#10. Charley Peters writes on Agnes Martin

Happy Holiday, 1999, Tate/National Galleries of Scotland

Happy Holiday, 1999, Tate/National Galleries of Scotland

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.

untitled #3, 1974, Des Moines Art Centre, Iowa, USA

untitled #3, 1974, Des Moines Art Centre, Iowa, USA

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.

untitled, 1977, watercolour and graphite on paper, private collection, photo coutesy Pace Gallery

untitled, 1977, watercolour and graphite on paper, private collection, photo coutesy Pace Gallery

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.

On a Clear Day, 1973, Parasol Press Ltd.

On a Clear Day, 1973, Parasol Press Ltd.

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.

14 comments

  1. Hi Charley, great review of a really interesting show. In a way I want to dislike Martin’s work because of all the mysticism or transcendentalism that is associated with it. Yet, what I am actually most aware of when viewing it is immanence. I like her work the most when it has the greatest precision (those prints). There was a time when all of it seemed very austere to my eyes, but these days it looks more to me like Rothko than it used to do. I think it is me that has changed. Also, I find her relationship to nature rather anomalous. I like your quote about the grid being “Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world” yet Martin’s titles suggest more connectedness to “cause in the world” than does this quote and, thankfully, more than do the works themselves. In the end, I cannot help but enjoy the work. I love its seriality. Even though there are few series as such, every individual painting is itself a series. I find myself wondering whether she is just as opposed to the idea of a masterpiece as are the most serial of artists, or is she constantly attempting a masterpiece and never quite being satisfied with what she has done? I think she is nearer the former. The continued repetition, is for me enthralling, and whilst I accept that she is never really mechanical, the nearer she approaches the mechanical the more I like the work. It may be that I get interested in the similarities and differences between machine and person in the performance, for example, of painting a line. I like it when the differences are difficult to determine. Sometimes I think they may even be exaggerated in these paintings. Repetition is a universal human experience, entirely required for the most essential of human activities: walking, eating, reproducing, (painting even), yet it is also an experience that we tend to disdain and when we do so, we say that it is mechanical. My understanding of Agnes Martin’s work is that she abstracts this very act of repetition. When it comes to viewing the work maybe some of us have a higher threshold for the repetitive than do others. My twin brother likes walking, something I can also enjoy but after about 6 miles I tire and want to stop, whereas he wants to keep going for another 20. I have his stamina when it comes to looking at these ‘repetitive’ paintings. Also, am I showing my age too much if I feel the need also to mention Soren Kierkegaard, for whom repetition was strictly an impossibility, something we also find in Martin? And maybe it’s that existential connection that also leads to what I think is an overemphasis on the emotional, transcendental, mystical etc.?

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    1. I like your observation in the contradiction between her insistence on that her experience is irrelevant to her work via the reading of her titles. I was picking up on that same thing when she says her work is, “not about facts, it’s about feelings.” After all, what else are our feelings other than our experiences?

      Also when you said, “Repetition is a universal human experience, entirely required for the most essential of human activities: walking, eating, reproducing, (painting even), yet it is also an experience that we tend to disdain and when we do so, we say that it is mechanical,” You forgot to mention the primary human activity, which is the repetition of breathing! (But we get your point.) I bring this up because I also liked this observation. It demonstrates the notion of being with what is and using repetition/breath as a tool versus being in disdain to it. This awareness is at the core of many Buddhist traditions. We do have record of Agnes Martin’s interest and involvement with Zen Buddhism, so I wonder why the need to separate the rational from the spiritual reading in her work?

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      1. Hi Danila, thanks for adding breathing to my list! It is absolutely required. I agree with you about its relevance to the experience of viewing Martin’s work. I become aware of my own breathing. (Robin Greenwood may be right to joke about me “trancing out” at this point). From an entirely materialist point of view, and also having some practical knowledge of hypnosis, I can readily admit the metaphor “spiritual”, especially as it comes from the same word as “breath”. It is not that I wish to separate rational and spiritual readings so much that I am suspicious of finding religious or transcendental content that I think is likely an over-reading of the work.

