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Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern

A review by Alan Fowler

June 2015

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

To what extent is it necessary to know about an artist’s life, beliefs and intentions in order fully to appreciate the art they produce?  The question is triggered by the retrospective exhibition of the American abstract artist, Agnes Martin (1912 – 2004) now running at Tate Modern. The two dominant features of Martin’s work were the foregrounding of grids in the earlier part of her career, and later the display of horizontal and vertical bands of colour. Grids and orthoganality immediately bring to mind the essential characteristics of constructivist abstraction and the kunst konkret of De Stijl and Max Bill. The grid, for example, is a structuring element in constructive abstraction, and generates visual qualities of precision, clarity and rationality. But these were not the qualities which Martin sought to project. She was concerned primarily with a picture’s emotional impact, and her statements about her philosophy and artistic intentions – set out in the exhibition’s labels and catalogue essays – make it clear that a constructivist reading of her work would be wholly misleading.

Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day, 1973, 371 x 372

Taking a firmly non-intellectual approach to art, she once wrote that “concepts, relationships, categories, classifications and deductions are distractions of the mind we wish to hold free for inspiration”.  And in explaining how she first came to use grids, she wrote: “I happened to be thinking about the innocence of trees, and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, so I painted it and then I was satisfied”.  It is extremely unlikely that any viewer, seeing Martin’s grid-based works and not knowing about this explanation, would ever connect then with a concept of innocence. And even after reading her tree-related account, does innocence come readily to mind when looking at these works?  What one notices are the slight irregularities in these hand-drawn graphite lines – a human rather than mechanical quality, but not necessarily innocent – and the effect of some of the grids as forming a constraining net. In Friendship, for example, the grid seems to hold in the pulsating ground of gold leaf on which it is imposed.

Agnes Martin, Friendship, 1963, 190.5 x 190.5

Some commentators have categorised her work as minimalist, and Donald Judd was certainly an admirer, but this is not a description she agreed with, as she criticised minimalists for being too cerebral or intellectual in their descriptions and explanations of their work. She always maintained that her own work evolved intuitively and was essentially an expression of the emotional mind, saying: “It’s not about facts, it’s about feelings”.

In any event, it is difficult to see as minimalist a work as complex as The Islands of 1961 in which the central portion is based on a grid of 96 lines vertically and horizontally, creating over 9000 cells, within which are 3072 minute rectangles, in each of which are two tiny white ovals. (The density of lines in this work fail to show in any small reproduction, and even the .large plate in the catalogue is unsatisfactory in this regard).

Even in the geometrically simpler colour works of her later period, a minimalist approach would not have resulted in a work such as Gratitude of 2001 with its six colour bands in four colours. It is noteworthy that the odd titles she gave to this, and many other of her works, do not refer to any formal characteristics of the imagery – and it must be admitted that most these titles add little or nothing to the viewer’s understanding of the works themselves. Titles such as Friendship, The Peach or Drift of Summer bear no obvious relationship to the grid paintings to which they are applied, nor do Happy Holiday or I Love the Whole World throw any light on the origins or artistic intent of such-entitled paintings of colour bands. Enigmatic rather than minimalist, perhaps.

Agnes Martin, Gratitude, 2001, 152.4 x 152.

The artists (all American) with whom Martin saw herself as being most closely associated, and with whom she fraternised while living in New York, were the post-Pollock group of abstract expressionists, including Ellsworth Kelly, Barnet Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt and particularly Mark Rothko. Occasionally she even described herself as an abstract expressionist. At the same time she insisted that her work was not influenced by any other artist, and her paintings and drawings do seem less assertive than that of her male expressionist associates. Some critics have even described her work as essentially feminine, comparing her pale colour palette to that of the British artist, Gwen John.

Be that as it may, perhaps Martin’s troubled mental health, her preference for solitude and the many years she spent living in her isolated log cabin in the New Mexico desert, must surely provide some explanation for the nature of her work. She battled with schizophrenia, found refuge in the philosophy of Buddhism, and sought for the solace of Zen tranquillity. The imprecision of the lines in her grids, and the subdued, non-primary  colours in her later work may, for some viewers, convey a degree of psychological fragility. And is it too fanciful to suggest that the one feature common to all her work – the often faint hand-drawn pencil lines which form not only the grids but also delineate the colour bands (though too faintly to register in small reproductions) – reflect an unconscious need to preserve the individuality of the artist herself, which in other respects she tried to deny? As she once said: “The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself”. But perhaps these lines are a  sort of:  “Agnes Martin: her mark”.

She does seem to have been influenced by the visual nature of her New Mexico surroundings, although her form of abstraction was not the landscape-oriented approach of, say, the British St. Ives artists. Describing the origin of her first horizontal colour paintings, after her move to the New Mexico desert in 1968, she said: “I was coming out of the mountains and I came out on this plain and I thought,  “This is for me !” …The plain … it was just like a straight line. It was a horizontal line. And I thought there wasn’t a line that affected me like horizontal line. Then I found that the more I drew that line the happier I became”. Like the 18th century philosophers of the sublime, Martin believed that qualities such as beauty and perfection, while evident in the natural world, could exist in the mind, and therefore in art, independently of this external source.

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1980, 600 x 589

She set out her own thoughts as to how a viewer should approach her work in a comment she made about a portfolio of 30 screen prints (entitled On a Clear Day) which consisted of a set of relatively simple variations of a 10 x 10 grid. “These prints”, she wrote, “express innocence of mind. If you can go with them and hold your mind as empty and tranquil as they are, and recognize your feelings at the same time you will realize your full response to this work”.  Put another way, it seems she was commending contemplation rather than analysis as the best mode of looking at her work.

Viewing the exhibition as a whole, the conclusion is that the show can be approached in two very different ways. One is to look at the whole range of Martin’s work within the context of the artist’s beliefs and her long and sometimes troubled life. Speculation about the possible interaction between her life experience and her art may then be of significant interest. The other way is to set aside all possible personal and psychological influences within Martin’s oeuvre and view each work as a self-sufficient, self-referential art object which either fails or succeeds in providing a satisfying or stimulating visual experience.  

As a comprehensive and excellently planned and presented retrospective, the show is very successful in providing for a biographical approach. The fact that much of her writing about her art is not easy to relate to the visual characteristics of the works themselves may actually encourage a close and enquiring attention – trying to solve the puzzle, as it were.   But the exhibition’s strength in term of its comprehensive display and documentation forms a weakness for the viewer who wants to experience the works simply and solely as self-referential art objects. Put simply, there is far too much very similar work. Such a viewer will probably find that being confronted with example after example of very similar grids, or by many almost identical images of colour bands, distracts from the longer, more thorough and rewarding consideration that the study of a smaller number of single images might encourage. There is a risk of this exhibition being considered monotonous or even boring.