Agnes Martin

#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.

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