I’d never heard of Agnes Martin – knowing nothing about an artist being the best reason to go to an exhibition of their work. Turns out she was an American abstract painter who lived from 1912 to 2004, a long life. She was originally from Canada, went south to the States and took to painting late, not completing her Master of Arts degree till she was 30. Her early work shows the influence of all the contemporary currents (surrealism, Picasso and so on) in paintings of biomorphic loops and striking abstract sculptures. She moved to New York in the early 1950s just as the Abstract Expressionists were taking off – grouped together in a cheap area of south Manhattan were living and working Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and a lot of other guys inventing a distinctly American form of painting.
She always lived frugally and at one point in the later 1960s packed in art altogether to go traveling for five years. She finally settled in New Mexico where she built her own adobe house and studio, living in primitive simplicity (no electricity, no running water) and she died there, far from the bright lights and the big city, full of years, fame and the praise of her contemporaries.
[Her biography is amply told in the Wikipedia and Tate web pages, listed below]
The exhibition, in 11 big rooms, starts with Martin’s early zoomorphic work, along with some striking abstract sculptures, but it was in the later 1950s that she abandoned all figurative art to work in the repeated patterns, the mathematical grids, which were to become her trademark. In the early 1960s she found her voice, creating a series of grid patterns in square canvases 72 inches by 72 inches. The size would vary, but the addiction to grids of straight lines lasted the rest of her life.
Over time her colour palette became more muted. By the 1970s it was very pale pastels. The show has one room devoted to massive grids coloured only with grey. Another room has one of her few ‘series’ – 12 big square canvases painted white with such faint pencil lines creating rectangles and squares, that you can’t see them from across the room. The net effect is very relaxing. In fact the exhibition as a whole is very calming, muting, slowing, meditative. I heartily (no, I quietly) recommend it.
2003 – Just at the end of her very long life, Martin returned to non-grids, albeit still mathematical shapes, but more colourful and non-griddy than anything she’d done for 50 years.
Tate have made a short film featuring Martin herself and curators commenting.
Her dealer, Arne Gimcher, suggests a good approach when he says the paintings reflect the viewer (Art is in the eye of the beholder, sure, but rather more than usually for Martin). As I walked around these big white rooms hung with abstract grids and patterns in pastel colours or no colours at all, I could feel my heart beat slowing down and my thoughts wandering. The commentary/guide labels on the wall suggested different phases of her work and mentioned aspects of her biography. These were enough to plant seeds of thought, interpretation, speculation, idly flowing, projecting onto her empty canvases…
She was, apparently, a lesbian, though she never, apparently, formed a permanent relationship [Wikipedia: ‘She lived alone all her adult life.’]. Her gender, possibly, explains the absence of forcefulness, or drive, of tiresome grandstanding and showing off, which you find in many male artists of the mid-century, from Picasso to Pollock.
But insofar as she didn’t seem to form any private attachments – with no husband or lovers or children, with no ties of any sort – Martin was free to follow her private vision. And her art is a kind of logic set free: rows and columns and lines and rectangles silently inhabiting their own space, with no distractions.
At Columbia University where she studied art, Zen Buddhism was taught by scholars and professors and becoming better known. She was interested in it for a while. As far as I can tell she didn’t become a devotee or practitioner, but you could argue that her entire oeuvre is an invitation to sit in silence and meditate.
This is especially true of the series she titled The Islands, twelve large square paintings in white acrylic paint and graphite, each with a unique use of horizontal lines to divide the surface, but so pale as to be barely visible from across a room. They’re there, but not there. They appear as you move forward, vanish as you retreat. They are what you make of them…
‘Throughout adulthood, Martin suffered from schizophrenia.’ This striking piece of information is revealed in room 5, and can’t help influencing the viewer. Were these tremendously ordered grids a way of controlling and managing a troubled mind? There is absolutely none of the stormy angst of a Jackson Pollock – the extreme reverse, emotionally flat surfaces laced with an orderly, patterned serenity.
In the film about her, Martin says we experience all kinds of emotions which we don’t express. Do these paintings express any emotion at all? I found the opposite: they are orderly empty spaces into which we project what we want.
The most misleading interpretations offered by various commentators seemed to me the several artists and colleagues who think Martin’s work captures ‘Nature’. For example, artist Ann Wilson is quoted from 1974 saying, ‘The colour in Agnes Martin’s work can be like the colour in rock at dawn, at noon, at sunset, depending on where your perceptions are when you see.’
Of course the colour of some of the pale reds in some of the grids may be the colour of sunset light on rock. Or a newborn baby. Or a weak Bloody Mary. But I find the griddiness of the grids outweighs any reference to nature. Nothing in nature is like this. Martin’s paintings have a purity, a mathematical fixity which is entirely unnatural, a unique product of the human mind.
As it happens I went for a walk in the countryside around Milton Keynes last weekend, the archetype of a planned urban environment, which was designated a ‘new town’ in January 1967. I was struck, like any visitor, by the preciseness of the geometric grid the central streets are laid out in, an obsession with squares, rectangles, right angles, grids and matrices reflected not only in the street layout but in the design of almost every building, whether brutalist concrete, or 60s and 70s office blocks, or the shiny facade of the long glass-fronted train station itself, built in 1982, and which extends down to the decorative detail of mosaics, air conditioning extractors, ducts and grilles and vents and vast areas of rectangular paving stone.
The 1960s was the decade of technological innovation – in England this took the form of Harold Wilson’s rather laughable ‘white heat of technology’, of the Post Office Tower and Concorde – in America of the space programme, and an explosion of ‘space age’ gadgets – and all around the world new towns, cities and capitals were being created in rational, mathematical grid layouts, visions of a brave new, rational, liberated society.
To what extent were Martin’s grids a reflection of this broader culture vision, specifically of the optimistic rational architecture, of the 1960s? And, if not directly influenced by contemporary grid-like thinking, to what extent did her work become successful because it replicated in oil and canvas the architecture of the day?
And did the transition from the bright grids of the 1960s to the quieter – and eventually colourless, grey – grids of the 1970s reflect the transition from the psychedelic 60s to the more internalised 1970s, the Me Decade, obsessed with self-improvement, cults, fads and self-expression?
Like most modern people, a lot of my time is spent sitting in front of a computer (as I am now), and I happen to deal with the obvious programs, Excel spreadsheets, Powerpoint, Word, Microsoft Project. Could the modern world be any more griddy?
If you take the worldwide web as an archetype of a network or matrix, would it be true to say we live in an Agnes Martin world now? (Another way in which, I think, her vision is the opposite of ‘natural’ or organic).
Last point: the grids weren’t created by machine or computer. She used a metal rule and masking tape and graphite pencils to draw her lines herself. All very manual and personal. Seen close up, really close up, you can see the imperfections, the wobbles, nubs and bumps of the pencil over uneven canvas. This most mathematical and abstract of painters is, paradoxically, when seen close up, touchingly imperfect, subject to happenstance and contingency, wonderfully human.
This is a great, a liberating, calming, stimulating, refreshing show.