Agnes Martin
Tate Britain, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“Beauty is the mystery of life, it is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.” —Agnes Martin

Over the last few years Tate Modern has paid homage to a number of important women artists including, amongst others, Eva Hesse, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Marlene Dumas and Sonia Delaunay. That the psychodrama of Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois, the theatre of Kusama and the eroticism of Marlene Dumas should have had wide public appeal is not surprising. All provide the means for the viewer to identify with the artist, to ‘feel her pain’ and be drawn into her emotional maelstrom and visual world. But the current exhibition of work by Agnes Martin is an altogether more difficult affair. It makes demands on the spectator who, if willing to engage, will be rewarded by moments of Zen-like stillness and clarity.

To sit among Martin’s white paintings, The Islands I-XII, 1979, is akin to being alone with Rothko’s Seagram paintings. Though while Rothko is chthonic, the colours womb-like and elemental as he wrestles with the dark night of the soul, the subtle tonalities of Martin’s pale paintings are, in contrast, Apollonian. She is Ariel to Rothko’s Caliban. Full of light and air, her paintings quieten the busy mind, provide space, tranquillity and silence. Yet each of these silences is subtly varied, broken by differing accents and rhythms. The tonal shifts, the small variations and delineations of the sections of the canvas demand attention and mindfulness. These works offer not so much an experience of the sublime – that form of masculine awe and ecstasy – as a dilution into nothingness, an arrival at T. S. Eliot’s “still point in a turning world.” Here we find stasis, where everything, as in meditation, has been stripped away, so that we are left with nothing more than the rhythm of the world, with what simply IS.

It took a long time for Agnes Martin to develop her singular vocabulary. Deceptive in its simplicity, with its language of grids and stripes, she acknowledged that she borrowed much from the lexicon of her near contemporaries Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. This Tate show examines the two distinct periods that define her career. The first shows her rarely exhibited early work, begun during her brief stint as a student at Columbia University, New York, along with the biomorphic forms developed during her time in New Mexico, and the delicate geometric abstractions made in New York in the 1960s. With their duns and fawns, their colours of rock and stone, things are reduced to their elemental forms. Squares and circles become signs to which the viewer needs to bring sensibility in order to read and understand them. Found objects adhered to a piece of scrap board make incidentals meaningful as they are placed within a system that creates order from what is random. Elsewhere her insistent, stich-like marks, her dots and dashes, might suggest Morse code or Braille, or even an ancient language that could be decoded.

Born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1912 to Scottish Presbyterian parents, Agnes Martin spent her childhood on a farm before moving to Vancouver in 1931. Calvinism ensured that even years after she had left it behind, her key themes continued to be humility, obedience and praise. As a child she had been introduced to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. She was also an admirer of William Blake and, like Blake, was influenced by the geometry of Plato and Pythagoras, who believed that the ideal is more actual than the real. It was only when she was 30, after training as a teacher, that she decided to become an artist and enrolled on a course at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (made famous in the paintings of the American Richard Diebenkorn). It was then that she began to explore a burgeoning interest in East Asian philosophy. For unlike the autobiographical solipsism of many other female artists such as Frida Kahlo, Martin insisted that her art was not about herself. “The value of art is”, she explained, “in the observer”. For her the work of art was not an object or an event but a state of mind. Like Walt Whitman she wanted a “sense of oneness with the universe”. The goal of art, she claimed, was happiness.

Her happiness, though, was, in many ways hard won. She did not like to talk about herself, her homosexuality or her encounters with mental illness. In the early 1960s she was found wandering the streets of New York, catatonic and was hospitalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia. After a period when she ceased to paint at all, she began again in the 70s, during her self-imposed exile in New Mexico. She was to find an organising principal in that modernist form, the grid.  Used by friends such as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, by way of Mondrian, the grid represented what was non-hierarchical and egalitarian, though for Martin it primarily stood for innocence.

The paintings from 1963, including Flower in the Wind, and A Grey Stone, are all more or less six feet square, their colour fields veiled across a grid drawn onto the canvas. The tiny repetitive marks of a painting such as Falling Blue, evoke weaving. For Martin’s delicate, obsessive mark making is as labour intensive as the stitching of any carpet maker. Repetition becomes the route to sublimity, as if through re-enactment, she might arrive at some, as yet, unidentified place and know it for the first time. Martin travelled extensively, taking cruise ships through the Panama Canal, travelling from Vancouver to Alaska and Hamburg to Norway, Sweden and Iceland, as well as to Greece and Turkey. Although she insisted her paintings were not about landscape, she constantly sought new experiences in nature. Her work, though not descriptive, is imbued with her felt experience.  Her exquisite paintings Untitled #8 1974, and Untitled, 1977, along with a number of the untitled works from the 1990s, though formally dependant on grids and squares, evoke with their saturated blues and the pinks that ineffable moment when dawn breaks and the sky turns to pale-misted morning. These soft tinged paintings, with their sense of renewal and awakening are the painterly equivalent to the yoga pose Salute to the Sun in their embrace of life’s simple beauty.

In this time of razzmatazz galleries and blue chip art it is refreshing to return to the work of an artist who, literally, took herself off into the desert to find out what was important to her. In so doing she became a modern-day Julian of Norwich, a woman concerned with spiritual growth rather than fame or fortune. Her paintings could be read as spiritual exercises in their hard won simplicity and restricted discipline.  “It is from our awareness of transcendent reality” she wrote, “and our response to concrete reality that our minds command us on our way….”  Thus she concludes, “The function of art is the stimulation of sensibilities, the renewal of memories of moments of perfection”. This lovely show offers us just that.


Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
Friendship 1963
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Untitled #3 1974
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Untitled #10 1975
Private collection, Private Collection, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gratitude 2001
Private collection
Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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