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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

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

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. For Martin. are easily reminded of it. non existence is not my struggle. The painting Untitled. to the expansive bands of color emerging in the 1990s. between 1998 and 2002. Agnes. Martin floats two perfect rectangles of pale blue and yellow on a white background. a metaphysical place where she felt the beauty and perfection of the external world resided as absolute ideas. alone in her Taos studio. http://www. Although I do not represent it very well in my work.” ed. and. In Untitled. a small canvas painted gray blue is filled with a dash and dot pattern. Shapes. (“Notes. Martin’s themes.html Agnes Martin: Five Decades will present ten paintings by Agnes Martin dating from 1958 to 1999. Martin uses the rectangle as a tool for spiritual contemplation and meditation. Agnes. The work assembled here. 2005. along with the straight line and the dot. The establishment of the perfect state not mine to do. being already familiar with the subject. In the work This Rain. 1991. created over five decades. a space where the fleeting presence of perfection and beauty of the natural world was eternal. This group of paintings will illuminate the evolution of her line and palette. and in particular Rothko and Newman. newdealfilms. through the grid format of the 60s and 70s. “The Islands. ISBN: 3893223266 • Martin. there is also a DVD documentary on Martin titled “With My Back to the World” directed by Mary Lance that came out in 2002. beauty and perfection transcend the natural world. Indicating the influence of the transcendental ideologies promulgated by the Abstract Expressionists. Martin noted did not exist in nature. all seeing the work. The result is a meditative composition without a central focus. circa 1959. a reminding. This is Martin’s access to perfection. circa The single rectangle would then evolve into an overall grid of rectangles as seen in the painting Trumpet from 1967. however. “Writings. therefore.zwirnerandwirth. there needs to be a hint. to expose the composition of things without the burden of color or natural form. Kunstmuseum Winterthur. Martin set out to find a visual form for the immaterial world of the mind. it depicts a perfect circle. namely the pursuit of perfection.” Richter Verlag. It is comprised of interviews with and footage of Martin. the painting acted as a vehicle to recapture the experience of the sublime. consists of a circle painted in white and black on a gray neutral background. David Feil Suggested Reading / Viewing: • Martin. so that the square might be powerless yet still have shape.” 16) Having approached Ms. This is arguably Martin’s last painting before she abandoned painting and left New York in 1967. Although the line wavers in areas. that Martin felt would allow the viewer to experience the sublime. Dieter Schwarz. Martin struggled with the task of making a painting that was able to speak the language of the inner mind. 1962. ISBN: 3937572066 • Aside from books. Throughout the 1950s. will trace Martin’s formal development from the early “figurative” works of the late 50s and early 60s. happiness and beauty. It would be through pure abstraction. as well as shed light on the central theme and preoccupation of her work over 50 years. . and as I also see it with my eyes even in the dust. depicting nothing related to the natural world. Stemming from concepts found in Taoism and Zen Buddhism that gained popularity in the United States in the 1950s. I withdraw. a suggestion. Being outside that struggle I turn to perfection as I see it in my mind. The struggle of existence. Trumpet is made up of a horizontal grid of rectangles drawn in pencil over uneven washes of gray translucent paint.and weights. which.

The decentralized composition reflects the infinite space of the mind. peace and serenity. up at Dia:Beacon. “The Spring. and white oil paint brushed on thinly or applied with a knife. Drained of saturated hues. however.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. This later work. when she changed to 60 inches x 60 inches). the paintings were endlessly varied and beautiful. Within the narrow parameters she set for herself. Perhaps in an effort to find a color language without referring to modernist color. Many paintings did not survive the artist’s severe editing. thin washes of color. her monastic lifestyle fascinates interviewers. In Untitled #14. making the attainment of the sublime her central theme. has sought to transcend this material reality. and Martin’s most recent work at PaceWildenstein uptown. The seven works from 1957 – 1959 in the first gallery straddle late abstract expressionism and color field painting. Three linked galleries were specially constructed to display the 21 paintings on view in roughly three stages of chronological time and formal development. pinks and oranges. Martin differed greatly in her goals as an artist. She settled into a loft on Coenties Slip near the Brooklyn Bridge in downtown Manhattan. and straight graphite lines. The later paintings have lost much of the severity of the earlier paintings. Martin. so what still exists is what passed muster. Two concurrent exhibitions bracket some 30 years of her production with rarely seen paintings that preceded it. In the 1990s. salutes the planes and horizontal bands of Mark Rothko in shades of gray and white. _______________________________ Agnes Martin arrived at her signature style in the 1970s. when she was nearly 60. Martin is now 92. yellow. Martin moved to New York from the southwest in 1957 to join Betty Parson’s abstract expressionist gallery at Parson’s invitation. Martin left New York in 1967. seeking to underline a more optimistic outlook on the world. three-quarter inch bands are filled with uneven washes of pale blues. The latest painting in the show is dated 1965. the palest blue is washed over the white surface in three bands with almost imperceptible demarcating pencil lines. In Untitled #17. eventually relocating in New Mexico where she lives today. Martin established at this time a reductive palette of black and neutral tones in gray. it was through uniform spacing and compositional equilibrium that transcendental reality could be attained. Aspects of Martin’s mature style were . they’re like lunar reflections of these late modernist modes. or was out of her reach. For Martin. Martin aligned herself more actively with the ideologies of the Abstract Expressionists whose work was steeped in mysticism and spiritual content. for Martin is filled with contentment.” dating from 1958 and measuring 50 inches x 50 inches. Reams of serious criticism have been written about them. In the 1980s. Despite her affiliation with the Minimal movement and artists such as Judd and Andre.going forward into unknown territory…Agnes Martin’s Early Paintings 1957 – 1967″ at Dia:Beacon features an exploratory phase during the decade she lived in New York. “…. 1997. The Minimalists believed in an empirical reality as evidenced by their objects. a square format (72 inches x 72 inches until 1995. symmetry would often give way to varying widths of horizontal bands. the stark palette and the rigid grid would give away to looser pastel washes filling hand-drawn pencil lines.

