Agnes Martin 1912-2004
I recently went to the Tate Modern to see the Agnes Martin exhibition that has just opened. I didn’t really know much about her but I was curious as although her work is quite hard to make out in reproductions, many appearing as faint washes of paint with some drawn grid like pencil lines, I felt there was something more that was not being translated in the digital or print reproductions that I had seen. I was right, I was quite moved by her work, soft and gentle with undulating lines that had rhythm, life and a vibrancy that I felt was stronger and more powerful than Rothko.
Born in Saskatchewan, on the western plains of Canada, Agnes Martin grew up in Vancouver and moved to the United States in 1932 where she began an intermittent series of art courses. During the late 1930’s to early 1950s, she taught at various art schools and became a United States citizen in 1950. In 1957, she moved to New York, settling in Coenties Slip, lower Manhattan which was home to a number of struggling artists—such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and James Rosenquist. Martin held her first one-woman exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1958. By then she had begun to paint highly simplified abstractions in place of her more realist landscapes and portraits.
Martin often described a painting from 1964, The Tree, as her first grid. In fact, she had been making them since at least the beginning of the decade, first by scratching lattices into paint and then by pencilling ruled vertical and horizontal lines on to canvases, sometimes embellishing the hatchings with dabs or lines of colour, even sheets of gold leaf. “Well,” she told an interviewer, “when I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.”
When asked how viewers should respond to works like The Tree, Agnes Martin compared the experience to looking at the ocean: “You just go there and sit and look.” One of the things thoughtful observation will reveal is Martin’s creation process, which required a great deal of time and patience. She began with a light layer of acrylic paint, then drew each line carefully with graphite. The composition is regular and ordered, but not completely uniform.
Tiffany Bell, the co-curator with Frances Morris of the Tate retrospective, observes of the early grids that “it is as though the energy of a Pollock drip painting has been stretched out and carefully sustained over time”. Emphatically ambiguous, they refuse artistry, reducing painting to the simplest of mark-making procedures at the same time as exceeding themselves with their grandeur of scale and grave beauty. The longer you look, the more impressive their insistent neutrality becomes.
She left New York and abandoned the art world in 1967 for a number of reasons, she had heard the lofts were to be demolished, her friend Ad Reinhardt had died and she suffered from schizophrenia and was repeatedly hospitalised. Martin withdrew herself from worldly things, she led a life of renunciation and restriction with a spiritual intention that was an ongoing war with the sin of pride.
“You think it would be easy to discover what is blinding you, but it isn’t so easy. It’s pride and fear that covers the mind. Pride blinds you. It destroys everything on the way in. Pride is completely destructive. It never leaves anything untouched. First it takes one way … telling you that you’re all right … boosting up your ego, making all kinds of excuses for you… It takes a long time for us to turn against pride and get rid of it entirely. And, of course, with every little downfall of pride, we feel a tremendous step up in freedom and in joy. Of course, most people don’t really have to come to grips with pride and fear. But artists do, because as soon as they’re alone and solitary, they feel fear. Most people don’t believe they have pride and fear, because they’ve been conditioned on pride and fear. But all of us have it. If we don’t think we have it, then that’s a deceit of pride. Pride practices all kinds of deceits. It’s very, very tricky. To recognize and overcome fear and pride, in order to have freedom of mind, is a long process.”
At the age of 56 she moved to a remote mesa in New Mexico and after some years returned to painting, replacing the grid with bands of colour.
Sometimes the bands she made were sombre, in slaty grey, but more often they are the colour of sand and apricots in dilute acrylic paint. Her process was always the same. She waited until she saw her vision: a tiny full-colour version of the painting to come. Then came the painstaking labour of scaling up, filling pages with scribbled fractions and long division. Next, she would mark two lengths of tape, using a short ruler to pencil the lines on to a gessoed canvas. Only then did she begin to apply colour, working very fast. If there were displeasing drips or blots or other errors, she would destroy the canvas with a knife or box cutter, sometimes even hurling it off the mesa, before beginning again once or twice or seven times: every mark in a Martin painting is intentional, wholly meant.
These paintings are easily overlooked, and require patience to absorb. They will not be to everyone’s taste. Nor can reproductions do them justice. The viewer’s response is the real art, Martin once said, she wanted to provoke “that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature, an experience of simple joy.”
This short video made by the Tate gives an insight to her and her work:
If you can’t get to see the show at the Tate, the best online images I have found are here:
You can get an idea about her work from these images but seeing them for real you can get up close, stand back and become attuned to the acute differences and variations. It is the small flaws in the geometric shapes, the imperfections of hand-drawn lines, slippage of the paint over the border that give these paintings delicate rhythms and life.