Agnes Martin at Tate Modern
By Anna Leung
Agnes Martin, portrait by Charles R. Rushton
Sometime in the mid-sixties the grid became ubiquitous. It was almost as if under the tutelage of Clement Greenberg painting had been cleansed of all extraneous content (figuration, narrative and virtually all social and political references) leaving only the ghost of a visible or an invisible grid to demonstrate painting’s autonomous rationale. Traditionally the grid format had been used as a technical means that enabled artists to transfer a composition from one space, usually that of a sketch, to the larger space of a canvas, the detail of each square or rectangle being transferred as accurately as possible to the corresponding space on the new surface. However in the sixties the minimalist grid remained empty, its extreme literalness contrasted with the transformative humanist potential the Abstract Expressionists vested in abstraction.
Martin was in her forties when she began to work on her sequence of grids; the usual format was a grid made up of rectangles on a square canvas. The rectangle, she argued, destabilises the rigidity of the square allowing for a degree of variability and imbalance to enliven it. By the time she had joined a community of artists living in the Coenties Slip in the as yet unreconstructed part of lower Manhattan and had as close neighbours younger artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, she already had had a teaching career behind her plus a long list of jobs to keep body and soul just about together.
Agnes Martin was born to Scottish Presbyterian parents in Saskatchewan in Canada in 1912, the same year as Jackson Pollock, and like him was brought up on a farm in the wide open prairies. When she was still little more than a toddler, the family, now minus the father, moved to Vancouver, and in 1931 she moved to Washington State USA, ostensibly to help her pregnant sister. It was here that she completed her high school education and began her training as a high school teacher at Columbia University in New York specialising in fine art and art education. She had not yet decided to become an artist but in her thirties that ambition must have formed itself in her mind and she registered to study art at the University of Albuquerque in New Mexico. In Taos, already an established artists’ colony, she taught art as well as concentrating on her own painting practice which was confined to semi naturalistic portraits and landscapes, many in the style of Rouault and most of which Martin systematically destroyed, burning them on a big fire at the end of each year. Few of her paintings of that period escaped this auto-da-fe and in 1951, dissatisfied with her work, she returned to New York, enrolling at the Teachers College of Columbia where she received her master’s the following year.
Agnes Martin Untitled 1963
It was probably here that she became acquainted with East Asian spiritual ideas through the teaching of Krishnamurti and Suzuki, and although she did not necessarily attend all their lectures, Asian ideas, mostly Taoist and Zen Buddhist, came to play a prominent role in her thinking about life and about art and its relation to life. Her quest for perfection for instance, could be likened to the Taoist term ‘the Uncarved Block ’which contains an infinity of potential states within its uncarved state of being. Ideas such as these confirmed Martin’s basic belief that the simplest of techniques could open up the possibility of a revelation conveying universal states of mind such as joy, innocence and bliss. In other words, painting was for her the creation of a contemplative space – a premise that she shared with most of the first generation of Abstract
Expressionists such as Rothko, Reinhardt and Barnett Newman who were in fact her contemporaries. It was this conviction which distinguished her from the generation of Minimalists who mistakenly saw in her grids the progenitor of their own non-expressive reductive structures. But more of this later.
Martin did not remain in New York but returned to Taos where she was to remain for the next seven years maintaining a low profile teaching while at the same time getting her paintings accepted into several shows. Her work at this time was showing signs of turning to abstraction; her biomorphic forms hovered between figuration and abstraction reflecting the influence of leading modernists such as Miro, Gorky and Klee, though her colours were mainly monochromatic: blacks, greys, browns and shadowy dusty whites.
Martin’s time at Columbia had coincided with Pollock’s first Drip painting and Barnet Newman’s first Zip painting and the opening of Betty Parsons’ first gallery. It was Betty Parsons who represented these up and coming New York artists and it was Betty Parsons who, whilst in Taos in 1957, bought five of Martin’s canvases, enabling her to have the wherewithal to travel to New York. Moreover, she offered to represent her on the condition that she came to live there. This proved pivotal for Martin. She travelled back East in 1957. Abstract Expressionism had by this time already passed its zenith. Pollock had died in a car crash and Pop and Assemblage Art were already definitely in the air. It was during this period that Martin settled in Coenties Slip and her work from this period reflects the emphasis on junk and assemblage art that characterised this artistic community which by this time had earned itself the designation of ‘Bohemia on the Waterfront.’ Martin being at least ten years older still identified with the Abstract Expressionists despite her critique of their inflated rhetoric but also began to explore the possibilities of three dimensional constructions made from junk material scavenged from the seaport. And whilst The Wave seems to look back to a Surrealist board game it is in The Laws (1958), a narrow wooden board divided into a black and a blue grey section with a grid of boat spikes driven into the upper black field, that we can see the beginnings of the grid format.