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  2. I think Martin is a closet dada/surrealist, maker of the mute and inscrutable object. Each work should have inscribed upon it: “Ceci n’est pas une peinture.”

    Perhaps we could be invited to pencil into each rectangle a little black moustache?

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  3. Just tried to “like” Robin’s wicked comment. WordPress won’t let me. I have to become a WordPress blogger or websiter first–and that involves a whole bunch of things: picking a “theme” and whatnot. . .

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  4. Let me put it another way, slightly less flippantly: there can be no meaning in redundancy, it’s an impossibility. The only way you can get something out of that situation is to contextualise it.

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  5. Re: Andy Parkinson’s quotation from Apollinaire in AbCrit #9 Sonia Delaunay on discovering Orphic Cubism – “the art of painting new structures with elements that have not been borrowed from the visual sphere, but have been created entirely by the artist himself, and then endowed by him with fullness of reality”. Could well be attributed to Agnes Martin’s achievements.

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  6. Can you admire Agnes Martin while wishing she had done a bit less work? She is almost like an exponent of ‘Outsider’ art, converting obsession into style, but unlike many trapped inside introspection, she was very productive. She might be a minimalist, but she had more in common with artists like Brice Marden and particularly Robert Mangold than Judd or Morris. Her stuff is medium specific, but it acquired specificity when she stopped being a painter. Her medium is tinted drawing, with canvas taking the role of paper in the larger things. Her method generates an unstable pictorial field that trembles like an electric current passing through a fluorescent lamp, though it’s founded on the grid, a device that usually provides compositional predictability. The visual material works directly on the nerves, like the light in James Turrell. But it has a calming influence, offering a contemporary audience a highly therapeutic, and decidedly abstract, aesthetic experience. I prefer the small things. And what was so wrong with her early paintings, which she destroyed? They look OK.

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  7. I’ve visited this show a couple of times and I think a lot of the comments here are far more realistic and a lot more vigorous than I’ve seen elsewhere. I would just like to add my own thoughts as a meditator who also paints. Martin’s work looks like the product of a serious meditator and someone with a practical experience of zen sitting who has probably been influenced by the Soto Zen School and the thought of Thomas Merton, who she knew through Ab Reinhardt.

    Apparently, Martin developed a formal sitting practise in the early sixties which coincided with the grid paintings coming into being. The grids resemble the Kesa and Rakasu garments of Buddhism to a certain extent, the grids that form these robes being modelled on paddy fields and carefully stitched together, each stitch equally spaced and the size of one raw grain of rice. The gold leaf painting Friendship from this time reminds of the ornate versions and the graphite and gesso appear closer to the usual, more monochromatic robes of the monastics.

    Martin’s sitting for long periods awaiting ‘inspiration’ suggests she used meditation as a tool to resolve an aesthetic problem and to access creativity. In classic Soto Zen sitting, zazen as it is called, the sitter turns
    to face the wall and sits crossed legged with eyes open and the gaze lowered and relaxed. The posture is formal and is the point of meditation, it is also called shikantaza which translates as ‘simply sitting’. Most importantly it is practised with the principle of mushotoku meaning, ‘goallessness’ or ‘no gaining idea’ meaning the sitter just sits, maintaining the posture and observing the mind as it arises.

    There are consequences and rhythms in this practice, often the mind is taken up with self concern in the initial phase of sitting. Over time this self concern softens and the energy thus liberated in the mind enters a phase of creative play, somewhat like the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states that bookend sleep. Some teachers say there is no zen master that wasn’t an artist first. This phase of creativity can be irresistible and compelling and often translates as artistic expression in the sitter as a way of assimilating the meditative practice into daily life. Hence, the highly resolved aesthetics of the various zen schools.

    It would appear that Martin’s ‘inspiration’ was the active seeking out of this meditative phase and the subject of her paintings. In zazen there is often the experience of what Martin and other sitters call ‘merging’ and this takes a number of forms. In one instance the relaxed open gaze which is not looking at a specific object other than the wall, or a blank canvas in Martin’s case, is suddenly filled with white light, grey or blackness. The eyes remain open but the visual field clouds and merges into one continuous experience of a soft and slightly active lightness. In another instance there is a breaking of the subject/object divide, the senses receive all incoming data as equivalent and the mind stops differentiation or monitoring stimuli and rests in the open field of this experience. This is akin to an experience of innocence as the socialised self is not present in the experience of mind. In sitting it is also suggested that regardless of the condition of the mind one is not actively behaving in any morally inappropriate way, so one is ritually acting out a form of purity.

