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Agnes Martin


Perhaps it is not quite correct to call this a book review, as I will refrain as much as possible from criticism of
the author as a writer, as a theorist, and as a painter, yet this post will be confined to the matters discussed
in and my responses to a single book: a collection of writings by twentieth-century American/Canadian

painter Agnes Martin. What I hope simply to do is record my own impressions of and bring forth the parts
of this book that to me stand out from the rest. If that could be called appropriation rather than review
then so be it, but I will not be using her ideas toward any end; I only want to record that they exist and give
them some bredth. For biographical information on Ms. Martin, Michael Govan has written a compact
summary of her life and work that is available online; it should at least be known that she lived most of her
adult life in self-imposed solitude in New Mexico. For examples of her paintings beyond the small images
here included, there is an online counterpart to the 2003 retrospective of her work at the Zwirner & Wirth
Gallery in New York.
Aside from a short series of Notes at the beginning, the book is comprised mainly of the texts from
lectures Martin was invited to give at various universities as well as spoken stories written down by critic
Ann Wilson, and indeed it is one of the few books I wish to be read out loud. The lines, which are broken
and spare, follow like chanted logic. As the editor Dieter Schwarz writes in his introduction, This is true
speech, a monologue in which each new element joins the preceding sentence or idea in a seemingly
clumsy pace that allows every sentence to unfold in a uniform way (6). Uniformity and repetition are
perhaps the basic framework of Martins art, though neither is truly there in the work. In the short text,
Answer to an Inquiry, Martin says of her paintings:
My formats are square but the grids never are absolutely square: they are rectangles, a little bit
off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didnt set out to do it that
way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles it lightens the weight of the square,
destroys its power. (Answer to an Inquiry, 29)
In naming repetition, or rather something more like off-repetition, as a method of achieving dissonance and
destruction, the image Martin calls up to me is something like natural erosion (repeated affronts of wind
and water), a long-lasting temporal process, more so than, say, the once-achieved singularity of an
explosion or collapse. It seems she is after a wearing down, a making brittle. The power of the square is
destroyed, but the shape of the square isnt must, in fact, remain intact.
In a similar form of off-repetition, Martin engages from lecture to lecture a repeated set of ideas often
lines are only minutely changed or examples are referenced, unexplained, from earlier speeches; it is only
others who have kept these speeches as written, unchangeable artifacts, and published them in this book.
Again, we look to Schwarz in the introduction who says In re-reading her texts, [Martin] is doubtful when
trying to bring back to mind her own thoughts. She is sceptical about the manuscript that has become
conclusive by being reproduced (6). The reader, perhaps, experiences something similar with the text of
each essay, but taking the whole of the book into mind, the off-repetition of theme and idea, we might say,
lightens the weight of the written manuscript, destroys its power.
The idea of destruction as a wearing down, I believe, is closely related to Martins ideas of perfection which
circulate throughout her lectures. In this regard, we notice an aspect of wearing down that means
refinement and purification; this aspect, however, is not strong enough to overwhelm the general meaning
of destruction, it is merely a glint of hope. The discourse between these two aspects agrees with Martins
positioning of herself as detached from feeling but at the same time intrinsically optimistic. In the very
beginning of the lecture The Untroubled Mind, Martin uses the rather aggressive and destructive epithet
anti-nature to describe her work. She turns it into a source of lightening.
People think that painting is about color / Its mostly composition / Its composition thats the
whole thing / The classic image / Two late Tang dishes, one with a flower image, / one
empty the empty form goes all the way to heaven / It is the classic form lighter weight /
My work is anti-nature / You will not think form, space, line, contour / Just a suggestion of
nature gives weight / light and heavy / light like a feather / you get light enough and you
levitate (The Untroubled Mind, 35)
In her logic, Martin places the empty dish after the decorated one, and I think this is an important point. Its
emptiness needs to be seen as a refinement of the decoration, of a decorated plate polished and smoothed
back into a transcendent emptiness. This is like the suggestion of nature which simultaneously lightens

and weights, there needs to be a hint, a suggestion, a reminding, so that the square might be powerless yet
still have shape. This is Martins access to perfection, to expose the composition of things without the
burden of color or natural form.
The struggle of existence, non existence is not my struggle. The establishment of the perfect
state not mine to do. Being outside that struggle I turn to perfection as I see it in my mind, and
Although I do not represent it very well in my work, all seeing the work, being already familiar
with the subject, are easily reminded of it. (Notes, 16)
Having approached Ms. Martins themes, I withdraw.
David Feil
Suggested Reading / Viewing:

