Agnes Martin: Blink And You May Miss The Entire Point Of Her Practice

Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin is not an easy artist to warm to at a first glance. In fact, if you blink, much of her work is so subtle you can miss the entire point of her practice. It is without a doubt work that must be experienced first hand by a gallery visit, not through photographic reproduction. It is laboriously crafted and deceivingly ambiguous as blades of grass poking up in a Canadian blizzard.

The retrospective begins in 1954 with a painting that pays homage to Arthur Dove’s style of American Modernism. Martin then turns to the influence of Gorky in a series of Surrealist abstractions. Martin’s move to New York City and her support from the legendary gallerist Betty Parsons is a breakthrough moment, here she is introduced to the Abstract Expressionists Barnet Newman, Rothko and a younger generation of painters such as Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana. By the 1960s her work is now in full blown maturity with the introduction of her trademark grid and various white on white elements, which use graphite to offset the canvas compositions.

Born in 1912 in Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada, Martin is identified as an American Painter although Canadians claim her, as they do Peter Doig. This exhibition also reveals some of Martin’s experimental works using found objects. 

Friendship 1963, a gold leaf covered canvas incised with Martin’s emblematic fine grid, is spectacular but her real successes lies in her ability to mathematically craft her grid compositions. 

In 1967, Martin who throughout her life suffered profoundly from schizophrenia, departs the New York art scene, ‘in search of solitude and silence’. She disappeared for two years before finally settling in New Mexico, where she spent the rest of her days in a sparse almost Tao/Zen existence, much like her paintings. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe, one of Martin’s early influences, was already in New Mexico, having moved there in1940. It is thought that the artists engaged on a number of occasions. Artists and writers such as DH Lawrence, Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko were also drawn to the area creating one of the last major art colonies in the US. 

Although many of the works in this comprehensive exhibition are disappointing, especially much of her output from the 1970s and 1980s where she aquires a palette reminiscent of Aqua Fresh Toothpaste or rehashes her earlier works, adding little. There are redeeming factors in her later work, a magnificent series executed in 1979 titled The Islands consisting of twelve identically sized canvases. This is her Zen chapel, a white on white, snow blinding room. This is the antithesis of Rothko’s ‘Black Chapel’. I was also drawn to one work from 2003 titled The Sea. This imposing Black and graphite painting is mind bogglingly beautiful. It alone makes the whole exhibition worth a visit.

Agnes Martin was co-curated at Tate Modern by Frances Morris, Director of Collection, International Art and Tiffany Bell, Artifex Press Editor, Agnes Martin Catalogue Raisonné, with Dr Lena Fritsch, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern. 

Words/Photos: P C Robinson © artlyst 2015

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