One of the most reputable modern museums puts on a show of
one of the least known artists of that era and…it is time.
The first painting of Agnes Martin (1912-2004) that I have ever come across was Garden (1964) – a large canvas covered in a painstaking regularity of intersecting red and green lines that an artist drew on, presumably with the use of a ruler. The way she rethought the existence of green stalks and carmine flower heads actually struck me as poetic even if its meticulously organized structure may suggest otherwise. It seemed that a certain kind of lyricism manifested in Martin’s desire not to represent a particular garden but to reduce our thinking about it to essentials, to a thin, flat form that consequently allowed its shift from contingency to the realm of the timeless.
The current retrospective of her work at Tate Modern revolves around a collection of deeply affecting demonstrations of such a transformative process. The curators chart Martin’s artistic output chronologically, tracing back to the early stages in the 1950s when she dappled into biomorphic abstraction and ultimately leading up to her very last drawing in 2004. Starting unusually, though, they hang a selection of four canvases produced over the years into the first room and without a warning, plunge the viewer into the artist’s trademark grids and horizontal bands. It feels rightly placed and easily justified precisely because of the visual qualities of Martin’s works. Her faint blues, yellows and pinks are woven together in a way that creates an almost religious atmosphere. It it a very quiet and unassuming but powerful opener and implies that these works are a slow-burning material requiring time and peace. Contrary to the usually masculine and aggressive Abstract Expressionist pieces, the artist and her attempts at reaching beyond are here conveyed thought muteness and restraint.
Canadian-born Martin was a rare, reclusive person and kept her distance from the overly intellectual world in her self-built adobe house on a mesa in New Mexico. She did not watch any television, nor did she read any newspapers. In order to be truly connected to life- authentic, pure, physical life- she removed all luxuries and distractions that could clog up her mind. Her desire was to keep it empty and therefore free. (Young Agnes Martin used to take Taoist and Zen-Buddhist classes by D.T. Suzuki.) In some of her later interviews, the artist explained how she had given up all theories, even her favourite evolution and atomic theory, because they were only inaccurate deductions. What transpires in Martin’s art is then a genuine need to attain the knowledge not through reason but by personal observation, not by rationalizing it but by feeling it.
And she was feeling things intensely. The arid landscapes where she decided to spend the second half of her life, alone, made their way into her sizeable canvases (65 x 65 inches) that shimmer with subdued desert hues. Their titles do not sound attention-seeking, either and tend to be inspired by trivial daily objects and activities, such as The Tree (1964), Petal (1964), Friendship (1963), White Stone (1964) or Happy Holiday (1999). All of them appeal by virtue of their humility and quiet but repetitive explorations into the boundary between the everyday and the transcendent which appears more permeable than we usually perceive.
Martin’s abstraction succeeds in eluding a particular grasp or definition of a notion and as if in a loop, returns to similar patterns and reworks them all over again. At the same time, she records this human struggle in the tactile surface of her canvases- they reveal where the artist paused to get more paint on her brush or let her hand slip a little. Wobbles and waverings such as these break up the potential monotony and frigidity of her production which is also highlighted by Anne M. Wagner, writing in the ArtForum on the occasion of this momentous exhibition: ‘The marks insist that in the making…, the artist’s rational mind yielded to the body’s muscular movements, [creating] interrupted rhythms. Such anti-mechanical moments…offer…doubt.’
One senses the uncertainty about life and how to know it from Martin’s sceptical views on the obsession with theory and intellect. She further faced misgivings about her direction and career. Working as a teacher, she decided to become a painter only when she was thirty years old. After setting out on this path and achieving early success (solo exhibition at Betty Parson’s Gallery in 1958), she escaped New York in 1967 and did not paint for the next seven years. Travelling and writing were her predominant occupations until she settled in New Mexico and had a clearer idea about how she wanted to resume her art.
She reinforced the grid frames that were outlined during her formative years on the Coenties Slip, New York a decade before. At the time, Martin lived in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood with other Abstract and Minimalist painters, among them Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and Lenore Tawney. In addition to their aesthetic influence, Martin was also affected by their studios and flats and incorporated there-found objects into her pieces. The underlying concerns with repetition, pared-down geometric forms and order started emerging here and the exhibition then presents the viewer with three canvases designated as crucial for the development of her characteristic structures:The Islands (1961), Friendship (1963) and A Grey Stone (1963), grouped together in one section. Experimenting with other materials apart from the usual gesso, acrylic/oil paint and coloured pencils, sensuous Friendship becomes covered in reflective gold leaf and on closer inspection, tacitly reveals regular square incisions in its body. The physical qualities of the work as well as the hand gestures never feel gratuitous and quite the contrary, have something withdrawn about them. Martin is a reticent master of restrained works that speak of her art being bigger than herself and life being bigger than both.
One can feel it also in a unique series called The Islands (1979), installed towards the end of the show, which is comprised of twelve large canvases tricking one’s perception into viewing monochromatic white images. It is doubtful that Martin sought that effect but nevertheless, the surfaces shift from white to pale pink to pale blue and actively mobilize the viewer’s senses. The whole collection is complemented by a raised floor platform that stretches along the bottom of the four walls and mirrors the undulating sensation of canvases in its interplay with the walls. Colours blend in all three dimensions of the room and echo the Rothko-esque environment of the first room.
Emotions are heightened as one makes it to the final two sections, devoted to Martin’s late works and a selection of her paper drawings. Sizeable canvases are substituted by smaller ones because the artist’s age did not allow her to express herself large-scale any more. Another change is the return to abstraction of geometrical shapes and more assured colour tones. In contrast, the paper works feature hand-drawn lines, squares, rectangles and triangles arranged in meticulous but not perfect formations which the artist used as stepping stones leading up to work on canvas. The last drawing in the room, Untitled (2004), a tiny, shaky flower pot in ink, represents the culmination of Martin’s oeuvre. Its vulnerability pricks one right in their heart, especially after spending so much time gazing at her previous enormous, quietly radiant colour fields. Martin remained inquisitive about nature, life and their constitutive elements until she died on 16 December 2004 in Taos, New Mexico, in a retirement facility.
Tate Modern: Agnes Martin is full of latent, quiet perception that is situated at a distance from straightforward consumption. No robust, theatrical gestures, no chaotic splashes, no indulgent colours, just patient and steady questioning of the elementary structures of the nature and society. It runs until 11 October 2015.
P.S. – The shop outside the show offers excellent biographies on Martin’s life and art as well as three different DVD documentaries. Also, Thomas Lüchinger’s On a clear day (2002) plays right next to the entrance and provides a look into the artist’s sensibilities and methodologies. When I was there, I caught a scene in which she denounced the intellectual approach to knowledge and proceeded to paint one of her canvases, as always, by dragging the brush from top to bottom. She would later turn the painting by 90° which is how she would get the horizontal bands.
P.S. 2- additional material:
• Martin part of Coenties Slip: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/05/arts/where-city-history-was-made-a-50-s-group-made-art-history.html
• Short interview with Martin: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/22/agnes-martin-1997-interview/
• Compelling article with inspirational quotes from the artist: http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/31/agnes-martin-john-gruen-interview/