Agnes MartinA Retrospective
Minimalism isn't quite the right word for the radiant beauty of her canvasses. It is in their restraint that their fragility lies, in their luminosity, their richness, in their slight imperfections
With major retrospectives of the work of Barbara Hepworth, Sonia Delaunay, Marlene Dumas, and Agnes Martin, Tate is drawing our gaze back towards the great women artists of the 20th century. Even Tate, however, can be tremulous about articulating precisely what its grand plan is. At the launch of the Agnes Martin exhibition, Tate Modern’s director, Chris Dercon, explained that, although recent shows of women artists have been important, “We don’t want to re-write the history of art.” Then, in a powerful intervention, the co-curator of the Martin show, Frances Morris, corrected him: “Actually, Chris – yes, we do.” Along with fellow curator Tiffany Bell, she has designed a show that brings a new and powerful coherence to Martin’s artistic trajectory. As assistant curator Dr Lena Fritsch points out: “Martin was a major artist. She was once pictured in a photograph with the much younger, less influential artists Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly; Martin was ten years older than them and she was so important, and yet she’s been forgotten by some people. This show is about reasserting her position.”
It’s perhaps appropriate that the tensions over women’s contribution to contemporary art should be exposed via Agnes Martin and her own struggles. Her paintings embody tranquility – viewing a Martin painting is like listening to a long, slow exhalation of breath – but traces of torment are always present. The serenity for which she is famous was, according to Frances Morris, achieved through huge “personal and spiritual struggle”: she was an important part of the vibrant New York art scene and yet she opted for an unsettled life living in a pickup truck, before moving to a solitary and isolated house in New Mexico; she was hugely ambitious and yet she fought to see beyond ego; she sought beauty and serenity in her art, and yet frequent episodes of schizophrenia meant prolonged stays in hospital throughout the 1960s. After 1967, there followed a period when she didn’t, or couldn’t, paint at all. “She stopped painting for seven years”, says Lena Fritsch. “She was schizophrenic and, on the one hand, she meditated and dealt with it. But in the 1960s she had serious psychiatric episodes and was in hospital repeatedly. She’s very difficult to understand. Her mind is very complex – there are meditative and Zen influences, but on the other hand she was struggling with mental illness. She saw some works in her head and they were very small. She then made calculations to render them as much larger pieces.”
For the seven years that she didn’t paint, Martin “wrote a lot and that’s very important in the exhibition”, says Lena Fritsch. “The words are very typically Agnes Martin – very reduced, very spare.” In fact, Martin’s words are so pared back as to be more aphorism than conversation. She became known for statements such as “My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything,” and, “Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.” Works that are so apparently simple and reduced inevitably ask a great deal of the viewer, as do her terse written instructions. According to Fritsch, however, it’s important not to feel bullied by Martin’s own interpretations: “Her writing is very beautiful and focuses on innocence. But I don’t see Agnes Martin’s words as an explanation of her work, more as an artwork in themselves. I don’t let her dictate to me. Someone once called her an ‘art nun’, but it’s not that simple. As a curator, you have to find a balance between what an artist wants and says, and what we see in the work for ourselves.”
Agnes Martin certainly did her best to circumvent the controlling gaze of her audience; she was a serial destroyer of her own art. “Having thought about it carefully”, says Fritsch, “we decided not to include any works that she herself didn’t see as part of her oeuvre.” Even in her nineties, commuting to her studio from her lodgings in an assisted living facility, Martin was still meticulous about destroying work that she didn’t think represented her vision. Her art dealer and friend Arne Glimcher said that one morning, just before she died, he visited her and she “beckoned me to come closer to the bed. ‘There are three new paintings in the studio. The one on the all is finished and the two on the floor need to be destroyed.’ Would I go to the studio and destroy them for her? This was her last request.”
One of the many difficulties when collating work for a major Agnes Martin exhibition is that the life that resonates from the original canvases is stifled when the works are reproduced photographically. “When we started collecting possible images for inclusion, we found that there are so many works simply called Untitled. It was very difficult to see them properly when we were sent photocopies of them,” Lena Fritsch says. “Colour reproduction of her paintings is so hard to get right. It’s very difficult to reproduce them and keep their spirit. They can often seem a little pale and flat.” The originals are anything but. The pencil lines of Martin’s characteristic grids that, at a distance, seem so regimented, display occasional tremours and fluctuations, as though Martin was taking a breath or was momentarily distracted; the all too human frailty of Martin herself is written in those almost perfect lines. Again, up close, the apparently flat pastel pinks and dilute greys of her canvasses radiate a gentle haze in which the hand and spirit of the artist is all too apparent. The canvases themselves are of uniform size, but even here, Martin herself is present. “She repeatedly chose canvasses of 72” by 72””, says Frances Morris. “At six foot by six foot, they are just slightly bigger than her body, but each one still holds the idea of her human reach in the world.” As Martin grew older and frailer, she reduced their sizes correspondingly; her final works were produced on canvasses of 60” by 60”, a poignant reminder of her failing power and energy. For those who curate Agnes Martin’s work, there is always one question in particular that must be asked of those from whom the paintings are borrowed: Are they willing to lend their works without glass? To trap a Martin painting behind glass is to imprison the radiant haze emanating from it. “We were very lucky,” says Morris, “that we managed to persuade most people to lend their work to us unglazed.”
A natural divide in the show corresponds to those intervening seven years when Martin stopped painting, and work from the period up to 1967 is exhibited in galleries without natural daylight. It’s in these early rooms that we find Martin’s radiant, almost ostentatious work Friendship (1963), rendered in rich, luminous incised gold leaf. To mark the beginning of the phase when Martin stopped painting, we are led down a narrow corridor where Martin’s series of 1973 screenprints, titled as a group as On a Clear Day, are displayed. It’s in this connecting passageway that Martin exhorts us to find innocence of mind: “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.” In a piece of proto-Freudian stage management, we are taken from this narrow corridor and delivered into rooms lit by daylight, where we find Martin’s characteristic late work. As Frances Morris puts it, after Martin’s mixed media experiments of the late 1950s with bottle tops, wood, spikes, and found objects, and her extraordinarily lavish and rich gold painting of 1963, “it’s as though she’s taking the ego out of her work.” It would be logical to argue that, having excised her ego, Agnes Martin had succeeded in becoming the kind of minimalist some believe her to be. Ultimately, however, minimalism isn’t quite the right word for the radiant beauty of her canvasses. It is in their restraint that their fragility lies, in their luminosity, their richness, in their slight imperfections, their humanity.