Writing about the Agnes Martin exhibit that began at the Tate, moved to Düsseldorf, now at LACMA and (finally!) coming east to the Guggenheim in October, Hilton Als touches on some of my favorite aspects of Martin’s work.
From The Heroic Art of Agnes Martin, in the New York Review of Books:
On solitude and art making:
“We have been very strenuously conditioned against solitude,” she observes in her wonderful collection of writing. “To be alone is considered to be a grievous and dangerous condition…. I suggest that people who like to be alone, who walk alone will perhaps be serious workers in the art field.” Being an art worker was, she felt, a privilege, and one’s apprenticeship took as long as it took; art was not a race. “To live truly and effectively the idea of achievement must be given up,” she wrote in 1981 in an open letter to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Put unsentimental piety first, turn your back on the world, and get on with it.
On a relationship with nature:
Walking through the show, one can see how ultimately unsuited Martin was to be a hard-core Abstract Expressionist; the movement was too noisy, and what did she have to do with bop, the Beats, that wall of sound and bodies that wanted to shout the squares down in favor of “kicks”? Martin was interested not in discord but in harmony. While Jackson Pollock said he was nature, Martin strove to represent how nature made her feel or should make us feel—humble, free. Nature was to her what it was to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eye” in his transcendentalist masterpiece, “Nature” (1836)—a space unrivaled in its ability to inspire and transform.
Emerson’s idealism—“Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us”—was not unlike Martin’s. Often, in her lovely, empathic writing, she tries to communicate what being an artist must mean if one is going to make real work: becoming a conduit of the beautiful, that which cannot be explained.
On the grid and how to encounter her work:
She used the grid as a forum for belief—a space where the viewer as well as the artist could contemplate the hand making the thing being observed. In her well-considered 1971 appreciation of the artist, Kasha Linville wrote:
Once you are caught in one of her paintings, it is an almost painful effort to pull back from the private experience she triggers to examine the way the picture is made. The desire to simply let yourself flow through it, or let it flow through you, is much stronger…. Her paintings exert themselves differently, depending on their line, their pattern, and the quality of the ground color on the canvas. Some are less lyrical, evincing aggression or tension…. Others suggest spaciousness or vast space, again without using illusionistic devices or the egotistical implication of infinitely extendible surface.
One pauses at the extraordinary line “the egotistical implication of infinitely extendible surface.” Unlike her male predecessors, not to mention contemporaries, Martin didn’t use the grid as a means of describing the infinite—the infinite “I” of being an artist. Instead, her work ends at the canvases’ edge.One begins and then one finishes; the grace is in the doing. Her touch was her personality… “Line is where she speaks most personally,” Linville said. “It is her vocabulary as the grids are her syntax.”
Making mystery “a solid object”:
Morris and Bell’s show is a commendable map that reveals Martin making her way, step by step, her pilgrim-like progress measured against all those flat skies, fields, trees, bodies of water, barely expressed emotions that made up her home. Before she left New York and gave up making work for seven years, Martin made a series of drawings and paintings, starting in 1963, that bled color out of her art…In those works and others she was trying to make mystery a solid object. When she returned to her art in 1973, the title she gave to the graphically strong, stark, black-and-white prints she produced first said it all, certainly with respect to the atmosphere that New Mexico could provide her with, day after day as she worked out there, blissfully alone: On a Clear Day.