“When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.” –Agnes Martin
The Islands, 1961
This past summer I was fortunate to see the Agnes Martin retrospective at Tate Modern in London. Born in 1912, Martin was one of the finest abstract painters of the 20th century. She was an obsessively productive artist who kept painting until her death in 2004. Her work is magnificently quiet and contemplative, in part a result of her engagement with Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Highly regarded among fellow artists, Martin was always slightly on the margins of the art world. Born in Saskatchewan, she grew up in the Pacific Northwest, came of of age in New Mexico, and joined the artistic scene in New York City in the late 1950s.
I was familiar with her work previously from paintings in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection, but this comprehensive survey gave me a new understanding of her formidable talent. No other abstract artist, with the exception of Mark Rothko, manages to elicit such strong emotions in the viewer.
Martin began her career experimenting with organic forms of abstraction. Eventually she found the form that would absorb her: grids. One early piece in this vein, The Islands (1961) places white dots upon a rectangular grid set in an earth-tone field. The result is an intricate woven tapestry that, when you step back and observe it, seems to have a shimmering, opaque quality. This picture grew out of a deeply dark time for Martin, and indeed, for most of her life she struggled on and off with schizophrenia. But emerging from that darkness, she made brilliantly luminous works.
“My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything–no forms. The are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.” –Agnes Martin
Martin began to attract renown in New York and lived in the Coenties Slip warehouse district among such artists as Barnett Newmann and Ad Reinhart. But in 1967, Martin left Manhattan and embarked on a year-long road trip across America. Afterward, she returned to New Mexico, gave up painting, and lived a simple life.
After five years, she began a series of drawings of simple grids that marked her return to art. Martin always believed that inspiration, rather than intellect, is the foundation of art. All creative work, whether in sound, words, or image, is mysteriously received through practice and work, much in the same way the practice of Zen reaches understanding through patient meditation and mindfulness.
An image such as “The White Stone” demonstrates her approach. At a distance, it appears to be a uniform gray field, but as one gets closer one sees an incredibly intricate lattice of grids, pencil work, and gradations of pigment, all painstakingly created. Both her paintings and drawings are often rigorously geometric but always include human imperfections that lend them great poignancy.
Martin was perhaps the greatest editor of paintings in the history of art. She might rework a painting ten times, save the final one, and destroy the nine previous versions. Amid all this quiet contemplation, sometimes moments of sheer joy break out, as in the painting “Friendship,” in which her meticulous grid pattern is incised in gold leaf.
In one room of the Tate exhibit is an extraordinary ensemble of paintings called “The Islands” from 1979. Entering the space demands instant silence–I felt and heard every footstep as I walked among the nearly-white paintings. It’s extraordinary how Martin has captured the Zen notion of presence within disappearance–it’s as if the painter and her paintings have nearly vanished, but not quite.
Other late works employ a glowing combination of extremely faint colors, as in Untitled #5 from 1998. What colors are they, exactly? The painting seems to glow from behind as it modulates from blue to yellow to pink. Your eye has trouble identifying it–you can actually sense the color changing before your eyes. But this picture isn’t merely about playing tricks with perception, it’s a joyful exploration of what it means to look, what it means to be alive.
Being in the presence of these paintings was a surprisingly moving experience. The Tate show demonstrated the continuing necessity of museums: you may be able to get a better view of a Botticelli on Google Art than you would in the crowds of the Uffizi, but to truly feel the power of Martin’s art one really needs to stand in front of it.
In the US, some people will be able to do that this fall. This retrospective will come to the Guggenheim in New York City in October 2016.