Agnes Martin at Tate Modern until 11 October 2015
Agnes Martin said that inspiration found her and that she could take no credit for it, she just emptied her head – especially of thoughts of herself – and inspiration would come into her ‘vacant mind’. She maintained that her personality and experiences were irrelevant to her work, a belief that has commonly been reinforced by the few people allowed to witness her sitting for hours, waiting for inspiration to appear in the guise of a minute but fully formed mental image. Martin’s gallerist (and eventual friend) Arne Glimcher wrote, “…she was extremely self-effacing and separated her persona from her art. She believed that she was the locus where her art happened, rather than its creator.” Yet critics and curators seem less easily satisfied: who was the reclusive Agnes Martin, and from where did her ‘inspired’ paintings develop? Her lifestyle is often referenced as informing her aesthetic; a persistent endeavour to order and silence a fragile, troubled mind by producing immaculate, rational, quiet works. Tate Modern mercifully restrains from introducing Martin’s paintings as ‘products of personal and spiritual struggle’ caused by her schizophrenia until Room 5 of its current major retrospective, but nevertheless the exhibition at times develops into a distracting mashup of what we are told of the artist’s biography and what we can see for ourselves in her work, providing comfort and explanation in personal anecdote, and portraying Martin’s work as a logical story of cause and effect. Despite any of the vulnerability implied by the narratives surrounding her paintings, Agnes Martin at Tate Modern is a vast, comprehensive survey of her robust and relentless vision, best viewed by spending time with her paintings and not by dwelling for too long on the explanations of why they may have been made.
The exhibition opens with a room of Martin’s late, signature style of painterly abstractions of lightly applied, delicate colour in horizontal bands. The gallery is subsequently ordered chronologically from work made in the 1950s through to her final paintings, made after her relocation to Mexico from New York. From the onset of the exhibition we enter the visual world of Agnes Martin – the familiarity of colour so pale and form so slight that it appears to be on the cusp of disappearing altogether. Airy and full of light, the uniform canvases are 152cm square and exist in an ethereal space somewhere between presence and absence. The works from this period began by Martin priming the entire surface of the canvas with an opaque coat of white acrylic gesso, which was overpainted in bands of light, luminous colour divided by hand-drawn graphite lines. The gesso is never fully covered by the layers of watery acrylic paint, which is characteristically in delicate shades of peach and light blue, producing a field of incandescent colour and sparse visual information. These serene works were made in the 1990s, bearing celebratory titles such as ‘Love the Whole World’ (2000) and ‘Happy Holiday’ (1999). The quality of line produced by Martin in these paintings is not uniformly straight, exhibiting an undeniably hand-drawn quality that traces the uneven surface of the canvas. The art historian Briony Fer has noted of her work, “It is striking that Martin does not draw a distinction between drawing and painting. On the contrary, she collapses it”, and she collapses too the expectations of formal abstraction, reducing painting to the barest of means and the most modest intent.
Martin was a concise painter who employed a decidedly limited vocabulary, but she rejected being labelled as a minimalist, whom she considered to be too cerebral in their objectives. She maintained that her own work evolved intuitively and was an expression of the emotional mind, saying, “It’s not about facts, it’s about feelings”. Martin found the voice through which she could most satisfactorily express pure emotion in the grid; a means of making paintings that were devoid of intellectual content and that satisfied her pursuit of transcendent beauty: “finally, I got the grid, and it was what I wanted. Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world.” It took Martin two decades, until the early 1960s, to complete her journey to find the grid, and the early rooms of Tate’s exhibition record this process with a verve that subsides into a more reflective pace later in the show. These initial rooms are full of possibility: responses to cubism, surrealism and abstract expressionism. Not all the work is good or especially memorable, but there is something about the delicate quality of the line and the subtleness of her early palette that is familiar to her better known, mature work. Martin said she did not believe in experiment in art. She wrote, “The way of an artist is an entirely different way. It is a way of surrender. He must surrender to his own mind.” These early explorations of painting do, however, feel like experiments, and they eventually led Martin to formal abstraction, where the organic forms of the early pieces were over time replaced by geometry. These were the tentative beginnings of her searching for a system that would sustain her practice for the next 40 years. We can see Martin working out a direction which we later see her working through for the rest of her career, which started with found sculptures of New York detritus and fascinating small paintings of lines, dots and marks; more fluid and sketchy than we expect of Martin, but they are still identifiably hers. In Birds (c1959), Heather (1958) and Untitled (c1957) we can clearly see Martin’s early, exploratory renderings of the grid and repeated geometric figures. By the time she painted The Tree in 1964 – the painting that Martin calls her first grid, the lines and dots of these earlier paintings had became large pencilled lattices, stringently and arduously worked.
In the four decades after The Tree, she pursued a significant, compulsive enquiry into the grammar of the line as it moved across a series of standard sized canvases. The show’s second half focuses on her mature style, when after a six year break from painting, Martin’s tight grids relaxed into blocks of radiant pastel colour. The latter part of the exhibition lacks the energy of her earlier endeavours and the tone of the show stabilises to a consistent development of her then well established reductive language. Some may find this monotonous in its constant reiteration of her ongoing enquiry, but even small variations in colour and form over the years that Martin continued to paint seem uncompromising and part of a larger, rigorous investigation. Lucy Lippard has described Martin’s paintings as “legendary examples of an unrepetitive use of a repetitive medium”; principally Martin’s work does not feel repetitive because of the fastidious care given to every new painting and the serious intent of each visual nuance.
Moments of difference stand out as small but significant subtexts in the main narrative of the exhibition. On a Clear Day, a portfolio of 30 screen prints exploring grid configurations from 1973 records Martin’s obsession with precision. She wanted the printer to straighten out her lines, which she said she could never paint straight enough. The prints are pure and mathematical, they feel resolute where her paintings are serene. On a Clear Day is more ostentatious in conception than Martin’s paintings, as she rarely worked in series. The printed lines are near-perfect, evoking a sensation of infinite space on the modest scale of the 30cm x 30cm paper. The twelve paintings The Islands (1979) are a rarity in that Martin painted them to be hung together. They occupy a room in the centre of the show, and feel like an exhibition within an exhibition. Painted in stark matte white acrylic that absorbs the surrounding light and emits it partially back with luminous effect, the details of the work slowly unfold to reveal a subtle structure of fine horizontal lines drawn in pencil and thin bands of white alternating with thicker ones, light bands with darker. This is compelling work – quiet but not silent – positioned almost at the threshold of visibility.
Agnes Martin is an expansive and excellently presented retrospective. Tate’s gently biographical approach to explaining Martin’s work is perhaps unsurprising and at worst is limiting and overbearingly rational. It feels too easy to read horizontal painted lines as references to a native landscape and grids as a means of ordering a turbulent mind. The power of Martin’s paintings is in their quiet declaration of their own existence; they are barely visible but resolutely present. Her use of colour and rhythm creates a sense of compositional harmony, but does not feel designed or contrived. The exhibition leaves us with an impression of Martin the person: critical, troubled, solitary, and Martin the artist: focused, critical, rigorous, the greatest paradox being the tough determination of the singular vision behind the delicate mind implied by the curator’s contextualising narrative. Martin was steely, unsentimental and driven; destroying work that was ‘unacceptable’ to her throughout her whole working life. So who was Agnes Martin: visionary; mystic; outsider; modernist; minimalist; abstract expressionist; solitary; schizophrenic; self-critical? She was all of these things to a lesser or greater extent, but most of all she was a painter of great integrity and purpose, and this is what Tate’s exhibition demonstrates most clearly.