Agnes Martin in her studio (1960); photo by Alexander Liberman
* * *
“Agnes Martin,” a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum of the Canadian-born painter who died in 2004 at the age of ninety-two, has the misfortune of being mounted concurrently with “Mark Rothko; Dark Palette,” an exhibition at the Twenty-fifth Street branch of Pace Gallery. The comparison between Martin and Rothko would be inescapable even if the shows weren’t simultaneously on display. Both painters pursued an art of distillation, exploring just how much could be jettisoned from the art of painting without altogether relinquishing its particulars. Martin was vocal in her admiration of Rothko, extolling how he had “reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth.” Her early work, with its sparely applied geometries and gently stated means, owes a clear debt to Rothko’s mature paintings: those hovering fields of color that radiate heat, light, and mystery. At early points in their respective careers, each painter dabbled in Surrealism and, not coincidentally, sought to uncover archetypes of symbol and form. Though less than a decade separated them— Rothko was born in 1903, Martin in 1912—we think of Martin as belonging to a different generation: Minimalism following on the heels of The New York School.
Stylistic categories are often more convenient as journalistic pegs than as accurate quantifiers, but comparing “Dark Palette” and “Agnes Martin” does underscore the difference between the heroic, if fitfully achieved, ambitions of Abstract Expressionism and the deadening certainties of Minimalism. The former approach dramatically foreshortened, but did not expunge, the allusive capabilities of art; the latter put illusionism—and, with it, metaphor—out to pasture, abjuring poetry for literalism. Whatever one may think of Rothko’s tastefully deployed vision, the paintings in “Dark Palette” register as visual experiences of a high order; his exultations of color, at once portentous and otherworldly, are hard to dismiss. Martin’s art is more retiring in temperament, sparse in means, and, in the end, takes too much for granted, not least the viewer’s interest. “Paintings,” she wrote, “are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.” The rub is that paintings are meant to be seen. Otherwise, why bother looking at them in the first place? The gulf that exists between Rothko and Martin lies in the distinction between close-to-nothing and almost something. If Rothko “reached zero,” then Martin aspired to less.
Agnes Martin, Untitled #2 (1992), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60″; courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum/© 2015 Agnes Martin.Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
* * *
“Agnes Martin” includes close to 120 pieces, beginning with Mid-Winter (ca. 1954), a lumpish array of shapes reminiscent of the American abstractionist Arthur Dove, and culminates with canvases and works-on-paper dating from the last year of the artist’s life. After flirting with biomorphism, Martin settled into her signature groove: patterning—typically, grids or horizontal stripes—laid out with underplayed concision. The color palette, from the get-go, is limited. Grays and off-whites predominate, so much so that when other colors are introduced—a wan array of purples, pinks, and blues—they register as after-images. Martin’s touch is most apparent in the way she handles graphite, ruling out pencil lines that all but imperceptibly stutter across the weave of the canvas or catch on the tooth of a sheet of paper. Washy runs of paint are employed late in the game, as are triangles, trapezoids, and squares—solid forms that are, in the context of Martin’s pictorial equanimity, gratifyingly rude. Symmetry is the rule and the formats square. Rhythm is maintained at a lulling pace. “I paint,” Martin averred, “with my back to the world.” The problem is that the world is where the rest of us spend our time. Martin, we realize, was painting for an audience of one: herself. It is a consummate but exclusionary body of work.
Writing in the catalogue, Briony Fer, the Professor of History of Art at University College London, notes that “to see a painting by Martin, as it is to look at a Mondrian, is to understand how repetition begets difference.” After ascending the Guggenheim’s ramp to follow the trajectory of Martin’s oeuvre, it’s worth popping into the permanent collection to consider Mondrian’s Composition 8 (1914). Repetition did guide the artist, but did it define the art? When putting brush to canvas, Mondrian remained open to the give-and-take of the medium; repetition gives way to, and is enlivened by, the particularity of relationships. For Martin, compositional variety was hostile to the equilibrium she sought to codify. She likened her paintings to sensations engendered by contact with the natural world; meditative awe was the objective. Sweeping expanses of gray acrylic can serve as antidotes for the chaos of life, but for how long and how effectively? Repetition can get, you know, repetitive. To glean “difference” from the paintings is to parse aesthetic matters so fine that it’s hardly worth the effort. Only those who mistake sameyness for satori could sit in front of a Martin canvas without constantly checking the time.
Installation of “Agnes Martin”; photography by Hiroko Masuike/courtesy The New York Times
* * *
“Zen” is a description that pops up regularly in discussions of the work. Martin did, in fact, have an abiding fascination with Eastern modes of thought, particularly that of the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu. His concept of wu wei—roughly translated as “action without action”—lends itself to a temperament that believed “sought out suffering is a mistake/ But what comes to you free is enlightening.” But “zen-like” is a phrase best kept at arm’s length; too often it is employed as an alibi for art of undernourished means and overblown pretensions. How well did Martin apply principles culled from Taoism and, for that matter, a Calvinist upbringing to life? Very well, it seems: she left the hurly-burly of Manhattan in 1967 for New Mexico, where she spent the rest of her days in relative isolation and quiet satisfaction. In that regard, Martin’s example has ennobled her to any number of contemporary artists. The worry is that her work has done the same. Art that operates within such a rarefied compass admits more readily to low expectations than possibility, infinite or otherwise. Martin’s art carries with it a stringent integrity, absolutely. But those seeking to tap into “the innocence of trees” are advised to pass on the Guggenheim and head to Central Park, where a stroll through its manicured environs will provide pleasures of a more expansive sort than seen in “Agnes Martin.”
© 2017 Mario Naves
This review was originally published in the January 2017 edition of The New Criterion.