The current travelling retrospective of the work of Agnes Martin, co-curated by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell, brings together approximately 140 works made between the early 1950s and 2004, the year of the artist’s death. The latest of several retrospectives of Martin’s work since 1973, the Tate show subtly foregrounds biography, making use of new scholarship that has emerged since her death, and, of course, is informed by our capacity to now review her oeuvre as a closed chapter.
Martin is best known for her 6 x 6 foot grid pictures, which she started making and exhibiting in the early 1960s, to much critical acclaim. The art historian Anna Chave credits Martin’s success to the manner in which her paintings make little demand on their viewers. For Chave, Martin gained recognition in the practice of the typically male-dominated arena of geometric abstraction because she maintained, like the good girl who is seen but not heard, a gendernormative role of the modest, self-effacing woman. Taking or leaving this account, it is a fact that she consistently received positive reviews and impressed many of the vanguard artists, critics, and curators she came into contact with. The admiration for Martin even began to bother one critic, John Perreault, who in 1979 complained ‘there is an Agnes Martin mystique and it annoys me.’ This mystique seems bound up with the ease with which her life-story lends itself to myth. That tendency to give artistic biography a cultic inflection – perhaps to deflect from the challenge presented by the work itself – finds a seductive model in Martin: her Zen-inspired pronouncements; her 1976 retreat from New York despite increasing commercial success; her rudimentary lifestyle in the New Mexican desert; the ‘apparitionalism’ of her homosexuality that she adamantly refused to discuss. Taken together, these factors portray a kind of monastic discipline in her insistence upon solitude. Enjoyment of the work does not rest on an understanding of Martin’s writings or on knowledge of her life story, however.
Indeed, for all the intrigue surrounding Martin’s biography, her art was intended as anything but an expression of her personal view. She never claimed responsibility for her creativity, instead putting it down to that elliptical source of ‘inspiration,’ something she understood to be a universal experience unrelated to the ego and only received by the open and ‘vacant’ mind. Like Rothko – whom she admired – Martin looked to express the foundations of human emotions; but instead of his ‘tragedy, ecstasy, doom… and so on,’ Martin wished to explore the flipside of joy, innocence, and beauty. And despite the offputting, saccharine titles of some works, such as I Love the Whole World and Happy Holiday, the titles at least consolidate the light and positive feeling these paintings evoke.
On entering Tate’s installation one catches a glimpse of some unexpected sculptures and paintings amongst Martin’s signature style of refined and minimal geometric paintings. These works predate Martin’s founding moment of introducing the grid motif around 1960 and offer a unique opportunity to appreciate the diversity of her practice. The curators at Tate distributed these works rather densely across the first few rooms, whilst the spacing comes to be more satisfyingly dispersed throughout subsequent spaces, as her later painting style moves into its more uniform banded strips on 6 x 6 foot canvases. The high quality of Martin’s work remains remarkably constant throughout the retrospective: each object label denoted the decades ticking past whilst the integrity of the work never diminishes. Prior to the 1950s, very few of Martin’s paintings survived a rigorous self-critique that resulted in the destruction of much of her early work. It was only on the introduction of the grid motif that Martin would feel a sense of resolve in her practice – yet even then she maintained an unremitting willingness to destroy those works she felt dissatisfied with. Thus, a strict editing process reinforced her distilled aesthetic.
Having visited the show in London last June, I recently had the pleasure of viewing it once more in its second venue of Düsseldorf’s Kunstsammlung. Both shows opened similarly with three of Martin’s paintings from the 1990s, now owned by the Anthony d’Offay ARTIST ROOMS collection, marking the entrance alongside other similar works from this period. These works of large-scale ‘banded’ paintings came to dominate her later style — thereby the exhibition establishes something of a teleological order in the curation of Martin’s oeuvre: the entrance sets up the evolution of her artistic trajectory; and on reaching the milestone of the grid paintings around 1958, Martin would further break down the pictorial structure of geometric abstraction over the next four decades, focusing predominantly on horizontal stripes and bands after the late 1970s.
The curation of both venues presents approximately ten ‘rooms’ in a loose chronological order. In the first room visitors are greeted with these large square canvases in light washes of red, blue, and yellow; Martin diluted the primary colours to a pale wash resulting in a room of canvases aglow with painterly light. The horizontal bands of varying width and frequency appear backlit, with the white strips in between the subdued colours appearing whiter than the walls behind them. The delicate and gossamer lines that divide the bands are pencil-drawn, skimming and mapping the roughness of the canvases’ surface from close up, and dissolving from afar.
The second and third rooms of the retrospectives covered the breadth of artistic styles and movements that Martin worked through in the 1950s—a time she would later describe as a prolonged period of dissatisfaction with her work. Martin donned styles of European abstraction, biomorphism, and surrealism. Whereas I found Tate Modern’s tight hanging and ‘intermediate space’ threatened to relegate some pictures to the status of mere stepping stones, the Kunstsammlung allocated more space to these works, allowing them to be received as quite beautiful, standalone statements.
These rooms also presented the afore-mentioned sculptures made from found-materials that appear diametrically opposed to the refined and quiet aesthetic of her mature work. Burning Tree (1961) resembles a tree’s skeletal frame with dark wood for the trunk and steel-capped, claw-like branches at modulated intervals. It is a representation of a tree far removed from the state of ‘innocence’ that would later inspire her grids. These sculptures plant something of a dark seed in Martin’s oeuvre, something that is further consolidated with the renewed focus upon Martin’s biography and her struggle with mental health—last year saw the publication of Nancy Princenthal’s biography of Martin, and a personal account by Donald Woodman of his fraught friendship with Martin from 1977 to 1984. Thus, the ‘happy’content of her mature paintings are somewhat recast as an aspiration rather than as a reality of Martin’s lived experience.