Martin, Agnes, Writings, ed. Dieter Schwarz, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1991, ISBN: 3893223266

Martin, Agnes, The Islands, Richter Verlag, 2005, ISBN: 3937572066

Aside from books, there is also a DVD documentary on Martin titled With My Back to the World
directed by Mary Lance that came out in 2002. It is comprised of interviews with and footage of Martin,
alone in her Taos studio, between 1998 and 2002. newdealfilms.
Agnes Martin: Five Decades will present ten paintings by Agnes Martin dating from 1958 to 1999. The work
assembled here, created over five decades, will trace Martins formal development from the early
figurative works of the late 50s and early 60s, through the grid format of the 60s and 70s, to the
expansive bands of color emerging in the 1990s. This group of paintings will illuminate the evolution of her
line and palette, as well as shed light on the central theme and preoccupation of her work over 50 years,
Throughout the 1950s, Martin struggled with the task of making a painting that was able to speak the
language of the inner mind, a metaphysical place where she felt the beauty and perfection of the external
world resided as absolute ideas. Stemming from concepts found in Taoism and Zen Buddhism that gained
popularity in the United States in the 1950s, Martin set out to find a visual form for the immaterial world of
the mind, a space where the fleeting presence of perfection and beauty of the natural world was eternal.
For Martin, beauty and perfection transcend the natural world, and, therefore, the painting acted as a
The painting Untitled, circa 1959, consists of a circle painted in white and black on a gray neutral
background. Although the line wavers in areas, it depicts a perfect circle, which, along with the straight line
and the dot, Martin noted did not exist in nature. Shapes, however, still implied things and in the early
1960s Martin continued to experiment with formal ideas that would bring her closer to the ultimate goal of
finding an abstract format that allowed the mind to empty itself of the ego and other distractions. It would
be through pure abstraction, that Martin felt would allow the viewer to experience the sublime. In Untitled,
1962, a small canvas painted gray blue is filled with a dash and dot pattern. The result is a meditative
composition without a central focus, depicting nothing related to the natural world.
In the work This Rain, circa 1960, Martin floats two perfect rectangles of pale blue and yellow on a white
background. Indicating the influence of the transcendental ideologies promulgated by the Abstract
Expressionists, and in particular Rothko and Newman, Martin uses the rectangle as a tool for spiritual
contemplation and meditation. The single rectangle would then evolve into an overall grid of rectangles as
seen in the painting Trumpet from 1967. Trumpet is made up of a horizontal grid of rectangles drawn in
pencil over uneven washes of gray translucent paint. This is arguably Martins last painting before she
abandoned painting and left New York in 1967.

The grid served as a perfect geometric solution for an all-over pattern that would lead the mind away from
the material world towards a purer experience of the sublime. The decentralized composition reflects the
infinite space of the mind. For Martin, it was through uniform spacing and compositional equilibrium that
transcendental reality could be attained.

In the 1980s, the stark palette and the rigid grid would give away to looser pastel washes filling hand-drawn
pencil lines. In Untitled #14, three-quarter inch bands are filled with uneven washes of pale blues, pinks and
oranges. In the 1990s, symmetry would often give way to varying widths of horizontal bands. In Untitled
#17, 1997, the palest blue is washed over the white surface in three bands with almost imperceptible
demarcating pencil lines.

The later paintings have lost much of the severity of the earlier paintings, seeking to underline a more
optimistic outlook on the world. This later work, for Martin is filled with contentment, peace and serenity.
Despite her affiliation with the Minimal movement and artists such as Judd and Andre, Martin differed
greatly in her goals as an artist. Martin aligned herself more actively with the ideologies of the Abstract
Expressionists whose work was steeped in mysticism and spiritual content. The Minimalists believed in an
empirical reality as evidenced by their objects. Martin, however, has sought to transcend this material
reality, making the attainment of the sublime her central theme.

