“I used to look in my mind for the unwritten page If my mind was empty enough I could see it…” —Agnes Martin
The Agnes Martin retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which opened at the Tate Modern in June 2015 before traveling to Düsseldorf then Los Angeles, presents an intensively engaging collection of work by perhaps the most emotionally honest abstract expressionist painter of the twentieth century. Never before has a painter combined the subtle influence of nature with geometric structure in the pursuit of beauty and enlightenment within a non-representational, self-discovered lexicon that prioritizes giving up the things you do not like for those things that are “acceptable to your mind.”
Though Martin’s work from early to late periods feels calculated and in a sense cerebral in its adherence to the line and its parental grids, it consistently negates ideology, substance, and relatability. It is the cellular mechanism of the metaphysical in her work that constitutes substance or nature in her paintings. This quality of tonal otherworldliness inspires sensations of optimism or hope through vulnerability, delicacy, and craft in a way that offers critique of the minimalist tendency in terms of its inherent philosophical attraction to emptiness and its ironic relationship to feeling or sensitivity. Martin once stated, “My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.” The influence of artistic peers such as Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Donald Judd, as well as East Asian thought, contribute to her oeuvre, which could be thought of as a collection of spiritual messages. Martin’s writings, such as her poem “The Untroubled Mind,” which can be found at the end of the show’s amazing catalogue by Francis Morris and Tiffany Bell, reference William Blake, Taosim, Lao Tzu and Zen Buddhism, all of which contribute in some meaningful way to the “habits of her mind.” Themes of renunciation and longing for innocence dominate her work.
Installation View: Agnes Martin, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 7, 2016– January 11, 2017. (Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)
The chronological survey evolves from the subtle, monochromatic, biomorphic compositions of the mid-1950s through crisp color fields in earth tones suggestive of shape or boundary at different scales, with a deliberate relationship to the edge of the painting. Martin’s move from Taos, New Mexico to New York City corresponds to a dramatic shift in her work defined by serialist expression using found objects which introduce repetition at a smaller scale in her work. These remarkable assemblages are dressed in the same palette as her paintings, which vacillate between the unbelievably cool or neutral and its notional, somewhat muted contrasts—ochre, purple, black—a dialogue perhaps between innocence and experience. Her titles, such as This Rain, The Garden, Beach, all reflect the painter’s conception of nature and solace in cycles, repetition, and solitude.
Martin’s work of the early 1960s, such as White Flower, Little Sister, and Starlight bring her serialism back to the canvas in the form of an atmospheric code in which grids, dots, dashes, columns, and rows eventuate deconstructed fields, alternative constructions of her favorite geometric forms (triangles, circles, and lozenges), and new relationships based on a language of negative space, line weight, density, scale, tone and module. As her language continues to proliferate while the visitor travels up the ramps of the Guggenheim, the lines grow faint, condense into weathered stripes or color bars, expand, contract, disappear and reappear, gaining more texture in the process of forming a distressed system or spiritual text. Though the gallery is somewhat dark and it is at times difficult to identify with the rationality of the paintings and their respective, internal arrangements of lines, color, shapes and textures in the disconcerting context of ramps, the survey is stunningly mantric and will leave you feeling curiously wrought and unquestionably human. At once intense yet quiet, the show has “an immense presence” and “powerful energy that almost takes physical hold of the viewer”. Bell and Morris’ catalogue for the survey acts as a cipher for the moments of transition in Martin’s work and the continual questions she asks of us in terms of self-knowledge, perfection, pre-conditional states and the process of destiny.
“Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind.” —Agnes Martin
The exhibition is on view through January 11, 2017.