    Another perceptual change that often follows long periods of sitting and can last for days on a retreat is a heightened experience of light and colour and a far more attuned sense of the emotional impact of light and colour at play in the environment. As the mind becomes quiet and less self concerned the senses are enhanced and light becomes softer and more available. In Martin’s painting it is as if she depicts light coming into being, the subtle light that becomes more available with a profound shift in consciousness and perception.

    I take the view that Martin was a person with a story, a personality and personas like anyone else, interesting enough in its historical and biographical richness. I don’t think this is particularly relevant to her paintings, I do think the paintings stand alone. In a painting like Grey Stone where a grey ground is latticed with thousands of tiny horizontal rectangles each filled with a single painted spot of blue there seems to be plenty going on. From a distance one approaches what appears to be a monochrome canvas, possibly a raw canvas, singular and absolute as a surface. On closer inspection the surface becomes enervated and gently pulsing with a low-level optical thrum which the mind tries to rationalise to a perceived order. Up close one sees thousands of gently expressed blue lozenges confined within tiny rectangles. It seems at once tightly controlled and ordered whilst sustaining a reiterated singular expressive gesture and focus. It is a reverence to painting, in the way the sewing of the Kesa and the intoning of the Buddha’s name with every stitch is a a way of focusing on the dynamic intentional pursue realisation. The paintings become more interesting shortly after this early sixties piece when the expressed tiny brushstrokes are dropped and the grids are opened up as forms to express a certain kind of emptiness. The experience of merging and the emptiness of self during that experience seems to be portrayed in the best paintings. These paintings also act as potential catalyst for this type of experience, some more successfully than others. I would agree with Andy Parkinson in that the best paintings seem to be the ones with the most technical control, the least incident and the least evidence of Martin’s personality available in them. I don’t believe these to be inscrutable, I believe these to be most available as expressions of Martin’s perceptual and emotional enquiry.

    Further, there are plenty of paradoxes and ambiguities in Martin’s work, closed forms, open ended lines, anomalies which I believe wholly deliberate and philosophically resolved. Martin’s interest in merging and lightness is well served by this methodology, in zen terms it throws up a thought toward the phrase ‘not one, not two’. The paintings can appear unified and singular or created of divided spaces dependent on the viewing distance, they each have a different emotional sense and feeling tone as a consequence of this.

    It is interesting to view the show at Tate Modern in its exceptionally well curated lay out and then to repeat the show in reverse. In going back through the show, particularly after a sustained viewing of the twelve Island paintings everything becomes opened up and far more available, colours seem stronger and the emotional feeling tone far richer and more varied. It’s a fascinating experiences and one I find interesting as an enquiry into the relationship of aesthetic, emotional and spiritual states and how they inter-relate so subtly and how difficult it is for the rational mind to discern those nuances and qualities.

    This is my take on Agnes Martin, I must say I have really enjoyed seeing a great show and think the curating worked brilliantly. The pale lilac walls in the room containing The Islands along with the slightly yellow lighting was inspired. I’ll probably go again.

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    1. Zen. I had to think about this again not having Jason’s insight I am left with only a perceived aesthetic. The ‘east’ quiet, ordered, meticulous is the image which lets it sit with ‘minimalism’ aesthetically, but there is something wrong here too. Something awry when imported.
      Tanizaki – ‘In Praise of Shadows’ his wonderful gathering of the pre-industrial Japanese sense. It’s celebration of wear and tear, darkness, atmosphere, transient, that is surely closer to a transcendental aesthetic than the graphic, architectural or industrial sheen it has come hang upon. Again this gives rise to an ungenerous doubt when appraising such work within the context provided. Too much at odds with my few wobbly Karatsu pots.