Agnes Martin arrived at her signature style in the 1970s, when she was nearly 60. Within the narrow
parameters she set for herself, a square format (72 inches x 72 inches until 1995, when she changed to 60
inches x 60 inches), thin washes of color, and straight graphite lines, the paintings were endlessly varied and
beautiful. Reams of serious criticism have been written about them; her monastic lifestyle fascinates
interviewers. Martin is now 92. Two concurrent exhibitions bracket some 30 years of her production with
rarely seen paintings that preceded it, up at Dia:Beacon, and Martins most recent work at PaceWildenstein
.going forward into unknown territoryAgnes Martins Early Paintings 1957 1967 at Dia:Beacon
features an exploratory phase during the decade she lived in New York. Three linked galleries were specially
constructed to display the 21 paintings on view in roughly three stages of chronological time and formal
development. Martin moved to New York from the southwest in 1957 to join Betty Parsons abstract
expressionist gallery at Parsons invitation. She settled into a loft on Coenties Slip near the Brooklyn Bridge
in downtown Manhattan. Many paintings did not survive the artists severe editing, so what still exists is
what passed muster, or was out of her reach. The latest painting in the show is dated 1965. Martin left New
York in 1967, eventually relocating in New Mexico where she lives today.

The seven works from 1957 1959 in the first gallery straddle late abstract expressionism and color field
painting. Drained of saturated hues, theyre like lunar reflections of these late modernist modes. The
Spring, dating from 1958 and measuring 50 inches x 50 inches, salutes the planes and horizontal bands of
Mark Rothko in shades of gray and white. Perhaps in an effort to find a color language without referring to
modernist color, Martin established at this time a reductive palette of black and neutral tones in gray, yellow,
and white oil paint brushed on thinly or applied with a knife. Aspects of Martins mature style were

emerging in other ways. Her preference for the square format had come into place, from small sizes at 25
inches x 25 inches up to 65 inches x 65 inches, about the size she would eventually use consistently.
Geometrical motifs, circles, triangles, and rectangular forms echo the Native American culture she had
absorbed while teaching in the southwest. These motifs adapted well to the influence of Martins mentor at
Betty Parsons Gallery, Barnett Newman. Untitled, from 1957, is a composition with a central white strip
separating two equal black diamond shapes. Tonal modulation is evident in Martins underpainting and
scumble, techniques she later discarded for acrylic washes. In Window, (1957), a pale ground surrounds
four rectangles, two in gray set above two in pale yellow , as if to compress sky and earth into four
congruent parcels of pigment.

Agnes Martin, Untitled 1960 oil on canvas, 70 x 70 inches Private Collection, Courtesy PaceWildenstein
In the second gallery, seven more paintings from 1959 to 1960 accentuate geometric form and introduce
pencil line. The artistic milieu where Martin moved was keenly interested in eastern philosophy. Ancient
Taoist writings of Lao Tse and Chuang Tzu inspired her with the lasting idea that inspiration comes from
within. Earth (1959, 49 3/4 inches x 49 3/4 inches) has bands at the high and low extremities of the
picture plane while a deep and uniform umber holds several rows of black dots. Delicate white pencil rims
distinguish them upon close view. In Untitled, (1960) the vertical, bilateral symmetry Newman often used
is rotated into a horizontal composition where the energy and speed of the vertical translate to an analog
for planetary rotational movement, perhaps another allusion to southwestern landscape, Native American
thought and culture. The pale circles at top and bottom could be a meditational motif from Tantric art.

Agnes Martin, Untitled 1959 oil on canvas, 69-1/2 x 69-1/2 inches Courtesy Dia Art Foundation
Untitled (1959) uses the most pared down of painterly means to delineate simple forms. Here, twin white
rectangles sit in tension within a dimmer field of white. Two smallish vertical paintings from 1959 are more
like cuneiform tablets than picture planes. Their unusually thick surfaces in a creamy bone color are incised
with graphite lines trailing through wet oil paint. One canvas is divided into a wide spaced grid that is
regular yet handmade, while the other is segmented by horizontal lines interspersed with triangular
The third gallery contains the first grid paintings, dating from 1961 to 1965. Underpainting appears for the
last time in Night Sea, from 1963, wherein gold leaf line peeks up between regular brush strokes in two
shades of blue. Flower in the Wind, also from 1963, has a rose-tinted field with lots of vertical graphite
lines activating the surface. The Islands (fig 4) is painted only with touches of white inside a graphite grid
that leaves a border of plain canvas all around it. The natural color of flax threads pulled taut in the canvas
weave plays its own part in the paintings structure, surface, texture, and tone. Two gorgeous blue wash
paintings with graphite lines from 1964 look similar except for an important switch: The Peach was done
in oil, but The Beach initiates Martins use of acrylic paint.

