Agnes Martin’s retrospective at Tate Modern, curated by Frances Morris, Tiffany Bell, and Lena Fritsch, is the first exhibition of its breadth and scale displaying Martin’s work on our side of the pond. A highly esteemed artist in America bridging Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, Martin remains little known in Europe.
On ViewTate Modern
June 3 – October 11, 2015
I have only seen Martin’s work on two prior occasions, at DIA: Beacon and at the Whitney Museum last year. Her pale, gridded canvases are neither intimidating nor obtrusive. They require time to reveal themselves to the viewer. I try my best to give Martin’s work the time it deserves, while remaining aware that the slots I’ve allotted are in no way adequate to the time she dedicated to their making. I snake around the busy crowd and eavesdrop on conversations, hoping to stumble on a rare pearl of wisdom. The best within earshot is a French mother-daughter duo; the daughter translates the informative panels and her mother questions and comments: “So who is this woman? I don’t know her work at all.”
The exhibition’s accompanying leaflet highlights Martin’s preference for solitude; has this truly constricted her international reputation? Martin made conscious efforts to remain separate form her work. Nevertheless, the appeal of an iconic body of work, compounded with limited information, engenders favorable conditions for a mythologized legacy to proliferate. The rumors can be loud: “Oh, slightly OCD then,” I hear in another room. Perhaps, then, cultural boundaries, rather than Martin’s elusiveness, are responsible for her relative obscurity in Europe.
The show opens with familiar Martins from the Tate’s Artist Rooms collection. I note down the title of one: Happy Holiday (1999). I see red-and-white-striped beach chairs, like those you’d imagine on the Italian coast, but my observation feels shallow, even offensive. The next room displays her early works from the 1950s; these are completely new to me. I relish their compositional variance, although Martin does not falter in her palette of earth tones and creams. They suggest landscapes, but bear little resemblance to concrete scenes, objects, or experiences; in the tradition of abstraction, they are not representative, but exist as objects or places to be experienced in and of themselves. In Untitled (1955), forms delineated in white paint do not sit on top, but are suspended between layers, implying time and space. Some canvas remains bare, but her painting is satiating in its completeness. Even her grid paintings, layered with thin washes of paint, never thirst for more.
Martin’s sculptures made from discarded building material are another surprise. These anomalies are a far cry from her previous biomorphic landscapes, but still source the artist’s surroundings. I love the boldness, even violence of Burning Tree (1961), with its rugged spikes gripping the air above it like a claw; if anyone calls Martin’s work quiet, delicate, or feminine, I urge them to cite this image. Garden (1958), her first sculpture, is an organically shaped wooden plank punctured by rusted nailheads. A series of small, identically sized square canvases marking Martin’s move towards geometric compositions are also on display. This room is like a missing link: the nailheads are dots, carefully arranged into grids on the paintings.
The grid takes center stage for the remainder of the exhibition. I marvel at the demure luxury of Friendship (1963), a towering grid in gold leaf. Friendship has a sculptural density occupying physical space; it is solid like a devotional object of religious consecration, or stacks of gold bars. Hanging in the same room, A Grey Stone (1963) first appears as a flat grey surface, but its color fluctuates. Intrigued, I pace backwards and forwards before discerning its subtleties. It is not an optical illusion, but a graphite grid with its subdivisions filled in a darker grey by the single touch of a loaded brush to the canvas. These two dominate the third painting in this room, but like a lot of Martin’s work, the longer I look, the more I discover, and the more I come to admire. The Islands (1961) grants her sculptures a sense of belonging, with its MDF-colored ground and graphite dots accentuating its frame, like the wooden floorboards nailed into space. It is easily overlooked, but offers a valued clue to my search for more; Martin’s grids are more approachable now that I’ve identified a potential source.
Lucy Lippard perfectly captures the artist’s talent, which lies in her “unrepetitive use of a repetitive medium.” Awed by Martin’s effort, I look for faults. I am playing a game and I become far too pleased with myself when I focus in on a graphite line straying from its intended path. My arrogance disappears, though, as I begin to treasure these marks as signs of the artist’s touch, a human presence revealing the maker and her craft.
This becomes less obvious in the gray paintings (1977 – 92), rendered with thicker paint in a color-scheme that does not appeal to me. These are opaque, with layers difficult to discern. Fiesta (1985) is the only one with a title, but it is too ironic to be taken lightly; it saddens me. “The Islands I-XII”(1979), a series intended to be displayed together, are blaringly white. I strain my eyes at each canvas, in an effort to appreciate their nuances, but the white light is too harsh. They are difficult to look at, and require greater concentration; I want to contemplate these at DIA, in peace, quiet, and natural light. Martin’s touch of hand disappears in her portfolio of thirty screen-prints, On a Clear Day (1972). These are well presented, but mechanical and too perfect. I much prefer the room of her drawings; they are small and unassuming, with irregularities: pools of ink and slanted lines. I keep coming back to what becomes my favorite room of the show, which houses a tiny gem: her last drawing, an organic entity drawn in a confident uninterrupted line.
The final room houses Martin’s last paintings, which, like her last drawing, have a playful lightness evident in their more varied color and composition. Martin worked until her death in 2004 at the age of ninety-two; decreasing physical facility forced her to adopt a smaller uniform size for her canvases. In Untitled #12 (2002), her horizontal lines are no longer straight, but curve upwards towards the canvas’s edge. This may be a conscious choice, but may also signify a loss of ability. I allow myself to find joy in her final acceptance of imperfection. Martin’s powerful last words to dealer and friend Arne Glimcher printed on the wall suggest otherwise. She instructs him to collect a single painting in her studio and destroy the other two. Martin upholds her high standards of completion, but Untitled #12 is finished and on display, “perfect” without its impeccably straight lines.
Agnes Martin is a success (the exhibition poster has sold out over a month before the show’s scheduled termination). Instead I buy a postcard of Dear Art Collector (1986) by the Guerrilla Girls, which reads: “It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women. We know that you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately.” I can’t help but smirk when I realize the Tate Modern has had three solo exhibitions of women artists this year: Marlene Dumas, Sophia Delaunay, and Agnes Martin, following a heavily male-dominated 2014 agenda.
The retrospective is a beautiful timeline of Martin’s career accompanied by appropriately concise informative texts, which do not dwell too heavily on her personal life. Martin’s words to her friend Jill Johnston, “I’m not a woman,” resonate and encourage reevaluation regarding the importance of artists’ gender in consideration of their work. Rightly so, the curators have not overemphasized her gender or mental illness; mention of her schizophrenia does not surface before the fifth room. The curators are not tiptoeing around a delicate issue. Instead, they have allowed her work to speak for itself, and it does so brilliantly in sublime, glowing beauty. Martin has a universal appeal and energy, her work is timeless, and even if you waned like me at the gray paintings, you have to at least admire her painstaking efforts.