Martin’s ‘breakthrough’ period occurred between 1957 to 1967 when she was living in New York amidst an extraordinary rush of artistic activity ignited by the success of Abstract Expressionism. The vaulting prices of the latter’s outsized canvases energized an art market of galleries, collectors, and dealers. The thriving art scene of the 1960s diverged into multifarious practices, with movements such as Post-Painterly Abstraction, Minimalism and Process Art emerging as a formal antidote to the grandiosity of Abstract Expressionism— whilst Pop Art exploited the cult of the personality and a profuse aesthetic to engage more directly with consumer culture. The exceptionally beautiful grids that emerged from this period—here represented by The Islands (1963), Falling Blue (1963), Friendship (1963), Morning (1965), White Stone (1965), and Grass (1967), to name a few—in part emerged under the aesthetic philosophy of Minimalism. Ultimately, however, Martin was radically independent in her thinking and approach to painting. These large grids are the foundation on which her entire mature career was built: both formally, in the manner in which she would further parse horizontals and verticals into singular and conjunctive compositions, and in their affective capacity: the way in which the homogenized space of the canvas seem to create space for the body to literally move about, but also where thought might touch upon the idea of the infinite.
The structural intricacy of certain grid paintings delivers a unique perceptual experience. White Stone is a particularly understated yet powerful example of one of her more close-knit grids. From what looks like an enameled surface, the graphite lines of White Stone measure only millimetres apart and the ivory-coloured oil paint appears to recede slightly from each line. From afar the culmination of the graphite lines visually clump together in hazy patches of grey. The optical play of the close proximity of lines means that they are perceived as if unfixed or flickering in a static field of surface tension. The perceptual experience is one that unfolds and deepens with time. But as much as a painting’s form inspires attempts to represent it in language, a formal description of a work like White Stone cannot fully capture the lingering depth of experience that such a work produces.
Variables in the exhibition spaces of both the Tate Modern and Kunstsammlung lent a different charge to how the chronological order was received. Both exhibitions position the suite of thirty screen prints, On A Clear Day (1973), as a sort of intermediary passage leading to the later large-scale bandedpaintings. This project is an anomaly in her oeuvre for its absence of Martin’s indexical trace. The small prints marked a return to her practice after a several-year hiatus. Once again, the grid is deployed, but it is deconstructed—or reconstructed—in a clarion meditation on the multiple possibilities of its form. However, in comparing the two venues, the large, airy space of the Kunstsammlung spreads the entire retrospective across two floors, reflecting the subtle shift that Martin’s practice underwent after several years of renouncing her practice in 1967. On a Clear Day announces a renewed commitment to her art and an aesthetic even further distilled. Walking up the stairs after this series to the later grey-banded paintings from the 1980s onwards, the transitional space aids reflection on the development Martin’s personal philosophy and practice underwent, as it also allows a moment for the viewer to take a breath during this extensive exhibition.
The final room of the retrospective finished on a comparatively eerie note with a series of paintings Martin completed in 2003. Paintings such as Homage to Life (2003) and Untitled #1 (2003) depict geometric block shapes in true opaque black, paintings that now seem to presage her death a year later. The dark shapes take the place of Martin’s signature palette of luminous diluted colour and instead float over a stormy-looking wash of grey paint. The use of absolute black, just like the sinister sculptures of the 1950s, suggests a dark underside to Martin’s work. Martin’s writings articulate the simple joys in life, or at least look to conjure a mental image of one. And despite finding immense joy in her beloved New Mexican landscape and trips to the sea and rivers of North America’s northwest coast and abroad, the positive aspirations of the paintings differ markedly from her lived experience. The hardship she endured from her struggle with schizophrenia, which culminated in numerous breakdowns and amnesiac episodes, casts a shadow on the lighter works. This is not to say they harness the paintings to an inevitably dark content, but that the lightness and desire for a ‘tabula rasa’ seems all the more pertinent—and all the more admirable—given these accounts. Here we have the sense that in Martin’s cool, restrained, and disciplined beauty there is a tinge of yearning, of hope—of a longing that has come from a place of deep dissatisfaction or unhappiness. Visiting this show is quite an undertaking; there is too much to take in in one viewing and it ideally requires several encounters. This is not the fault of the curation but rather a result of the way in which Martin’s work encourages (and rewards) slow looking—which would inevitably tax the capacity of a single museum visit. At the outset I discussed the prevalence of myth in the discourse on Martin. Reflecting on the aesthetic experience of the retrospective as a whole, I find that this appeal is testament to her philosophy – that beauty, and art’s connection to it, stands outside cognition and language. The focus on Martin’s persona and subsequent mythologizing might be understood as an effort to close this gap between the works’ effects and cognitive explanations. In other words, it is testament to the potency and lingering power of her practice.
Agnes Martin was on view at Tate Modern, 3 June – 11 October, 2015, at Kunstsammlung Nordrheim-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 7 November 2015 – 6 March, 2016. It is currently at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles (24 April – 11 September, 2016), and will travel to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 7 October 2016 – 11 January 2017.