Martin was evidently not satisfied with these ready-made assemblage art works feeling them to be ‘too indebted to material reality.’ This seems to be a turning point. From then on Martin retreats inwards making small gridded drawings and paintings scored with densely repeated lines that in some cases respect the geometry of the grid’s inner square in others extend irregularly beyond it, their cohorts of close parallel horizontals extending past the edge like a fringe. She commits herself to 6 by 6 foot canvases –and only in old age permits herself 5 by 5 canvases - her rectilinear grids drawn at first with a string guide line and later with a T-square ruler. The format is predetermined – Martin refers to inspiration and the picture in her mind waiting to be realised – but the technique gives rise to a history of minute accidents as the graphite pencil comes up against the warp and weft of the canvas. Like Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings, which are not totally black, the details of Martin’s grids are only visible at close hand and demand a feat of patience on the part of the viewer, almost akin to a surrender. It is only with this level of concentration and giving of one’s time – and her paintings are about time - that variations begin to surface. At first sight the drawings and paintings (often there is not that much apart from size and scale to differentiate them) might seem colourless but they are in fact drawn with coloured ink or coloured pencil that barely skims the surface while at the same time picking up its irregularities so that each line is different. At a later date she adds a faint colour wash that has the effect of further minimising the difference between drawings and paintings and by the mid-sixties she is using acrylic, rather than oils, making her subtle dissolutions of colour easier to apply.
Friendship 1963, by Agnes Martin. Photograph: Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
White Flower (1960-62) and Friendship (1963) belong to this early period but she has evidently already come into her own. The paintings have a classic strength and resolve despite or because of their very simplicity that speaks of a perfectly ordered world. Both have a devotional feel but in very different keys. White Flower, with its grey-brown surface and its regularly spaced white strokes of paint confined within the grid of white rectangles, conveys a sense of containment/composure and modesty. Friendship‘s opulence, on the other hand, is most uncharacteristic of Martin’s oeuvre; it is made up of an entire field of gold leaf incised with horizontal and vertical lines that evoke the moiré silk gold of saris or the resplendent transcendence of Orthodox icons. Unlike most of her paintings Friendship was never used as a spring board for further exploration and remains a one-off. The grid would eventually be replaced by stripes or bands of chromatically reduced colour. But before that she had made her departure from New York.
Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday 1999 Tate / National Galleries of Scotland © estate of Agnes Martin
In the summer of 1967 Martin left New York and gave up painting. The paradox was she was by then successful and had spent a whole decade in New York working on ‘masterful paintings.’ There were multiple factors behind this decision that coincided with her winning recognition in the inner circles of the art world: the tearing down of her loft studio that she had regarded as a perfect workspace; the break-up of a romantic attachment; and the death of Ad Reinhardt, a close friend who shared a similar spiritual outlook. Both artists assumed a disciplined Calvinist stance towards their work that tended towards self-abnegation, excising the self from the work, all of which made Martin’s success as an artist very difficult to accept since she saw it as a sin of pride. And then there was a serious psychotic episode, following on a history of psychological incidents which go to highlight the struggle behind her untroubled paintings. Martin was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; a diagnosis not publically divulged till after her death. She had been hospitalised several times in the mid-sixties where she had undergone ECT and other then routine procedures, and spoke of inner voices though insisted they had no creative meaning for her but were in any case more like ‘internal thoughts and meanderings.’ All this contributed to her confusion and her decision to quit, asking for her materials and brushes to be given to a young artist, taking a bus to Detroit and acquiring a truck and camper. She maintained that she made no paintings for the next four and a half years, travelled extensively, in Europe and India, but much of what she did over the next few years remains shrouded in myth.
What was paramount for her was a need for internal peace to counter her inner turmoil. Later when she was once again able to take up her pencil and brush she wrote in ‘The Untroubled Mind’ on the need to work alone, undistracted by friends, companions or even pets and all the while admitting that solitude brings its own terrors and comparing moments of helplessness to blindness. Art on the contrary was a matter of control, of mental clarity and thereby a source of calm and happiness. It may though also have been a means of keeping people at bay, a defence shielding her from excessive demands and what she construed as prying. Thus it is no surprise that she saw herself ‘painting with her back to the world’ for she was seeking an inner sanctum of calm and wanted this for those who intuitively understood her paintings. Her journeying finally took her or returned her to New Mexico and it was here on a remote Mesa that she built an adobe house choosing to live a materially simple, self-sufficient life that safe guarded her solitude – visitors were only infrequently welcomed. By the 1970’s Martin had in addition built herself a studio and had returned to painting. There was to be one more move in New Mexico, to Galisteo in 1978, where she stayed for 15 years, part of a small artists’ community that included, among others, the critic Lucy Lippard and the conceptual artist Bruce Nauman.
Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark, Vogue, November 1992
Visually Martin’s grid paintings might seem to have had much in common with the Minimalist generation; indeed in the sixties she had exerted a strong influence on them and was included in their group shows. But her all-over compositions have their origins in Mark Tobey, an older West coast painter much influenced by Chinese calligraphy and Eastern thought in general, and in Pollock. As said she considered herself an Abstract Expressionist. Consequently though her notion of abstraction was dependent on a repetitive, seemingly reductive geometric format it remained atmospheric and affective at heart. And despite her statements to the contrary, ultimately Martin’s paintings seem to derive their authority from nature, e.g. her beautiful painting The Tree (1964). Martin would have legitimised her anti-nature position by arguing that she was not evoking nature per se or a representation of nature as a pictorial motif but our mindfulness of nature, the emotional response it stirs in our minds. This was miles away from minimalist aesthetics that specifically abjured the expression of emotion and the autographic touch for an artlessness based on systems and seriality, industrial components being assembled rather than composed. There was no room for interiority in Judd’s or Andre’s geometric modular units, nor for nature, and the conceptual simplicity they espoused belonged to an analytic and logical style of thinking. Psychologically, it was the repudiation of subjectivity in Abstract Expressionism that they had in common. This was articulated formally in the Minimalists’ avoidance of hierarchy and their use of regular units, and in Martin’s case the application of the ruled and measured lines to connote the impersonal. However, Martin’s aim was not to negate the belief that the meaning of a work can be found in the subject’s inner life. Though Martin’s hand drawn grids may seem similar in appearance to say Sol le Wit’s or Andre’s, her poetic language is as far removed as possible from their literalist language. Feelings were paramount for Martin but not the overblown rhetoric of the self paraded on the Abstract Expressionist stage. Her sense of self was egoless and cleansed of pride and if it was this stripping away of subjectivity that Martin had in common with the Minimalists it was motivated by an extremely different aim and directed to a very different vision.
On a Clear Day (1973) a portfolio of thirty screen-prints commissioned by Parasol Press in New York catapulted Martin back into the art world. One of her most severe works she said of it that: If ‘you can go with them and hold your mind as empty and tranquil as they are and recognise your feelings at the same time you will realise your full response to this work.’ This series prefigure a group of Untitled paintings created in 1977, a cycle of a dozen paintings in which the pencilled grid lies upon a matt grey white background that picks up the imperfections of the canvas and reiterates in its ascetic plenitude John Cage’s notion of silence. As it was by the mid-seventies the grid gave way to broad bands or stripes of diluted colour, mainly reds and blues but also shades of grey. These are evenly spaced or obey a measured cadence. In others the pigment gradually fades as it approaches the pencil line that divides it from the next band. A group of grey paintings make their appearance in the eighties. Drawing seems to be making way for painting though the pencil line never completely disappears and working on paper continued to constitute an important part of her practice.
In her last decade Martin moved to a retirement home while still keeping her studio and spending her mornings there in her usual disciplined manner. Her abstract paintings were not at all resonant with the prevailing zeitgeist in which having no social or political references had become suspect. Indeed titling her paintings Lovely Life, Love or Friendship would normally elicit embarrassment and risked being dismissed as naïve or sentimental. But her late paintings usually designated as Untitled denote other states of mind. A black trapezium dominates Homage to Life (2003) and in Untitled # 21, two squares sit against a gold fawn background with a grey band above them. Finally in Untitled # 1 (2003) two triangles sit side by side each with a triangle of yellow at its apex. These represent new elements in her work.
It is perhaps fitting that her very last work was a delicate, rather wobbly drawing of a modest pot plant that reiterates Martin’s belief that: ‘..in the great process, our work is insignificant, infinitesimal and insignificant.’ She respected humility or modesty above all else. Beauty for Martin lay not in the particular objective characteristics of form but in our memory of it, not in the rose but in our memory of the rose.
Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-reitred from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional information groups to current art exhibitions.
Detail of Agnes Martin, “On a Clear Day” (1973), 30 screenprints
(photo by Evan La Londe,image courtesy the Lumber Room
Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark, Vogue, November 1992