Agnes Martin's Homework
I went to Agnes Martin’s drawing show at Peter Blum Gallery not so much to see a comprehensive museum-quality retrospective of Martin on paper (which it most definitely is), but to satisfy my curiosity after receiving the show’s announcement card, which pictured a single, 3-inch doodle. Not only was the curvy drawing entirely uncharacteristic of Martin’s mature style, but, more sensationally, the announcement claimed it was the last drawing the artist ever made prior to her death in 2004.
When the card arrived, I stared at it for a long time, my mind gripped by an imagined narrative. I pictured the 92-year-old Martin, a solid, elderly hermit with boyish hair, standing in a sublime, light-infused painting studio filled with iconic, extremely reductive canvases. In my daydream, Martin was completing her swan song—that single looping gesture—when her pen dropped to the paper in slow-mo, her arm gone limp and her lifeless body collapsing to the floor. Compelled by such high drama, no doubt orchestrated by the show’s curator—presumably Peter Blum himself—I dropped my pen and dashed over to Wooster Street to see this novel, enigmatic gem in person.
The show, like all the others I’ve seen at this gallery, was installed with a sensuous touch. Blum knows exactly how much of the wall each work needs and where to manipulate the gallery space to establish subtle juxtapositions, themes and groupings. Aside from the drawing depicted on the announcement card, all of the works in this show—which spans from the 1960s to 2004—are approximately 9 inches square. Unsurprisingly, they are all variations on the grid, executed on a wide selection of papers. For Martin, the difference between a sharpened and a blunt pencil, or a warm-toned and a cool-toned paper, is a major visual shift—and the show at Blum allows one to home in with ease on such moving evidence of the proto-Minimalist at work. Keeping the works separated by about five generous steps, the show establishes a smooth, un-jostled pace, inviting the viewer into a world that feels rarified and private, if a bit idealized.
As I studied each clip from Martin’s scroll of moody geometry—some pigmented with the faintest pastel watercolor—I could feel myself being drawn, almost magnetically, ever closer to the singular work I’d come to see. “Untitled” from 2004 was hung last in the sequence of 23 works, slightly apart from the others—provoking a titillating sense of closure and revelation. Up close, despite the work’s authenticating mat and frame, I was surprised to find the volumetric, somewhat figurative contour line drawn on a tiny piece of seemingly inexpensive paper, 3.5 by 2.75 inches, that whispered sacrilegiously of Staples. Drawn in Bic black, in person the line was, quite frankly, auraless, calling to mind nothing so much as a potted African Violet.
Uh-oh. I quickly shot back to my Martin fantasy, involuntarily searching for a new frame of reference. This time I landed not in a luminous transcendental space but a blasphemously ordinary geriatric environment. I imagined the artist at her kitchen counter, speaking into a rotary phone while surrounded by towers of discounted prescription bottles and Agatha Christie novels. I hallucinated Martin with the beige receiver pinned between her ear and shoulder, agreeing on a time to be picked up and taken to her next doctor’s appointment, as she mindlessly doodled on her pad—producing this underwhelming work that was never meant for a gallery wall. In this far less idealized image of the artist at work, and of Martin’s last piece, her pen never dropped, nor did she, well… die. Her “last” drawing failed to live up to the metaphoric EKG monitor I’d first envisioned. Which is not to say it didn’t serve to reawaken my interest in her work.
While my second take revealed Blum’s curatorial touch as wistful and melodramatic in a way that Martin probably would not have approved, it nevertheless catapulted me back into the rest of the show, urging me to strip bare this mystical artist. Suddenly the drawings lining the gallery’s intimate, U-shaped space, while still deeply beautiful, no longer seemed quite so transcendental, so Taoist. They were no longer burdened by the poise and economy of asceticism. Instead, I started to see each work on paper as part of a valued daily habit, a tidy drill freed from philosophical dogma. Going further, my Staples revelation led me to a very young Agnes—a schoolgirl who sat obediently at her desk, going through the rote motions of her lessons on the outside, in order to create an inner space for herself—a mischievous, enduring solitude.
This vision came to me when I realized that the one thing linking each work in the show—with the exception of that last drawing—was the evidence of the ruler, a tool just as crucial as the assortment of pencils and papers that take center stage. I could picture Martin’s first straight-edge, neatly stowed in a wooden desk alongside her pencils, papers and a well-worn copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, in the tiny Saskatchewan schoolhouse of her childhood. In my mind, the mature Martin’s ruler is not so much an engineer’s measure or an architect’s instrument, but that same, innocent student’s 12-inch slat—whose function, in childhood at least, is so ambiguous. (We all remember having to follow the preliminary guidelines of measuring and writing, completely naïve about what we were being asked to do. The straight horizontal lines and margins that we ruled on our papers would later be used to learn the letters of the alphabet, and eventually a slightly more expressive script.)
In some of the early works in the show, Martin’s vaguely childish signature contributes to the feeling of a graded assignment. In an untitled work from 1979, there is a strong dramatic tension between her lowercase “a. martin”—the one word on the page, in the lower right-hand corner—and the otherwise empty ledger of 20 horizontal lines. The use of the ruler and Martin’s signature are both especially vivid in the handsome 1962 piece Morning Star, perhaps the standout work in the show. In this stunning drawing, sets of repeated, closely placed horizontal graphite lines form a hovering gray mass in four similar stanzas. When I keyed in on the margins, I noticed the incremental irregularity of each successive line straight down the page. Although the drawing is obviously made with a ruler, it feels improvised, perhaps a bit careless.
Away from her paintings, which create obvious associations with Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Minimalists like Fred Sandback, Martin’s drawing tools—ruler, paper, pencil, eraser and pencil sharpener—combine to form a family that lives in the academic classroom, not the arts and crafts studio. They are thus completely alien to Pollock’s drunken drips or Guston’s greasy oils; less beret, more pocket protector. As the Cubist-Minimalist tradition fades and artists like Newman, Judd and LeWitt begin to seem less relevant, Martin’s work takes on a new appearance, associated not so much with fine art as with batches of regimented homework placed on the corner of a teacher’s desk. German Conceptual artist Hanne Darboven may have picked up on this clerical aesthetic, and it is in the farcical frontier of her dizzyingly bureaucratic pata-record-keeping that it reaches its full trajectory.
Martin’s schoolwork, seen through the lens of Darboven, is cast as an archetype of the same sort of bureaucratic, mind-numbing proceduralism that prepares the human mind to function like a mechanical system. When Martin first started to exhibit these grids, I’m sure they appeared pretty daunting for this reason. The more closely Martin’s intersecting lines approach the perfect matrix of readymade graph paper—which they do in three exceptionally plain works, “Drift of Summer” (1964), “Untitled” (ca. 1965) and “Untitled” (1967)—the more they flirt with the seduction of finding camouflage in conformity.
But there is whimsy associated with such a flirtation, too. The more serial her works, the more oddly pataphysical they seem—like Satie’s highly repetitious Furniture Music (Musique d’ameublement, 1917) or Duchamp’s ruler-inverting Three Standard Stoppages (1913-14). They are pseudo-grids. They mime the protocol and disguise their giddiness with prudishness. They do the homework, but resist the assignment and dismiss the teacher. Their ruse creates a place for the ultimate thrill, the sin of all sins in the classroom—daydreaming.
Jeremy Sigler is a poet, critic and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. His long-awaited analysis of the poetry of Carl Andre is forthcoming from Sternberg Press.