      Along the road when in Nagoya is a very large yard full of rocks, some quite enormous at several metres across, not a stone masons, but carefully chosen elemental examples to sit and ‘be’ in gardens, large and small with their moss, marks etc…not stuff to be fashioned into figure or form and as far away from a either a gnome or Pawson interior as one can imagine.

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  8. Is Agnes Martin ‘abstract?’
    Wilfully restrictive, repetitive, limited, all terms which we find anathema to the truly abstract, yet by all accounts of great personal meaning and certainly more than merely pattern for many.
    However, as far as the rigour of the grid system goes she ain’t Josef Müller-Brockman either.

    If we are to be generous and take the artist at their word, then we must put the visual ‘optical’ fact or formal means to one side and assess it upon it’s own ‘symbolic’ terms, otherwise we are simply setting it up to fail.
    You can’t have a symbol which is constantly undergoing radical reinvention for it obviously then cannot be shared.
    In formal terms of ‘avant grade’ progression of a means it is going to be redundant, a symbol must refer to some thing, albeit in Jungian terms an ‘unknown’ – seems a bit Dick Cheney.
    A shared ‘unknowable?’ A ‘known unknown?’

    Context. Ugh.
    Feelings. Yuk.

    I won’t be stumping up to see it, I get tea towel, I like my fabric with jokes on – Polke and my grids Swiss, but my psychologist friend found the show ‘sublime’ and was ‘blown away.’

    Ay, theres the rub.
    We founder, as ever, with the absence of a shared ‘spiritual belief’ through which her or any other artist’s ‘meta-physical’ intent can be communicated.
    ‘Whereof we cannot speak etc…’ a tired quote for sure, but only because Ludwig knew the problem is without resolution.
    Feelings have to be taken on good faith and one is either a believer or not, the only ‘objective’ position possibly that of the analyst, but is this not also under constant dispute from an empirical perspective?
    Talk or take the chemicals.
    Well in the end you need both.

    As Dreyfus undid MIT, you’re not going to get to ‘human consciousness’ with AI, if you think you can can ‘logic’ you’re way to what its like ‘to be’ you end up with a brain in a vat.
    Round and round we go…
    Can I intellectually accommodate ‘feelings’ in a definition of ‘abstract?’ No, I am a dull, literal, builder when it comes to public discourse, but I can stare at square metres of mill scale on plate for hours in wonder privately.
    Would I expect to share that phenomenological wonder with many others?
    No. I can just about engage some of them by cutting it up and sticking it back together.
    Zen or weeping Madonnas, if you don’t ‘believe’ in them they will fail you, in Martin we have a believer, which grates in the West (authenticity) but then my Buddhist in-laws are equally non-plussed by a bearded supreme being.

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      1. Another event has prompted further thoughts about my rather antagonistic discomfort of discussing ‘context’ and ‘feeling’ in Agnes Martin’s artwork above. We visited yesterday a neighbour who paints, a great variety, an architect, but although invited to do so, impossible to get them to discuss anything on the canvasses, so much emotional symbolism was bound up with creation of the objects. All artistic output to some degree on a therapeutic spectrum?

        Minimalism is indeed inadequate for Martin, seems more than something therapeutic there, Judd writes a typically very nuts and bolts review although later he compares with Barnett Newman.
        Newman seems apt in both the positive and negative senses for several recent articles here.
        It is received wisdom the ‘formal’ influence Newman was deemed to have upon a subsequent generation grouped critically under ‘Minimalism’ but of course he took such pains to distance himself and artwork from such.
        Perhaps what Greenberg describes as Newman’s ‘grand claims’ for the content of his work are at once inspirational for the like of Martin and partly responsible for reaction of ‘pop’ and the loss of faith, hedging of bets in the ‘provisional’ contemporary too.
        The oft quoted ‘carriers of awesome feelings’ Newman felt he created. The ‘noumenal’ an unseen thing in itself is bound to come unstuck with materialism, both Greenbergian and consumerist pleasures and later anxieties. Nevertheless in the private sense inspirational as to the power of painting to convey an artist’s state.
        So are we left with a dilemma as onlookers, the inspired radical emptying out in which both Martin and Newman find so much, one quiet, one grand. A private passion, unable to share it, we can but only doubt it?

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