The Guggenheim Museum
October 7, 2016 – January 11, 2017
“Architect/arcetects/arcatects/arcetects/archetes,” Agnes Martin wrote at the bottom of her notes in 1974. The rest of the page is a tangle of equations and small diagrams with which the artist, having relocated from New York to New Mexico, began another burst of producing her iconic striped canvases. The word game is playful, yet it reveals significant aspects of Martin’s practice: repetition leads to an abstraction of meaning; distinct reconfigurations are worth recording; structure is everything. How Martin created 600 paintings from these foundational ideas is diagrammed piece by piece in her retrospective at the Guggenheim.
Amoeboid forms populate the canvas of Mid-Winter (ca. 1954), a composition in brown, black, gray, and white. Nearby, in Untitled (ca. 1955), boomerang and asterisk forms could be objects on a table as seen from above. These are early works by Martin; their connection to her later works may seem limited to size and muted palette, but, as the show demonstrates, signification too has a continuing role in the artist’s oeuvre. Even as the 1950s paintings become increasingly abstract, their titles remain referential: Beach (1957) and This Rain (1958) suggest an anchoring of each painting in a specific scene or event. Indeed, Martin said that she responded to the qualities of nature to create “an experience of simply joy” for the viewer.
A crucial work in this phase of Martin’s career, Untitled (ca. 1957) is the earliest exhibited work with graphite listed as material. The graphite defines the contours of tangram shapes to become a structure within which color can play. This gesture of tracing reads as drawing, which is an important aspect of Martin’s later works in which the repetition of lines forms a color field and the drawn line trumps the painted stroke.
Stripes, the form most viewers would expect to see in Martin’s work, are presented for the first time with Untitled (1959), a squarish canvas dominated by an upper purple swath and lower gray swath. The color transition is bridged by starkly contrasting white and black bands. It is one of the most saturated works in the show. But this foray into horizontality did not immediately stick; consequent pieces such as Buds and Untitled (both 1959) abandon rectangular forms entirely in favor of circles.
Perhaps as a result of her experiments with stripes, Martin seems to have recognized the importance of measurement and seriality in her work by the late 1950s. By measurement, I mean literal tick marks evenly plotting the vertical axes of the canvas as a grid in Untitled, a 1959 work in oil and ink on canvas. The candid delicacy of those tick marks also comes through in the central form, a wobbly oval. Though small, this work carries significance. Division and completeness have merged into a single composition.
Somewhat surprising after this blossoming of ideas on canvas is a series of sculptures Martin made upon arrival in New York. While some appear anomalous, others rhyme visually with her later, larger works. In The Wave (1963), for example, beneath the panel of semitransparent blue Plexiglas covering an open wood box, one can see that the wood has been striped horizontally. Seen from above as an image, the piece could be mistaken for one of Martin’s striped paintings.
After Martin’s important move to New York in 1957—or by 1962, it seems—seriality had been firmly established in her oeuvre, and the grid became fertile ground for future works. Even within such calculated forms, however, what distinguished Martin’s works from those of her minimalist peers, the curators argue, was her “commit[ment] to emotion.” Indeed, size alone (and the resulting wealth of visual information) lends these works emotive, psychological qualities. Where lines do not meet the paper’s edge, where a retraced line strays from its predecessor, or where the brush skips over a lump of paint, the structure of the grid is destabilized. This destabilization or imperfection, an indexical trace of the artist’s hand, communicates an intimacy or solemn empathy. This affect is perhaps what Martin means by the “innocence” of her grids.
Yet, within art history, the grid is far from innocent. As Rosalind Krauss noted in her seminal 1979 essay, “Grids,” this particular structure has been used throughout history as a loaded secular and spiritual form, though the latter is frequently masked. Agnes Martin and Ad Reinhardt are Krauss’s primary examples of artists who have powerfully and productively joined art and spirit in their work, and indeed the process of creating the grid, for Martin, was a form of meditation in itself.
Perhaps in an effort to fully understand the employment of grids throughout history, Martin created a series of thirty screenprints after a painting hiatus and return to New Mexico. The resulting portfolio, On a Clear Day (1973), could be either an index of past works or an agenda. Stemming from the print series were several paintings that formed a significant portion of her most recognizable works. Untitled #37 and Untitled #8, both made the following year, seem to have been sourced compositionally in the prints. Untitled #12 (1975) does away with a painted “border” around the grid entirely. This important shift allows the canvas itself to become the grid rather than the host for a grid; structure is a property of the work itself. Alongside this shift, Martin seems to have recognized that subsequent works did not need to be as formally rigid as the screenprints. Untitled #12 (1984) and Untitled #3 (1983) seem to have been made with graphite powder or wash; the pigment pools and freezes within its hand-drawn boundaries, achieving a looser color block while maintaining the control and integrity of the grid.
At the end of her oeuvre, Martin deviated from her schedule of forms. Somewhat of a horizon line—representational, within the show’s timeline, and within her own life—appears in three works from 1999 – 2000: Loving Love, Gratitude, and Blessings. Though the striped canvas prevails, brighter colors interrupt the scheme in a central band. Perhaps this horizon line was a reference to the southwestern desert where she lived, or perhaps it signaled the end to an extensive critical investigation of forms. In 2003, Martin’s Homage to Life morphed the rectangle of the grid into a rectangle receding into space, in the form of a trapezoid. The Sea, also 2003, accompanies it in the show and appears to be an optical illusion of white lines sliding against each other on a black ground. Friction and vibration come to a head in Untitled (2004), the final work in the show and in Martin’s career. Gray and white stripes dominate the composition, but within those grey planes, graphite marks resemble the turbulent clouds of a thunderstorm. The wash exceeds its constraints, slips out of the careful graphite lines.
“I’ll bet this looks easy,” Martin said in a video interview as she painted one canvas for the camera. She paused, and then continued, “It’s hard work. You can’t make a mistake. That’s why it’s hard work.” Martin’s retrospective charts the formal developments that made such difficult work fulfilling and, perhaps more importantly, includes the deviations and explorations that defined the stakes of her practice.
MIRA DAYAL is an artist, critic, and curator based in New York.