Agnes Martin at PaceWildenstein

Agnes Martin Untitled 1960 oil on canvas, 70 x 70 inches Private Collection, Courtesy PaceWildensteinAgnes Martin, Untitled (1960), oil on canvas, 70″ x 70″; courtesy PaceWildenstein

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PaceWildenstein describes the paintings as “a radical departure.” The New York Times lauded them for “pushing at the extremes of cause and effect.” Artists I’ve bumped into while making the rounds extol the paintings’ daring turnabout in style. We will undoubtedly hear more of the same when further word comes down on the recent efforts of Agnes Martin, on display at the 57th Street branch of PaceWildenstein.

Ms. Martin, now 92 years old, has spent the better part of a lifetime painting stripes–a pictorial motif that suits her spare and gentle meditations on rhythm, light and the land. Examples can be seen in this exhibition.

But people aren’t excited about those pictures; they’re buzzing over the five canvases, segregated in the north section of the gallery, in which Ms. Martin breaks with the stripe. Triangles, trapezoids and squares–the vocabulary of form opens up and becomes concrete. The palette, typically wan, now includes a muddied field of burnt orange, furtive moments of yellowish green and a prominent, recurring black. To an artist for whom nuance is everything, changes in pictorial motif are not inconsiderable, and Ms. Martin’s decisions deserve attention and commentary.

But do they merit all the fuss? I mean, come on : Ms. Martin’s recent art isn’t “radical” or “extreme”–it follows the ruminative path she’s been treading since Day 1. The painterly approach is unchanged; the canvases are characterized by grainy washes of acrylic paint, ruled yet sentient lines, and a sense that the smallest mark carries with it the tremendous burden of sensibility. The compositions continue to be predicated on symmetrical arrangements of form. The tenor of the work is ever tender, unkempt and awestruck. But is this a revolution in style? It’s more like a tempest in a teapot.

We’re told that the paintings reiterate themes found in Ms. Martin’s formative work from the late 1950′s and 1960′s, which are the subject of an exhibition at Dia:Beacon. Whether a jaunt on Metro-North is required to better appreciate the recent pictures is a question I’ll leave to the reader–I don’t get paid enough to waste an afternoon at the Temple of Doom.

More fascinating are the questions prompted by the limited scope of Ms. Martin’s oeuvre and its ardent following. The ephemeral emotions she gives body to are fluently set forth, and the paintings have their attractions. Yet consistency of style and integrity of vision are meager compensations for an art that does barely something with almost nothing. Ms. Martin is capable of asking from herself only so much as a painter; that’s her lot in life. Our lot is a culture that should ask more of its artists–and doesn’t.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 21, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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