Agnes Martin, The Islands c.1961 acrylic and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 inches Collection Milly and Arne
Glimcher, Courtesy PaceWildenstein
Martins engagement with the grid, a motif that came to figure prominently in the art of the 1960s and
1970s was, for her, a classical ideal more in line with Chinese, Greek, Coptic, and Egyptian art than the
Minimalist aesthetic emerging at the time. Curator Lynne Cookes excellent essay for going forward into
unknown territory provides an insightful mix of historical background and visual analysis to ground the
exhibition in its present context. She draws on previous critical writings on the artists work and includes a
selected bibliography so one can always seek out other sources. Cooke is careful to point out that Martin
did not think of herself as a Minimalist, but as a participant in late abstract expressionism. Martin entered
the dialogue in her mid forties in 1957, rather late in the game for ab-ex, but she feels that that was her
generation no matter what anyone else thinks.
Critical tides shift, and as time goes on Martins work looks transitional in significant ways. Its very
interesting to see these early paintings exactly where they are right now at Dia:Beacons ground floor
permanent galleries, around the corner from work of the 1960s and 70s that was attuned to the viewer in
very specific ways. Martins graphite lines are echoed in Fred Sandbacks taut yarn sculptures tethered to
wall, floor, and ceiling boundaries. As graphic surface, a Martin grid painting compares to Sol le Witts
drawing installations, without their rational mathematical permutations. For both Heizer and Martin, the
landscape of the American southwest held the inspiration of sublime infinities of light, space, and time.
Martins paintings concentrate the viewers attention on proportion, linear exactitude, and laborious
patience as surely as Michael Heizers plummeting, steel lined cavities set in the gallery floor impel a visitor
to keep alert. By leaving Coenties Slip at the threshold of fame to settle back in New Mexico, she was
painting in the lap of Earthworks territory.
In hindsight, the phenomenological aspect of art in this era mirrors the dilemma of real figures in the
landscape who had to contend with the Vietnam War, FBI surveillance of private citizens protesting for civil
rights, the Weather Undergrounds bombs in American cities, political opacity. Perhaps the exponential
growth in the scale and ambition of art had something to do with NASA and the exploration of outer space.
Thought itself was getting bigger. These days, as natural light spreads through Dia:Beacons long exterior
skylights during the approach of summer solstice, the works seem to accentuate human sensation, nature,
and geometry as they might interact with unbounded landscapes. Martins sensibility is congruent with this

sense of astronomical scale and distance.

Return now to earth, and from Dia:Beacon to PaceWildenstein where Martins most recent work is on view .
In An Homage to Life, Martin recapitulates some of her least known past motifs and imbues them with
fresh ideas. The 1957 motif of a double black diamond around a central axis rotates 90 degrees into side by
side twin black triangles lit up with bright yellow green tips. Unusually dark graphite lines tether the pair
against an energetically brushed gray wash ground. If this ancient masonic iconography looks familiar, look
at the back of an American dollar bill, and on the left you will see an eye levitating over the top of an
Egyptian pyramid. Martin has given away much of the money her paintings have earned over the years to a
Other paintings in this new series place strong, thickly painted black geometric figures
within wash grounds. In one, double black squares which at first glance look regular and symmetrical but
are not hover in a a reddish orange wash. In another, a single obdurate and thickly painted trapezoid rests
on a gray wash, again applied with energetic strokes. This same thick black paint is used to make one of
Martins signature grids in reverse; lines created by the absence of black paint are so fine that they seem to
bare a single thread of the canvas weave. Elsewhere, the familiar pale washes in blue, yellow, gray, with
graphite line, return in unpredictable new combinations. Martin has often said that she paints what she
sees in her mind. We may be sure that these departures from her best known work and recapitulations of
her earliest themes are true to her classical ideal of innocence, happiness, and love.
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