, where Martin lived for decades, and gives herself three weeks to model her hermetic existence: phone off, email off, no talking to her husband, no touching the dog. Out of a deep, solitary engagement with a remarkable artist’s body of work emerges an entirely new way for JoAnna to relate to the contradictions of her own body and face up to the joys and challenges of impending motherhood.