” from 1957. 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. Untitled 1960 oil on canvas. “Earth” (1959. In “Untitled. and rectangular forms echo the Native American culture she had absorbed while teaching in the southwest. Geometrical motifs. as if to compress sky and earth into four congruent parcels of pigment. triangles. . seven more paintings from 1959 to 1960 accentuate geometric form and introduce pencil line. perhaps another allusion to southwestern landscape.” (1960) the vertical. 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. In “Window. Native American thought and culture. Her preference for the square format had come into place. Ancient Taoist writings of Lao Tse and Chuang Tzu inspired her with the lasting idea that inspiration comes from within. a pale ground surrounds four rectangles. These motifs adapted well to the influence of Martin’s mentor at Betty Parsons Gallery. is a composition with a central white strip separating two equal black diamond shapes. Delicate white pencil rims distinguish them upon close view. about the size she would eventually use consistently. “Untitled. Tonal modulation is evident in Martin’s underpainting and scumble. circles. from small sizes at 25 inches x 25 inches up to 65 inches x 65 inches. Barnett Newman.” (1957). The pale circles at top and bottom could be a meditational motif from Tantric art. Agnes Martin. Courtesy PaceWildenstein In the second gallery. The artistic milieu where Martin moved was keenly interested in eastern philosophy.emerging in other ways. two in gray set above two in pale yellow . 70 x 70 inches Private Collection. techniques she later discarded for acrylic washes.

and tone. One canvas is divided into a wide spaced grid that is regular yet handmade. surface. texture. twin white rectangles sit in tension within a dimmer field of white.” also from 1963. “Flower in the Wind. “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. Here.Agnes Martin. The third gallery contains the first grid paintings. Underpainting appears for the last time in “Night Sea. . while the other is segmented by horizontal lines interspersed with triangular outlines. dating from 1961 to 1965. Their unusually thick surfaces in a creamy bone color are incised with graphite lines trailing through wet oil paint. but “The Beach” initiates Martin’s use of acrylic paint.” from 1963. 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. Two smallish vertical paintings from 1959 are more like cuneiform tablets than picture planes. wherein gold leaf line peeks up between regular brush strokes in two shades of blue. Untitled 1959 oil on canvas. Two gorgeous blue wash paintings with graphite lines from 1964 look similar except for an important switch: “The Peach” was done in oil. The natural color of flax threads pulled taut in the canvas weave plays its own part in the painting’s structure. has a rose-tinted field with lots of vertical graphite lines activating the surface.

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

. If this ancient masonic iconography looks familiar. again applied with energetic strokes.artcritical. This same thick black paint is used to make one of Martin’s signature grids in reverse. yellow. Martin has often said that she paints what she sees in her mind. gray. lines created by the absence of black paint are so fine that they seem to bare a single thread of the canvas weave.Cj6HiJxF. 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 thickly painted black geometric figures within wash grounds. with graphite line. a single obdurate and thickly painted trapezoid rests on a gray wash. Martin has given away much of the money her paintings have earned over the years to a charity for abused adolescents. happiness. and on the left you will see an eye levitating over the top of an Egyptian pyramid. and love.See more at: http://www. double black squares which at first glance look regular and symmetrical but are not hover in a a reddish orange wash. In one. the familiar pale washes in blue.sense of astronomical scale and distance. Unusually dark graphite lines tether the pair against an energetically brushed gray wash ground. In “An Homage to Life. and from Dia:Beacon to PaceWildenstein where Martin’s most recent work is on view . return in unpredictable new combinations. Elsewhere. 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.dpuf . In another.” Martin recapitulates some of her least known past motifs and imbues them with fresh ideas. Return now to earth. look at the back of an American dollar bill. Other paintings in this new series place strong.